A Sociological and Etymological Examination of “Nigger;” the Most Verbally Radioactive Word in the English Language

It’s time to Break It Down!

(Warning: Reader discretion advised.  This post contains explicit language that some may consider offensive.)

According to a vast sample of sources, nigger is in one super-charged, six-letter, two-syllable word, the most offensive, most highly racially charged, and most vile epithet in the English Language; possibly, the single most disparaging and offensive characterization in the history of the English Language.  I believe most reasonably sane Americans would hold that assertion to be true.  Yet, it is common for some celebrity to ignite a controversy due to having liberally applied the sobriquet to an African American, or group thereof.

Quickly, allow me to add, this is not another Paula Deen rant.  If interested in her story, however, you can find a plethora of citations at Google or Bing, with a single mouse click.  Have at it.  By the way, for your information, the individual who filed suit against Ms. Deen was not African American.  The litigant, Ms. Lisa Jackson, is a white female…just for the record.

This is also not an extrapolation or dissection of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case.  Moreover, rest assured pertinent information about this matter is readily available to you as well; at your fingertips, as it were.

Those are simply two contemporary instances in which the collective American focus has zeroed in laser-like fashion on the word nigger; directly, as it pertains to Ms. Deen’s, and indirectly, but still purposefully, with regard to the Zimmerman-Martin case.   A Plaintiff alleges Ms. Deen actually used the word nigger, while a key witness maintains Mr. Martin uttered the phrase, Creepy-assCracker,” which, in turn, numerous media outlets juxtaposed with nigger, for comparison purposes.

Having established the efficacy of that basic predicate, let us move on to a couple of critical questions:

1.     From whence does this inflammatory term derive? 

2.     What are the particular and peculiar elements that make the assignation so toxic?

First, according to Wikipedia, the free (online) encyclopedia, “The word originated as a neutral term referring to black people, as a variation of the Spanish/Portuguese noun negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger (“color black”).  Often used slightingly, by the mid 20th century, particularly in the United States, it suggested that its target is extremely unsophisticated. Its usage had become unambiguously pejorative, a common ethnic slur usually directed at blacks of Sub-Saharan African descent.”

That is actually a generous depiction of the evolution of the word, in terms of when negative connotations first emerged.  Later in the same citation, it becomes clear that in 1619, English settlers used variations of nigger when referring to slaves they had brought over to help conquer the New World.

Given the nature of the relationship between white men and women, and the slaves they bought, sold, owned, and treated dismissively, it is hardly likely any term appropriated specifically to describe those slaves was ever intended as an honorific.  I am confident we can safely stipulate that without fear of impeachment or contradiction.  To that end, there is no need, basis, or reason to feign ignorance and pretend that the verbal assaults on the senses (to say nothing of the physical assaults that often accompanied the verbal ones) emanating from “nigger” are a product of the 1960’s, and thus only 50 years in the making.

The evidence is clear, the direct insult and slurring spans four centuries.  That its use in 2013 can ever be considered in a light less significantly offensive than in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, or Twentieth Centuries, would likely be beyond debate, were it not for a single caveat.  That inexplicable note of exception flows from the recognition that a segment the black population is actively engaged in an effort to repurpose the word.

In fact, this effort is underscores a schism in the African American community.  In July 2007, the NAACP conducted a mock burial of the term.  Meanwhile, the denizens of the Hip Hop World, as well as a number of blacks, old and young, many of whom are not connected to hip hop in any way, revel in its resurrection.  They and others contend the term they use most frequently, nigga, conveys a form of brotherly love.  The principle problem with that is…it’s just the next variation.  Moreover, the use of the word by blacks apparently invites, at least some of, those white celebrities to ponder why blacks can use the word and they cannot.

While I think such reckoning is specious, and does not dignify a response, it does bring into focus the second question.  The toxicity associated with nigger is a function of the many hate-filled acts that accompanied the word and its use.  Lynchings and other murders, physical assaults, violation of civil rights, and a host of other consequential negative actions came with the assignation, nigger!  The pathological culture of fear, violence, terror, and anguish, directed at blacks, and intended to separate them from their due rights and benefits is what makes nigger such a heinous, contemptible, and despicable appellation.

I do not have the definitive answer for those blacks who refuse to “let it go.”  To be sure, hip hop has monetized the term.  That alone ensures that the relationship is durable.

Yet, I am reminded that while I was growing up, a number of adults who helped shape my view of the world challenged me regularly by asserting that the use of profanity was a sign of a lazy and stagnant mind; a lack of mental acuity.  I have to believe that rappers, creative entrepreneurs that they are, can do better.  There are some amazing artists who practice the hip hop art.  I know they can bury nigger, retire profanity, and eliminate misogyny from their future catalogs…if only they would.

As for those white folks who just cannot seem to break the habit, I offer you the well-thought out, very precise advice of one Christopher Julius Rock, III, AKA, Chris Rock.  In answer to the question, “Can white people say nigger,” taken from his 2008 CD, Kill The Messenger.”

Earlier, I referred to the use of nigger by members of the hip hop community.  As an addendum, comedians have also figured out inventive ways to monetize the term.  In this case, Mr. Rock is grouped with the rule, not the exception.  As with rappers, many comedians employ the word nigger to spin their stories.  The humorists can do better as well!   That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

There you have it; “A Sociological and Etymological Examination of “Nigger;” the Most Verbally Radioactive Word in the English Language!”  I’m done; holla back!

PS. Enjoy your Independence Day tomorrow!

Read my blog anytime by clicking the link: http://thesphinxofcharlotte.com or http://thesphinxofcharlotte.blogspot.com. A new post is published each Wednesday.

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For more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post, consult the links below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nigger

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rolfe

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/01/cnn-n-word-don-lemon_n_3529803.html?utm_hp_ref=media

http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/01/showbiz/paula-deen-accuser/index.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paula_Deen

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/07/cnn-weighs-cracker-vs-n-word-trayvon-martin.html

http://abcnews.go.com/US/trayvon-martin-told-friend-man-final-moments/story?id=19490796#.UdO5qc_D_IU

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Rock

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPDetBACaU0

2 thoughts on “A Sociological and Etymological Examination of “Nigger;” the Most Verbally Radioactive Word in the English Language

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