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.
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.
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 serious 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.