The Other N-Words

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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My recent post about terms for ethnic groups prompted a note from a site visitor proposing that I write about taboo words. I was not niggardly in my gratitude to the correspondent for his suggestion.

Did your eyes just pop out when you read the fourth word in that last sentence? Unlikely, because most visitors know that niggardly has nothing to do with a similar-sounding offensive term for black people.

But many people persist in thinking it does. In the late 1990s, an employee of the Washington, DC, mayor’s office resigned in the aftermath of his innocent use of the word, and a few years later, a schoolteacher came under fire when she included the term in a vocabulary lesson.

Another person has noted that he avoids using the word renege around black people, even though it has nothing to do with the derogatory word nigger, derived from Negro. Nor does niggling, but some people argue that such near homophones should be tossed from the word-hoard because somebody, somewhere might be offended.

Nitty-gritty, part of the idiomatic expression “get down to the nitty-gritty,” is a hoary word (oops — perhaps I shouldn’t have used that adjective), but it’s also evocative. Unfortunately, some people believe — erroneously — that it originally referred to the excretory debris left in a slave ship after the cargo had been removed. Evidently, nitty-gritty was in fact originally a synonym for an adjective that rhymes with its component words, but now it is merely synonymous to business in “get down to business.”

What about the original n-word? Did you flinch when I used it above? How dare I type the actual word! Well, it’s in the dictionary, for one thing, and I have a valid reason to use it in this dispassionate, scholarly context. (But I admit I’d hesitate to use it in front of one or more black people, even if I were reading this post aloud in a group setting.)

Should nigger be allowed in print or online? It’s absurd to dodge it in a neutral context such as a post about usage. How about in literature? Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn to further identify the fugitive slave Jim. Doing so was proper in the historical context of that work, and no one can deny that Twain considered Jim one of his most admirable characters. And anyone who refrains from using it in a valid literary context — in a novel about young inner-city blacks who blithely bandy it about, for instance — is self-censoring.

The word is, admittedly, broadly unacceptable in written and spoken discourse. But should I be prohibited from using it in an essay about derogatory or allegedly derogatory language? Should it be stricken from reprints of Huckleberry Finn, and — excuse the expression — blacked out in all existing copies? Should a book about the ’hood omit it?

The word is used countless times every day all over the United States. Most writers and speakers are justified in using it because they are black, and they’re taking it back, or because it’s being used in a valid context. Others, racists who use it to denigrate an ethnic group, are also justified because they are exercising a constitutional right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Do we even have a right, if we’re not black, to decide whether to use it? It has eminently painful associations for black people, regardless of whether it has been used against them as a weapon. For that reason, I’m sensitive enough to use it only in this type of context. But I won’t refrain from using it as such, and I certainly won’t avoid writing or saying niggardly or niggling under any circumstances.

42 Responses to “The Other N-Words”

  • Stephen Thorn

    Got to thinking about this topic again during my re-reading of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” and his use of terms such as “colored” and “negro” and even the dreaded “nigger.” Background: the book is set in Georgia, USA, during the 1930’s and at that time and place blacks were generally regarded as second-class and often the target of discrimination.

    The book actually uses the above-mentioned racial words to illustrate a more racially-kind mindset. The main character, Paul Edgecomb (white, guard at Cold Mountain penitentiary’s Death Row) is disturbed by another white character’s comments about “Georgia negros” being of no value, “coloreds” being potentially dangerous for no good reason, etc. By comparing Paul’s atttudes against the other character’s we are shown ‘a better path’ than racism and relegating other humans to a lower status based on their color. I never heard about any protests against King for using those antiquated and racist terms in his excellent novel, and perhaps that’s why: they were used as a subtle teaching tool as well as making the background of the novel come alive.

    Just a thought to stir up the hornets.

  • Shirley Hayes

    The use of the “N” word depends on who the user is and what their intentions are. I’ve heard Black people say affectionally, “That’s my nigga.” The use of ‘nigga or nigger among Blacks is usually said in private or among other Blacks because the understanding is there is nothing derogatory intended meanig “my buddy, my homee.” If said in the negatative, even if the person is Black, it could start a fight or a very heated argument. A White person saying the word, is always taken in the negative no matter the intent. Hey, that’s life.

  • Mark Nichol


    Your stand is sensible. Thanks for your comments!

  • Alexandre

    When I first saw the “N-word” used in To Kill A Mockingbird, I cringed a little, but I believe that it was essential to the story. My stand on this issue is that as long as words like these are used in context and are more focused on telling the story rather than offending, then it is alright with me.

    By the way, thank you to the heavens Mark for your more-than-amazing job. I don’t know how you can manage updating this site even to this day. Please remember that you don’t go unnoticed.

    -A big fan

  • thebluebird11

    @Stephen Thorn: You’re certainly not alone; I would imagine that there is no one on this planet who could not be made the butt of some insult, slur, epithet, etc. Even someone who is “average” is just “your average Joe,” which (at least to me) has the connotation of being bland, boring, easily ignored. I’m a white Jewish female, so of course I’m a JAP to many people (altho I’m far from it). I’m also short, and in case I’m not aware of that fact, people constantly call it to my attention, as in, “Just how short ARE you?” There are just people in this world who are always looking to start trouble, and they don’t need to look far. If they can’t find fault with someone’s physical attributes, they will find fault with their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), which side of the tracks they come from, who their sex partners are, who their ancestors were, what talents they lack, how much money they have or don’t have, and what they do or don’t do with it, and so on. Again, as so many things in life do, it boils down to “live and let live.”
    I don’t see why humans have this crazy need to emphasize their differences, when in fact we have so much more in common that we can build on and enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out differences, as long as they are seen for what they are: variations on a theme. I have blue eyes, someone else has brown eyes. I have pink skin, someone else has brown skin. One is not better than the other; they are just different. If someday we had enough interbreeding so that all humans had the same color skin, there are people who would find other reasons to hate people!
    @CrankyAshley: When Bush was the prez, he was indeed called Mr. Bush on many occasions.

  • Craig W.

    Re Sue: “You wrote that black people “are taking it back.” How can anyone take a word back?”

    I believe that “taking it back” means that they are changing the meaning. This has happened before. The word “Yankee” comes from a derogatory word used by Dutch speakers in what is now New York to refer to the English colonists in New England. “Sooner” started as an insult directed at people who allegedly “jumped the gun” when the Oklahoma territory was opened for homesteading. By adopting the label, the negative aspects of the word were defeated. Now, we have the New York Yankees baseball club (a bit of irony there) and Oklahoma Sooners of the University of Oklahoma.

  • Crankyashley

    I’m not white and I was really torn about whether or not to use the word nigger (once) in my own writing when making a comparison to a made up term for non-humans in my setting.

    @thunderbirdblue11 The “Jewish Amy Winehouse” titles bothered me too. As does “Mr. Obama” as opposed to his proper title. I didn’t hear anyone calling Bush “mister”.

  • Stephen Thorn

    @Hannah: I’m a white person too, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never been the target of racial (and other) slurs. My heritage is Scotch-Irish and I’m a Christian, as well as a man, and so I qualify as a “cracker”, “honky”, “redneck”, “mick”, “Bible thumper”, “drunken Irishman”, “holy roller”, “intolerant”, and a bucket-ful of other epithets and prejudices (including that all men are clueless, stupid, insensitive, etc.). Add that I walk with a cane and I get “cripple”, “gimp”, “Chester” (from Dennis Weaver’s character in “Gunsmoke”), and “slowpoke.” Please don’t think that hatred, bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, and blatant ignorance only count when they’re aimed in one direction.

    That having been said, I might get angry or disgusted if those terms are used in a written work, but I would never advocate censoring such works. I’m all too well aware that the sword of censorship is double-edged — it may cut your enemy today, but tomorrow it may be aimed at you instead. To put it less poetically, if I demand you be censored today I may be the target of censorship tomorrow.

  • thebluebird11

    @ApK: LOL I knew what you meant! (although I don’t know the answer to your question!)

    @Daquan: I am sure that Twain himself wasn’t using the word to denigrate the character. He was using it in the context of how those people spoke at that time. Except for the fact that it is currently an inflammatory word, the fact that he uses it is no different from the fact that he uses other colloquialisms and local dialect particular to that era and area. That is how they spoke. If someone today wrote a book about rap singers, and was quoting them as perhaps they spoke to or of each other, I’m sure that word would be in there several times. My theory is, if you don’t want to use a word, don’t use it. If you don’t want to see it, don’t read the book. If you don’t want to hear it, don’t see the movie. You can still keep your principles and hold your head up, even if the rest of the world is not. As Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

  • Daquan Wright

    I think it’s best used in historical context or to provide exploration into an era or “way of thinking.” The word in itself is never important, it’s the meaning that’s attached it.

    If you’re going to say it to someone to offend them, then you should be prepared to deal with the consequences.

  • ApK

    OK..was=wasn’t, were = weren’t.

    Curse the lack of an edit feature!

  • ApK

    Bluebird, regarding referring to “Jewish singer….” was there recently an article on this very blog on that topic…not including those adjectives when they were relevant? Or am I thinking of somewhere else?

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