The Troublesome Career of the N-Word

The readings connected to this page examine the word "nigger" from two points of view: legal and sociolinguistic. First, however, it uses the word history of "taboo" from the American Heritage Dictionary to give you an idea of where the word "taboo" comes from, and what it meant at an earlier stage in history. 

The second reading is from Professor Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. The link takes you to an electronic copy of the entire book. You're welcome to browse through or read through the whole thing, but read specifically Chapter 3 for lecture and discussion. 

The third gives pages from the Dictionary of American Regional English containing "nigger" as a headword. This project interviewed people who grew up in the first half of the twentieth century, some of whom were old enough to be children in the 1800s. Informants included people of every background and ethnicity. You will notice a casual racism behind terms like "nigger toes," "nigger babies," and "nigger heaven." Be sure to browse through the citations. You may find some of this disturbing, but that is part of the point. Words are not socially neutral markers.

Finally, examine the fate of the words "niggard" and "niggardly," which are etymologically unrelated to "nigger." (What is their language of origin?) To do this use Google's NGram Viewer, which scans the millions of pages that have been digitized in Google Books. The graph produced sheds some light on one of the anecdotes recounted by Prof. Kennedy in the third chapter of his book. Do you remember it? Feel free to mess around with the years and any other setting in the NGram viewer. You can, for example, add "negro" and "nigger" to the terms searched. (It's a great resource, really, for giving a visual display charting the history of any English word.)

TabooDefinition.pdf159.76 KB
Excerpt_from_RKennedy.pdf6.26 MB
Excerpt_from_DARE.pdf3.4 MB