Evolution of the n-word

Its origins date back to 16th-century Spain and Portugal

John Munro assistant professor at Saint Mary's University has researched race in 20th-century United States. Photo: Cara Downey
John Munro, assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University, has researched race in 20th-century United States. Photo: Cara Downey

Editor’s note: This story contains offensive language.

It’s one of the most offensive and loaded words in the English language.

But what are the origins of the word “nigger”? Has it evolved over time? Has it lost any of the negative connotations associated with it?

Sylvester Obichie, a student at Saint Mary’s University originally from Nigeria, said he didn’t hear the word until he started listening to hip hop.

“I didn’t really have a heavy relationship with the n-word growing up until my teen years,” he says.

Obichie says growing up in a country where everyone is black, he didn’t encounter any negative feelings around the use of the word, because the people who used it were very close to him.

“I didn’t realize I was black until I came here,” Obichie said, adding that since coming to North America he began to read more, learn more and talk to more people.

Obichie said it’s here that he got a sense of how the n-word could be used by others to mean something else.

James Morrison, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University who teaches a course on black heritage in the Maritimes, says the n-word is derived from “negra”, from the Spanish or Portuguese.

James Morrison, history professor at Saint Mary’s University, teaches a course on black heritage in the Maritimes. Photo: Cara Downey

“Negra” was adapted from the Latin term “niger” or “nigr”, meaning “black,” according to the Oxford dictionaries and dates to the 16th century.

Evidence as early as the 1800s verified the word being used by blacks as well but for a term for each other, says Morrison.

“The n-word has seemed to continue through time despite all the words that have faded to the wayside,” Morrison says.

The term became entrenched with the rise of slavery, says John Munro, assistant history professor at SMU who has studied colonialism and white supremacy.

“Slavery is so important and at the root of all this,” he says.

“When you think about the n-word you have to think about the institution of slavery.”

Munro said it’s just not prejudiced people using the term; the word is in the function of a system and an entire economy.

The institution of slavery was embedded within the use of that word, which resulted in the white population being able to exploit black people and acquire a tremendous amount of wealth.

Munro said the word was used to keep a race of people from being educated.

“To keep people from obtaining a formal education and then to use a terminology and describe them as uneducated is like a self-fulfilling logical loop, which again helps this overall system to work,” Munro said.

The period between and after the American Civil War also plays an important role in the evolution of the n-word.

“Part of what is important to remember is that after slavery ended there was a major attempt to reconstruct the South in the U.S. and make it equal or more equal than it had been.”

The reconstruction resulted in constitutional amendments, which granted equal rights of citizenship and voting rights, Munro says.

Then in a very short period of time, by the end of the 1870s, that was all reversed with the Jim Crow segregation laws.

Accompanying that was a massive, cultural apparatus depicting people of African descent in a horrifically vicious and universally negative light, Munro says.

The white supremacist culture plays such an important part not just during slavery, but after slavery in support of segregation and extreme forms of inequality, said Munro.

Birth of a Nation was a film that was horrific in its depiction of African-Americans and it’s a part of a cultural “common sense” that makes this extremely unequal and uncivilized order look somehow civilized, Munro says.

Canada parallels the U.S. in the use of the word, James Morrison says, referencing the most popular show on the radio in Canada and in the U.S. in the 1920s and ‘30s was Amos and Andy.

The show’s beginnings were on radio and the two lead voice actors were white.

Morrison said the show was filled with a stereotypical view of the black community, which was widely accepted among Americans and Canadians.

Munro says Canada also has some work to do when it comes to racial equality.

“There is a racial unequal structure in U.S. certainly but in Canada too of course, and how could we expect a term like that to fade when there’s a structure of inequality that came into existence (that is) still so totally there,” Munro says.

Despite its many forms, Munro says, the n-word is an entrenched part of the culture.

“I don’t think anyone is going to forget about it, the word is just there,” Munro says.

“This term has so much power, it’s full with all of this history and the importance of race hasn’t gone away, because racism hasn’t gone away.”