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One Word Changed Over Time: Nigger Essay, Research Paper

?My niggas. Some niggas that you don?t wanna try.

My niggas. Some niggas that?s really do or die.

My niggas. Ain?t no longer living a lie.

My niggas is stong. My niggas is real.?

Does this artist use the word nigger in the same way that racists have and still are? The answer to this question is a simple one- no. Today?s urban society have changed, not only the definition, but also the spelling of this word, which was once used to belittle those of African-American decent. Now, the definition as proved through today?s urban youth holds many denotations- positive and negative. But has the definition really changed? Or are today?s urban society just being ignorant and socially blinded by the hardships of our ancestors as they continue to use a word that held such great racial tension when used in the 1800?s? Two answers for this one- yes and no. Yes the definition has changed, but not totally to where it?s precedent has been forgotten. In fact, urban youth are so socially powerful that they can take a word and totally flip it and use it within themselves but when one of another race uses it, they return it back to the old definition and the racial remarks commence.

The definitions of the word nigger are as follows:

1. a Negro

2. loosely or incorrectly applied to members of dark-skinned race

3. a vulgar offensive term of hostility and contempt as used by Negrophobes

Nigger (etymology)

1. Latin niger becomes Spanish and Portugese Negro used in France for ?black man? especially in Africa adapted by the English

2. latin niger, for black, occurs in such river names as the Rio Negro in South America and the Niger f Central West Africa.

When used by a white person to describe a black or African American person, this can be the most hateful hurtful, offensive term in the language today. This word in American speech dates back to the late 16th century, although the modern spelling doesn’t appear until two centuries later. The obsolete spelling niger dates to 1574. It derives from the Latin niger meaning black. It shares this common root with negro.

The first recorded use of the word nigger was in 1786 in a poem by Robert Burns yet variations on it including negar, neger, and niger are recorded two centuries before then.

The offensiveness of the term has increased over time, especially in the 20th century. Two 16th century quotes that are commonly cited in dictionaries are from scholarly tracts. A 1700 quote by judge Samuel Sewall uses the term in a denunciation of slavery. Gradually, however, polite discourse increasingly used the term negro (which dates to at least 1555) and nigger became relegated to the vulgar tongue, increasing in offensiveness over the centuries.

So for instance, when Mark Twain uses the word in Huckleberry Finn , by the standards of his day he is not being especially offensive (although even then it was a term that would not be used in polite society), but is using the term as a marker of class and socio-economic status of the characters who utter it.

In the 20th century of course, it has become extremely offensive. It, along with cunt are just about the only taboo words in American discourse today (it’s interesting that the most offensive terms have strong racial or gender discrimination components). About the only acceptable use is in Black English when African-Americans use it to refer to themselves.

In the O. J. Simpson trial of 1995 when evidence of its use by a detective whitness, Mark Furhman was introduced, the word became reffered to as the N-word. Mark Furhman continued to lie and say he never used the word nigger in his life, evidence of a tape recording was brought against him as he stated ?we have no niggers where we grew up? along with many other citations.

After all of the hardships the background of ?nigger? has proven to have had on African-American ancestry, why would urban youth even insert the word into their vocabulary? And, most of the time, use it towards another of color? ?Because we can? . Simply stated by a female of urban youth, Nina Peterson. This is the question that boils in philosophers? minds throughout the nation. But as Ms. Peterson states, ?That shows how history changes and how we are so influential to be able to change it. When we say it, towards a black friend for example, we?re not calling the friend a nigger, but a nigga, which has come to mean a friend?.

The terminology that Ms. Peterson is talking of is used in the third person. For instance, if one were to say ?Carl Thomas is my nigga? what they mean is Carl Thomas is their friend or someone whom they admire or is cool enough to adorn the title of friend (or nigga).

Like many other slang terminologies, the spelling has changed with the pronunciation of the word. Just as with several words in the English dictionary, urbanites drop the ?er? of a word and add ?a? to add their own flavor or slang (i.e. player- playa, flavor- flava, baller- balla, holler- holla). This is why none of these words can be looked up in a regular dictionary. But with the help of my peers and urban entertainment, I?ve come to some formal definitions.


1. a companion, one close to another (You can?t talk about Diana because that?s my nigga.)

2. one of the male gender (That cute nigger over the just asked me for my number!)

3. a boyfriend or male spouse (My nigga just called on the other line. I have to hang up.)

The only way these definitions work is when used by a black person, although members of other races who are impacted by urban culture do tend to imitate their trends including the use of the word nigga. Other races can use it amongst each other. The only race treated as an equal to blacks are Hispanics because of their growing roles as minority. A hispanic artist who goes by Big Punisher uses the word nigga in one of his songs- ??Cause I will ride for my niggas, die for my niggas, puff La with my niggas, ?til I die with my niggas? One of the conflicts that hold is what happens when a person of another race uses the word nigga toward a black person? This question was exposed and answered in the movie Rush Hour starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Chan?s Asian character comes to the U.S. and is escorted by Tucker?s Black character around town. Chan begins to pick up on Tucker?s actions and speech and attempts to mimic it in when in contact with a black person. ?What?s up, my nigga??, he says and actually repeats when questioned. Chan receives a beat down in exchange for his ?disrespectful? terminology.

Another conflict that has risen is many older people question the fact that urban youth are using this word that it seems our ancestors have fought so hard to eradicate. And for this, they, the youth, are continuously downed. This problem will continue to exist unless we do something about it. So far, performers are doing a good job by using their given talents to stress the difference time has made in defining this word. For instance, rap artists incessantly use ?nigga? in their music and do so blatantly. One song by Fat Man Scoop played widely among clubs and dance halls screams ?Where my niggas is at! Where my niggas is at !? while all the male attendees throw their hands in the air and scream.

In this thesis, I?ve actually learned a few things. From looking up the word in etymology books, I concluded that the society has come to realize that we do use the word amongst ourselves but never to the extent to which it has been used centuries ago towards our ancestors. One book quotes ??African Americans commonly use the word in different ways among themelves??



1. DMX, Interlude, (Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, 1998)

2. ?Nigger.? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ed. 1973

3. DMX, Interlude, (Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, 1998)

4. ?Nigger.? The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ed. 1973

5. ?Nigger? Webster?s Third New International Dictionry

6. ?Nigger? A Short Etymologica Dictionary of Modern English ORIGINS ed 1966

7. ?Nigga? Dictionary for American Slang ed. 1995

8. Twain, Mark Hulckeberry Finn

9. Rice Jr., Earl The O.J.Simpson Trial San Diego, CA:Lucent Books Inc, 1997

10. Peterson, Nina. Personal interview. 2 June 2000

11. Punisher, Big. Watch Those! (Yeaah Baby!, 2000)

12. Rush Hour (movie)

13. Scoop, Fat Man, Brooklyn Clan (Hot 97?s mix tape)

14. ?Nigger? Encyclopedia of Word and Phase Origins ed 1997

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