This most offensive of words in American speech dates to the late 16th century, although the modern spelling doesn’t appear until some two centuries later. The modern word nigger is a variant of an older term, neger, pronounced with a long /ee/ sound, which is still in use in Caribbean dialect. It comes from the French nègre, in use to mean a black person since at least 1516, and ultimately from the Latin niger, meaning black. The word negro comes from the same Latin root, although the route negro took into English was via Spanish, not French.
The word, in its neger form, first appears in Thomas Hacket’s 1568 translation of A. Thevet’s New Found Worlde:
Also ye Neigers eat these Lezards, so do the Indians of America.
The pronunciation with the shorter /i/ sound appears a bit later, in Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of Guevara’s Familiar Epistles:
The Massgets bordering upon the Indians, and the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnes. [The original Spanish is los negros en Ethiopia.]
The modern gg spelling doesn’t appear until the late-18th century. From Frank Moore’s 1775 Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution:
The rebel clowns, oh! what a sight! Too awkward was their figure. ‘Twas yonder stood a pious wight, And here and there a nigger.
Nigger is highly offensive, especially when used by whites. Along with cunt, it is perhaps one of the two most offensive words in modern English. This was not always the case, however. The word was originally neutral and only began to acquire an offensive cast in the mid-18th century.
Among African Americans, the word has a history of being used to refer to a person regardless of skin color. George F. Ruxton’s 1848 Life in the Far West uses the word to refer to a white person:
What does the niggur say?
Other examples of blacks using the term in reference to whites can be found, although more commonly it is used to refer to a close, black friend, as in this example from J.A. Harrison’s 1884 Negro English:
To tu’n er nigger right loose, to give a man free play.
In recent years, this sense has been used in a politically motivated attempt to reclaim the word by African Americans and make it less offensive. While somewhat successful in this regard, the term is still considered highly offensive when used by whites and this reclamation itself is controversial. Many consider the term offensive regardless of the race of the utterer.
Nigger is etymologically unrelated to the word niggard.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton