Nigger is a noun in the English language. 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.
Etymology and history
Main article: Negro
The variants neger and negar, derive from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black), and from the now-pejorative French nègre (negro). Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and nigger ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger (black) (pronounced [ˈniɡer] which, in every other grammatical case, grammatical gender, and grammatical number besides nominative masculine singular, is nigr-, the r is trilled).
In the Colonial America of 1619, John Rolfe used negars in describing the African slaves shipped to the Virginia colony. Later American English spellings, neger and neggar, prevailed in a northern colony, New York under the Dutch, and in metropolitan Philadelphia's Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities; the African Burial Ground in New York City originally was known by the Dutch name "Begraafplaats van de Neger" (Cemetery of the Negro); an early US occurrence of neger in Rhode Island, dates from 1625. An alternative word for African Americans was the English word, "Black", used by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Among Anglophones, the word nigger was not always considered derogatory, because it then denoted "black-skinned", a common Anglophone usage. Nineteenth-century English (language) literature features usages of nigger without racist connotation, e.g. the Joseph Conrad novella The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897). Moreover, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain created characters who used the word as contemporary usage. Twain, in the autobiographic book Life on the Mississippi (1883), used the term within quotes, indicating reported usage, but used the term "negro" when speaking in his own narrative persona.
During the fur trade of the early 1800s to the late 1840s in the Western United States, the word was spelled "niggur", and is often recorded in literature of the time. George Fredrick Ruxton often included the word as part of the "mountain man" lexicon, did not indicate that the word was pejorative at the time. "Niggur" was evidently similar to the modern use of dude, or guy. This passage from Ruxton's Life in the Far West illustrates a common use of the word in spoken form—the speaker here referring to himself: "Travler, marm, this niggur's no travler; I ar' a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!" It was not used as a term exclusively for blacks among mountain men during this period, as Indians, Mexicans, and Frenchmen and Anglos alike could be a "niggur".
By the 1900s, nigger had become a pejorative word. In its stead, the term colored became the mainstream alternative to negro and its derived terms. Abolitionists in Boston, Massachusetts, posted warnings to the Colored People of Boston and vicinity. Writing in 1904, journalist Clifton Johnson documented the "opprobrious" character of the word nigger, emphasizing that it was chosen in the South precisely because it was more offensive than "colored."
Established as mainstream American English usage, the word colored features in the organizational title of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reflecting the members' racial identity preference at the 1909 foundation. In the Southern United States, the local American English dialect changes the pronunciation of negro to nigra. Linguistically, in developing American English, in the early editions of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), lexicographer Noah Webster suggested the neger new spelling in place of negro.
By the late 1960s, the social progress achieved by groups in the United States such as the Black Civil Rights Movement (1955–68), had legitimized the racial identity word black as mainstream American English usage to denote black-skinned Americans of African ancestry. In the 90's, "Black" was later displaced in favor of the compound blanket term African American. Moreover, as a compound word, African American resembles the vogue word Afro-American, an early-1970s popular usage. Currently, some black Americans continue to use the word nigger, often spelled as nigga and niggah, without irony, either to neutralize the word's impact or as a sign of solidarity.