The "N-Word" Origins and its History

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The Etymology of the Word and its Evolution

By: Maurie Haith

The most basic etymologic explanation for the word nigger traces its origin to the Latin word “niger”, which means black. As the world evolved so did the word “niger” which was used as the noun “negro”, which is used to describe a black person of African, Caribbean and African American descent, just to name a few. It is simply the same, as the color Black in Spanish and Portuguese as how Black is used in English today.

In Early Modern French, niger eventually became negre and, later, negress for a black woman. If one listens to an actual pronunciation of the French word “negre” and the derogatory nigger – and earlier English variants such as negar, neegar, which also evolved in English, it is easy to surmise that nigger is a phonetic spelling of the Southern mispronunciation of the word Negro. 

Whatever its origins, by the early 1800s it was firmly established as a denigrative epithet. Almost two centuries later, it remains a chief symbol of racism, anywhere in the world, but most specifically in the United States


The “N-Word” Evolves into a Weapon

There is no question that the words of etymologic lineage, to the actual word nigger, were bastardized over time to degrade black people. For more than 400 years every opportunity to degrade, insult and punish Black people for just being Black was attempted, and the use of the word nigger was a part of the process. 

To this day it is the most controversial and dangerous slur, both figuratively and literally, that anyone can use against another person, but most specifically, a person of color. 

Over time, between 1619 and the early 1700s, as use of the word spread during and after the end of slavery and the Civil War, along with deliberate efforts by racists and former slave-holders to delegitimize and dehumanize Black people both legislatively and socially, the reality that emerged was that anyone categorized as a “nigger” was deemed less than human; and therefore, not due the respect and consideration of other men.


How Time has Passed but the Volatility has Not Changed 

If one considers the fact that Ahmaud Arbery was called a nigger as he lay dying at the feet of the racists that murdered him, or if we take the current situation involving Joe Rogan, and consider whether he is or is not a racist or if India Arie was attacking him by pointing out specific facts surrounding the controversy by posting a series of videos featuring Rogan, it is all relative to the volatility of the word, still in 2022.

Historically, the word nigger conveys much of the hatred and repulsion directed toward Black Americans.  It was a term of exclusion, a verbal justification for discrimination and a way to ensure that everyone understood, including the ones being subjugated to it, that the nigger was not welcome. So; the origin of the “n-word” is not complex or complicated, but even today, it is no less, and is likely a lot more explosive than it was in the early years of the 20th Century.