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Nigga, nigger
Posted: 12 June 2007 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The Brits among us will have heard of the recent brouhaha over the use of nigger by one of the contestants on the UK Big Brother. (She was summarily ejected from the show). Here are the details.

The contestant concerned vowed that she was using the word non-pejoratively, nigga rather than nigger, and that it was used thus by all her friends, both black and white, without fuss.

Leaving aside for the moment the practical difficulties in distinguishing the words aurally, even if they were treated as separate, there does seem to be a great deal of evidence on the net for the fact that the young are using the word without compunction, as a term of endearment, respect, etc. This is a natural consequence of its use by the people they look up to and imitate, the urban rap artists, etc.

Is it possible that the word could eventually be defused in this way?

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Posted: 12 June 2007 08:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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aldiboronti - 12 June 2007 08:05 AM

there does seem to be a great deal of evidence on the net for the fact that the young are using the word without compunction, as a term of endearment, respect, etc. This is a natural consequence of its use by the people they look up to and imitate, the urban rap artists, etc.

I think that the above statement should be qualified to say that black young people might use it regarding other black folks.  There are many black commentators who are now asking that even this stop.  However, on the lips of a white person of any age, it would be regarded as profoundly pejorative and never a term of endearment.

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Posted: 12 June 2007 11:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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One of the other things which prompted the question was a phrase which I’ve seen quite often on a film board I frequent, a board which has large youth following. To express strong approval, perhaps for a link which has been provided, the poster will say, “You my nigga!”. This is definitely a compliment and seems to be used irrespective of race, which is hard to be ascertained anyway in some cases.

Youth often tread in places where their elders fear to go, and I wondered if the word, so abominated at the moment for its past, might eventually be destigmatized by such a process. Is there any precedent for such a process, or am I talking through my hat?

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Posted: 12 June 2007 11:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Oecolampadius - 12 June 2007 08:15 AM

I think that the above statement should be qualified to say that black young people might use it regarding other black folks.  There are many black commentators who are now asking that even this stop.  However, on the lips of a white person of any age, it would be regarded as profoundly pejorative and never a term of endearment.

I hear “my nigga” used at the racially diverse dive bar I go to by twentysomethings of all colors and no one is offended, except perhaps a few old farts like me although I am not offended by it. My experience is obviously not universal, but it doesn’t coincide with what you said. Some young people are using it exactly as the contestant in the OP said.

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Posted: 12 June 2007 01:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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black young people might use it regarding other black folks.

Quite so. Where one says such things, to whom, and about whom, are critical in determining their semantic content.  I exchange anti-semitic anecdotes with Jewish friends, which I would find offensive if I heard them from my non-Jewish friends.  And I would think the less of my non-Jewish friends if they didn’t understand this.

So long as prejudices regarding racial and religious differences, skin melanin content, sex and sexual preferences, hair length, etc., continue to exist, a sensible (and sensitive) person is wise to be careful about the words he/she uses.

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Posted: 12 June 2007 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It’s possible that it will eventually cease to be offensive, but that time is clearly not yet.  What is certain is that there are many white people who vastly overrate the eagerness of black people to hear white people use the word.  “You guys say it to each other so why can’t I?” is either puerile or disingenuous.  I have no sympathy for the ejected contestant, and I hope other wannabe hipsters learn a valuable lesson (and I don’t mean “gosh, black people are touchy").

no one is offended

No offense, happydog, but how can you be sure of this?

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Posted: 12 June 2007 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Where one says such things, to whom, and about whom, are critical in determining their semantic content.

Exactly. What one says among close friends or among the regulars at your local dive bar is not necessarily appropriate for national television. One should adjust one’s language for the audience.

I suspect that we’ll find more instances of this with the internet. People will use particular language on their MySpace page (or wherever) intending it for their friends who would not be offended, but it will be read by others (potential employers, for instance) with negative consequences.

(I remember going to the bookstore to purchase Randall Kennedy’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and I apologized to the store clerk in advance before telling her the title I was looking for. Had the clerk been African-American, I think I would have left the store without asking.)

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Posted: 12 June 2007 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I recall reading about a used book dealer who got harassed by a (black) security guard at a book-fair in Chicago for displaying a copy of Dick Gregory’s autobiography on his table.

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Posted: 12 June 2007 04:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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languagehat - 12 June 2007 01:04 PM


no one is offended


No offense, happydog, but how can you be sure of this?

To be more precise, no one in the group using or hearing this terminology reacts as if they are offended. The group includes Caucasians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and African Americans. These are all twentysomethings and the men in the group certainly do not hesitate to “get in the face” of someone who offends them so I am surmising that they are not offended. These people all know each other well and so at least among friends it is reasonable to assume they are not offended. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be offended if I called one of them my nigga, but I have observed whites using the term in the company of African Americans without anyone reacting in any way other than normal conversation and I have observed those same individuals readily challenge anyone who they feel is slighting them in any way. These guys are ready to fight over whose quarter is next on the pool table.

And I’m certainly not offended by your question. I don’t pretend to know what is happening in other people’s brains. I’m just observing their actions and drawing what I believe are reasonable conclusions. As I said, some people outside of the group are offended so my “no one” meant “no one in this group of friends.”

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Posted: 12 June 2007 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Fair enough.  (You can understand why I asked.)

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Posted: 13 June 2007 01:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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As to other similar words which have been devalued…

I objected to a user on another forum using the word ‘tinker’ for Irishman. I had been brought up (in Scotland) and there it definitely had pejorative overtones.

I then received a litany of objection from the other user, who turned out to be Irish and explained the background of the term to me (ie a certain type of travelling folk who went round selling their wares).

I stood corrected. Admittedly, he was Irish so felt free himself to use the word in the same way nigga might be used by a black person.

I still wouldn’t use the term off my own bat though…

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Posted: 13 June 2007 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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The American television show “Scrubs” is about a group of young doctors.  Two of the main characters are close friends, one black and one white, both male.  There was a scene where they discussed the acceptable use of “nigger”.  The black doctor’s position was that it was never acceptable for a white person to use the word, even in the context of singing along with a rap song.  There may be a generational element to this.  I suspect that the writers and producers of the show are older than the characters.  Make of this what you will.

Personally, I am from a generational, ethnic, and social class where the word is strongly taboo.  This clearly leads to silliness, such as people condemning Mark Twain for using it.  There is a long history of groups embracing pejorative names.  “Yankee” is a famous example.  From my own tradition, “Lutheran” was once a word to say while spitting.  But if any of you want to call me a “Lutheran” I won’t take offense.  It seems to me that this is the same process, and probably healthier than a taboo.  This is not, however, a recommendation for anyone to start using it with abandon.

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Posted: 13 June 2007 06:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Aldi’s film board and happydog’s dive bar are both places with a “in-crowd” with “in-jokes” (like mantle, diegogarcity, and ukogbanistan have been here) and people are free to leave.  There are plenty of other film boards and dive bars where they might not find the atmosphere so “hostile”.  A single person who was offended by the behavior would not stay long and would be unlikely to complain to against a group.

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Posted: 13 June 2007 10:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I think the situation is not unlike to what happened with Dutch ‘flikker’ (faggot). This was once the worst thing a homosexual could be called (by a straight person of course), untill they started to refer to themselves with that name.

A true geuzennaam. It really took the sting out of it.

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Posted: 20 June 2007 12:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Groups adopting the pejorative names others use for them is, I suspect, very common - the Quakers come to mind, and I recall reading a suggestion that Hebrew was originally a name used only by outsiders. But as with “nigger” it can be a problem. Here in the UK Tottenham Hotspur Football Club ("Spurs") in North London has had for many years a strong following among local Jewish inhabitants, and some Spurs supporters have taken on the label “Yids” thrown at them by rival teams, with controversial results, as you will see here. Incidentally, personally I hate the expression “Brits”, a term used by the IRA, and I would object very fiercely to being called a “Brit” but that’s just my peculiarity, I suspect ...

[ Edited: 20 June 2007 12:55 PM by Zythophile ]
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Posted: 21 June 2007 03:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Tottenham was originally a Jewish club and still has strong Jewish links and many Jewish supporters and board (ie: Daniel Levy). As a Spurs supporter myself I’d say the majority of supporters, both Jewish and not, refer to themselves as ‘Yids’, its on the flags and its in the chants. ‘C’mon you yids’ is a common greeting between supporters and you’ll hear ‘yiddooooooo!’ shouted round the ground in celebration of a goal or on encountering another group of Spurs fans on the underground etc. It was reclaimed from being an insult deliberately (I’ve never been referred to as a ‘yid’ insultingly by a supporter of another team - a favourite insult is to creep up behind us and hiss ‘gas’ (hello West Ham)). For all this I still feel slightly uncomfortable with the word in a football context though I do say ‘C’mon you yids’ etc. I would never use the word outside of a Tottenham context.

Don’t have any problems being called a Brit though - I call myself one

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