An analysis of the lexem "nigger" under the aspect of the ongoing debate about Political Correctness

Term Paper, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The lexical field nigger
2.1 Nigger in political correctness
2.2 History and etymology of the lexeme nigger

3. Analysis of dictionary entries
3.1 Nigger in dictionaries
3.2 Compounds

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


Secondary Literature

Internet Sources

1. Introduction

The lexical field about and around the word nigger has aroused people’s interest in the last two decades. More and more people from Africa immigrate to Europe due to war, poverty, etc. in their home countries. Expressions for addressing and talking about black people are used more often than in the past and therefore these words gain people’s attention. Especially the term nigger has led and still leads to discussions in public today. Several incidents have contributed to the growing interest about the word, too. To only name one example amongst hundreds, the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in February 2012, caused a worldwide discussion about racial discrimination. The African-American student was shot by the 28-year-old neighbourhood watch George Zimmerman, a Hispanic man, who was responsible for the gated community where Martin was living. During an altercation Zimmerman shot the boy who was unarmed. The neighbourhood watch claimed he had acted in self-defence. The fact that he was not charged with murder, due to lack of evidence, made the huge debate about racial discrimination worse (McVeigh 2012). There are a lot of other examples that could be mentioned, where (innocent) black people have been abused by white people with racist motives, even by police force but this is not part of the term paper. This thesis deals with the lexeme nigger under the aspect of the ongoing debate about political correctness. The aim is to show, how the word has developed from a neutral meaning to a taboo word and why and where it arouses a great deal of interest in public. Furthermore, I want to analyse, using the example of nigger, how offensive words are objectively described and how that is documented in some important monolingual dictionaries of the English language.

2. The lexical field nigger

Political correctness[1] shall raise language awareness when it comes to ethnic minorities, women and handicapped people. As a consequence, language taboos are born. Lately, the lexeme nigger has been discussed in public over and over again. In this part of the term paper, it is presented in which department the word actually appears more than one would assume and how people have reacted to replacing nigger in children’s literature. Moreover, the etymology and history of the word are briefly explained.

2.1 Nigger in political correctness

The phrase [politically correct] seems first to have gained currency in the U.S. in the mid to late 1960s within the Black Power Movement […], although the phenomenon – labelling certain acts and attitudes as right or wrong – must be as old as the belief itself (Perry 1992: 71).

Amongst other things, the term political correctness is used in politics, the worldwide web and in dictionaries as well as in daily life by - more or less - nearly everybody. One important topic of PC is the problem of racism and the (language) behavior towards ethnic minorities. This shall be demonstrated with the example of the lexical field nigger. The lexeme nigger has been given huge attention for quite a while. According to Ulrike Kramer, due to globalization migration grows and terms for naming black people are more often used than they were in the past. Hence, the different expressions get more attention by society (Kramer 2008: 8 my translation[2] ). The lexeme nigger has mostly been used in a negative context and discussing it in PC has underlined the negative contents of the word. So, it developed from a pejorative denotation to a final taboo word (Kramer 2008: 75 my translation[3] ). According to the Guardian, “”nigger” [is] surely the most inflammatory word in the English language“ (Messent 2011). It appears especially in (older) literature when the word was still neutral. But in the light of the aforesaid, it has been replaced in several works which has led and still leads to discussions. The word nigger and its equivalent negro have been replaced in Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn”, Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking” and Otfried Preußler’s “The little witch” – in fact at his own request (Flood 2013). Besides, Joseph Conrad’s novel “The Nigger of Narcissus” has been renamed as “The n-word of Narcissus” (Flood 2013). “Undoubtedly the use of the word “nigger” […] makes Huckleberry Finn a tricky novel to teach”, says Peter Messent, but he thinks “the minute you [censor the book], the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote” (The Guardian 2011). Furthermore, the novel could be characterised as an anti-racist one because it becomes very clear whose racial side Mark Twain is on. So “his repeated use of that derogatory term […] is absolutely deliberate” (Messent 2011). In addition to that, the German publisher Thienemann “has come under fire for removing what is described as “politically incorrect” language from a classic children’s book” (Flood 2013). The publisher explains: “Changes can be necessary over time if texts are not to become incomprehensible to children” (Flood 2013). Nevertheless, people are against these modernised versions because if they grow up with the original ones, they associate something positive with them (Bax 2013 my translation[4] ). To sum up, it can be said that although the concept of political correctness tries to please everybody, or at least the majority, it gets difficult when it comes to art that shall be changed in retrospect and opinions are divided.

2.2 History and etymology of the lexeme nigger

“Their skin implies more than pigmentation, it implies social inferiority” (Allport 1954: 136).

Many personal descriptions, be it an occupational title or the place of origin, contain prejudices or let us immediately think of a certain stereotype – this is also noticeable when it comes to the lexeme nigger and its derivations or compound words. It is in people’s minds that black people are lazy and aggressive by nature and they are often considered to be drug dealers, too (Kramer 2008: 23 my translation[5] ). However, this has not always been the case and the lexical field of this word underwent some serious changes up to a final change of its actual meaning. The troublesome word is originally derived from the Latin word for the colour black, which is niger (Kennedy 2003: 4). So, in the beginning it was not meant to be offensive but simply functioned as a designation of origin. Niger developed from a positive to a neutral and finally to a negative meaning (Smitherman 2000: 210). According to Kennedy, no one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult (2003: 4).

Interestingly, Kramer adds that although the black skin colour has always been held against black people, in the beginning their outward appearance was not the main reason for discrimination. In fact, the reasons were of religious motives because Africans did not belong to Christianity but to paganism (Kramer 2008: 10 my translation).[6] Due to the tradition of the Christian colour symbolism, black was considered with negative qualities, such as destruction, night and death.[7] The terms black and white, referring to an African’s or European’s skin colour, were used in the 17th century for the very first time (Kramer 2008: 11-12 my translation[8] ). Back then, keeping black people as slaves was a status symbol (Kramer 2008: 11 my translation[9] ). Pale skin was the trade mark of the non-working upper class and keeping black slaves, showed off their white skin even better (Kramer 2008: 11 my translation[10] ). Hardly any word can be spelt in as many different ways as nigger. Besides the one used in this term paper, there can as well be found niggah, nigguh, niggur, negars, neggors and nigga (Kennedy 2003: 4). Especially the last variety is often used and not necessarily in a negative context (ibid.). Smitherman gives the example “She my main nigga” (2000: 210), meaning she is my close friend. It can be seen that the n-word is used for male and female black people. In the late 1990s any cool, down person who was rooted in Hip Hop Culture could be described as a nigga. However, nowadays one has to differentiate between in-group and out-group use. “Any cluster of people who can use the term “we” with the same significance” can be called an in-group (Allport 1954: 37). Black people among themselves generally use this word to express their respect for each other or their friendship (“she my main nigga”) but that does not mean that it is appropriate for white people to do so, too (Smitherman 2000: 211) – “Only a Black can call another Black a nigga” (Infoplease – Pearson Education 2000-2015).

Besides many different varieties of spelling, there are also a lot of synonyms for nigger, such as spade, coon, jigaboo, blackie, gator bait, jungle bunny, nig-nog or spook (Infoplease – Pearson Education 2000-2015). The most familiar one to white people is probably negro which has the same origin as niger. Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, have derived their negro from the Latin word niger ( Initially, both expressions simply meant ‘black’. The equivalent female form to negro is negress but both are outdated. One last option that people often use is the n-word to avoid an insult (Kramer 2008: 65 my translation[11] ). The contemporary, neutral synonym for nigger is black or coloured person (Langenscheidt 2005: 1078).

3. Analysis of dictionary entries

Although it would be interesting to find out if the different synonyms for nigger are equally offensive or if their use makes a difference in any way, the next part of this term paper only deals with how the lexeme nigger is listed in several dictionaries. It is shown how nigger has developed and changed under the aspects of political correctness and how that is documented in several dictionaries. At last, three compound words of different categories are introduced and examined.

3.1 Nigger in dictionaries

Now, it will be analysed how the meanings of rather pejorative words are, as far as possible, objectively described and how they are documented in a dictionary. For this analysis I will be using five monolingual dictionaries. In Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (2009) the following entry can be found (Longman 2009: 1178):

nigger […] taboo a very offensive word for a black person. Do not use this word.

The annotation indicates that this word is highly insulting and by labeling it as “taboo”, the dictionary makes clear to its users that they should avoid this expression. “A taboo subject, word, activity etc. is one that people avoid because it is extremely offensive or embarrassing” and “ [is] not accepted as socially correct” (Longman 2009: 1793). In addition to that, they still give the extra information to not use this word, to underline its extreme harm and humiliation.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1995) lists the word nigger as follows (1995: 749):

nigger […] (derog [sic] offensive) a black person.

Firstly, here the word is marked as “derogatory” which is paraphrased as “showing a critical attitude towards sb.” and “INSULTING” is listed as a synonym (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 1995: 339). Secondly, it is also labelled as “offensive” which is paraphrased as “rude in a way that causes you to feel upset, insulted or annoyed” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 1995: 879). In my opinion, The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus documents the most informative entry and makes clear the most, how much harm and trouble the word nigger can cause when it is used by the ‘wrong’ person. It is listed as follows (2003: 1005):

nigger […] offensive a term used of black or dark-skinned person/ As a racial slur, this is one of the most inflammatory words in contemporary English [earlier neger f. F. negre f. Sp. negro].

As the first and only dictionary of this analysis, The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus includes “dark-skinned person[s]” into its definition. This means that the word nigger is not limited to black people only but it can be concluded that the word is also used for other dark-skinned people of non-African origin, e.g. for people from India or Jamaica. Apart from that, it is stated when nigger is used (on purpose) to insult someone who is black, it is the most pejorative word one can choose. Additionally, the etymology of the word is given, as discussed in this term paper earlier on (see 2.2). In Pons Cambridge Dictionary of American English (2000) the entry of nigger is documented as such (2000: 572):

nigger […] taboo slang a black person. USAGE: This is an extremely offensive word when used to or about a black person by a person who is not black.

As mentioned in the first two dictionaries, the word is also marked as “taboo” but as “slang”, too. “Slang” is described as “very informal language that is used esp. in speech by particular groups of people and which sometimes includes words that are not polite” (Pons Cambridge Dictionary of American English 2000: 807). Besides, the adverb “extremely offensive” represents a significant comparison to “very offensive” (Longman 2009: 1187). Pons includes the in-group use of nigger. This could be due to the fact that this edition of Pons is an American English dictionary, whereas the first two were for the use of standard British English. However, after the label “taboo slang”, information on usage is given. As long as black people themselves call each other nigger, it expresses respect and solidarity but white people are reserved the use of the word (see 2.2). The Dictionary of American Slang (1995) is the last monolingual dictionary to be used. Nigger is documented as follows (Chapman 1995: 385):

nigger […] 1 by 1786 a black person. Not a taboo word as used by one black person to or about another 2 modifier: a nice nigger lady.

This is the first dictionary that does not mark its entries at all but to give a date since when a particular word is used. Ulrike Kramer says that the terms black and white, referring to an African’s or European’s skin colour, were used in the 17th century for the very first time (see 2.2). So, it can be seen that it roughly took another 100 years for the word nigger ‘to establish’. As in Pons, The Dictionary of American Slang includes the in-group use of the word. It is also shown that nigger can function as a modifier, in this case to describe someone. In this example the adjective “nice” stresses that nigger lady is meant in a positive way. Due to the fact that we deal with a slang dictionary here, the other spelling variety nigga is documented immediately before nigger (ibid.):

nigga […] by 1925 A black person. Not a taboo word as used by one black person to or about another, esp. by rap singers: For several years, it has become common for young blacks to great each other as a “nigga” – Robin Kelley.

This definition actually contains the same information as the definition above but it is stated that firstly, the word nigga is a lot younger than nigger and secondly, that it is used especially in the music industry by rather young black people. As a conclusion, it can be said that the “swearword character” of nigger in the English language is proven through the five analysed entries from different dictionaries. Furthermore, it may be stated that excluding the in-group use, the word has received the status of a racial taboo word. A lot of trouble about a word that initially, only considering its origin, just means black (Kennedy 2002: 4):

Nigger is derived from the Latin word for the colour black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time.

3.2 Compounds

In this part of the term paper, I focus on selected compounds of the word nigger. The debate in PC about the troublesome term also includes compound words and phrases that include the n-word and it is discussed if these words are as pejorative as the primary word or if they can still be used without causing any humiliation. It needs to be said that specific slang dictionaries are necessary for this analysis because they include compounds more than usual dictionaries do. “Nigger twist, nigger-mouth, nigger-rich, nigger-heel, nigger joint, nigger-drunk, nigger bankroll…” etc. ( – Due to the multitude of compounds, only three words will be examined, nigger apple, nigger-lover (niggerlover) and buck (nigger). The choice of these examples did not happen arbitrary but it is quite interesting to have one word with a transferred meaning, one word with a concrete meaning and one word that counts as ‘mocking terminology’. In this analysis, the term nigger apple represents a compound word with a transferred meaning. Smitherman explains the term as such (1995: 212):


[1] The abbreviation PC will also be used in the text

[2] “[…] durch die zunehmende Globalisierung und die dadurch wachsende Migration werden Ausdrücke zur Bezeichnung von dunkelhäutigen Menschen […] häufiger verwendet als früher und erfahren damit auch mehr Aufmerksamkeit“.

[3] “[W]ird ein Wort vorwiegend in negativen Kontexten gebraucht und kaum in neutralen oder positiven, dann ist es sehr wahrscheinlich, daß [sic] das betreffende Wort eine Abwertung erfährt. Wenn noch dazu durch eine Anschauung wie die der Political Correctness auf solche negativen Inhalte immer wieder hingewiesen wird, dann verstärkt dies den Verlauf noch zusätzlich. Somit hat sich beim Lexeme Neger die früher vorhandene, vorwiegend neutrale Hauptbedeutung hin zu einer abwertenden Hauptbedeutung verschoben, und zwar bis hin zur Entstehung eines neuen Tabus“.

[4] “[V]iele Eltern [greifen] am liebsten zu jenen Kinderbüchern, mit denen sie selbst aufgewachsen sind, weil sie mit den Figuren […] nur positive Erinnerungen verbinden. Umso größer ist bei vielen instinktiv die Abwehr, wenn sie hören, dass an diesen Büchern etwas geändert werden soll“.

[5] “Neue entstandene Vorurteile schreiben dem Afrikaner eine überdurchschnittliche Aggressivität zu und stufen ihn pauschal als Drogenhändler ein“.

[6] “Im Laufe der Geschichte wurde die dunkle Hautfarbe des Afrikaners immer wieder zu seinem Nachteil ausgelegt. Dabei war jedoch die Optik selbst zunächst nicht das vorrangige Thema, sondern die Tatsache, daß [sic] der Afrikaner als gottlose Kreatur mit einer schwarzen, sündigen Seele galt“.


[8] “Systematisch betrieben wurde Sklavenhandel jedoch erst ab Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts […]. Nun wurden auch erstmals die Bezeichnungen weiß und schwarz dafür verwendet, um sich auf die Hautfarbe der Europäer bzw. der Afrikaner zu beziehen“.

[9] “[…] wobei sie freilich vor allem als Statusobjekte angesehen wurden“.

[10] “[H]öfische Kreise [hatten] gerne Mohren um sich, weil ihre weiße Haut durch deren Existenz noch augenscheinlicher zur Geltung kam“.

[11] “Der Vollständigkeit halber sei darauf hingewiesen, daß [sic] es dennoch eine Variante der Euphemisierung bei Wörtern wie Nigger und Neger gibt, nämlich dann, wenn diese Wörter in einem metasprachlichen Kontext gebraucht werden und als n-word bzw. das Wort mit N paraphrasiert werden“.

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An analysis of the lexem "nigger" under the aspect of the ongoing debate about Political Correctness
University of Duisburg-Essen
Views of Linguistic Correctness
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Nigger, Linguistic Correctness, Dictionary Analysis, Political Correctness, Change of Meaning
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Kathrin Unglaub (Author), 2015, An analysis of the lexem "nigger" under the aspect of the ongoing debate about Political Correctness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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