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 make sure you read 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 and pervasive 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.

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