Jeremy,s faux pas
Posted: 03 May 2014 11:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
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With all heat going on about the childrens rhyme, mumbled by Jeremy Clarkson, it set me wondering just what was the etymological origin of this controversial word,would it be too dangerous to suggest that it came from the area around the Niger river in Africa

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Posted: 03 May 2014 11:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It’s on the Big List

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Posted: 04 May 2014 12:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m in the (for me) extremely odd position of being in total sympathy with Jeremy Clarkson. I’m only 4 years older than he is and in my London childhood the rhyme employed the N-word as a matter of course. Having no children, I have no idea what word is usually substituted now. If I ever found myself absent-mindedly muttering ‘Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, Catch a ...’ and realised what was about to come next, then I dare say I’d have mumbled ‘ner-ner’ just as Clarkson did.

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Posted: 04 May 2014 01:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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You ask whether it came from the name of the river Niger: as the BL entry notes, the word nigger ultimately comes from Latin routes meaning black. The name of the river Niger may also have been influenced by the same root, but is mainly thought to be from a word meaning “river” in a language of the Berber family.

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Posted: 04 May 2014 01:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I think the Big List entry may be a bit confusing.  The first paragraph makes the case that it derives from the French “nègre” and supports this with a reference to Caribbean dialect.  Then goes on to differentiate it from “negro” which has its roots firmly in Spanish.  All clear, and a nice point that these 2 similar sounding words have a different history.

However the Edward Hellowes citation seems to place the origin back into a more direct relationship to Spanish. If “ Nigers of Aethiop” is seen as a step to the modern word “nigger”, I assume the intention is to show the translation of the Spanish word “negros” already (well in 1574) has a divergent English equivalent?

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Posted: 04 May 2014 03:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks. I should amend the entry to clarify that.

The point is the -er ending signifies the French path, while the -o ending the Spanish. In the Hellowes citation he translates the Spanish negros as Nigers.

As for Clarkson, his “apology” is more of the “non-apology apology” variety than an actual one. He did use the word. The offense is not in the combination of phonemes; there is nothing magical about any particular set of sounds. What’s offensive is the word’s long history as a term of abuse, and mumbling or coughing as one uses it is in some ways worse that speaking it clearly. In doing so the speaker is trying to have it both ways, relying on the offensiveness of the term to titillate the audience and boost ratings, while deliberately creating a translucent veil of deniability to protect oneself. I’m not saying he should be sacked over this, but he is not guiltless. He’s a professional broadcaster. He should know better.

Growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, the form of the rhyme we used most often was “catch a tiger.” We certainly knew the offensive version, and I did hear it on many occasions (and probably used it myself), but even as kids we knew it was a really bad thing to say and avoided it in the normal course of our play.

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