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“The N Word” Series Part 1: A Brief History of the Most Hated Word in America

Updated on February 16, 2016
The "N word"
The "N word"

You hear it in popular movies, songs, TV shows and books. You may even hear it or use it in passing while in school, on the streets and amongst strangers, friends and/or family.

This controversial word is black sheep of words in America. Similar to the F word for the LGBTQ community. Or the S word in Hispanic community. The “N word” is universally considered derogatory and “taboo.” Even so, why is that? Being that it is February and Black History Month, this hub will explore the history of the “N word.” To note this hub is the first of a three part series on the “N word”.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A Quick Etymology and Brief History of the “N” word"

The Etymology of the N-Word is very complex and there are many variants of the modern word. There are different derivatives of the word. Most commonly it derives from a bunch of European countries. From the Spanish and Portuguese word “negro”; from the French word “nègre”, all meaning black. Even so, if you look deeper it (and at other variants noir, neger, neggar, n****r) can all be traced back to the Latin word “niger” (which means black).

It didn’t started being put into more common usage until transatlantic slave trade (starting in the mid-16th Century (1500s) and up until the late-19th Century (1890s). It was used to describe “black-skin or a darker skinned person”. It was used in consumer products, movies, songs and especially in literature. The word was common among white American authors of the time such as James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harper Lee, and Mark Twain (used famously and loosely in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Black authors also used the word including Zora Neale Hurston .

Racist Historical American cartoon titled Why the "N word" is not fit to vote
Racist Historical American cartoon titled Why the "N word" is not fit to vote

By the end of the 19th Century, turning into the 20th Century; it was seen as pejorative (derogatory) and “colored” was more widely accepted word to describe people of African-descent. This was partially due to the growing anti-slavery sentiment and abolitionists who deemed slavery mortally wrong and the word offensive. By the 1960s until present times, with the Jim Crow Era, Civil Rights, Black power movements and more recent social movements; the word saw a shift in people’s attitudes to this word’s meaning and context. The word was placed in a socio-economic-political sphere. Emerged were different opinions of the usage of the word. The “N word” was analyzed, critiqued, and criticized by intellectual circles (black writers, black feminists, the New Left, etc.).

Rules for the "N word"?

This is where we are now, intense debates between all the different political/media circles over the usage of this word. Out of all these debates and from personal experience I have piece together valuable information on the rules for saying the “N word”. This is not a pro or a con list. This is an explanation of rules on who gets to say the “N word” (for the people that do use the “N word”).

The "N" Word” Documentary written and directed by Todd Larkins
The "N" Word” Documentary written and directed by Todd Larkins

The General Unspoken Rules for saying the “N” Word"

  1. All non-blacks (aka peoples of Caucasian/ European descent, other non-black minorities) CANNOT say the “N word” PERIOD. This unspoken rule causes friction and confusion among people (mostly Caucasian), becausethey feel it’s hypocritical and unfair, that some people can use the word; while others (aka non-blacks) can’t.
  2. All ethnic minorities can say the “N word” all except white people (aka peoples of Caucasian/ European descent). The reasoning behind this is that a lot of blacks and other minorities (Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, etc.) grew up around each other, and are united by a common struggle against the domination and oppression caused by members of Caucasian/ European descent race. This is like a silent minority race solidarity pact.
  3. All poor persons that struggle through poverty and embrace hip hop culturesay the “N word”. That include poor blacks/minorities, and whites (aka peoples of Caucasian/ European descent). This usually extends to people who lived in the hood/ghetto, poorer and struggling neighborhoods/areas; where hip-hop culture hip is embraced. This is similar to Rule B; but it’s more about economic class solidarity. This explains why Eminem gets a hood pass to use the word and someone like Iggy Azalea doesn’t.
  4. Specific usage of the word (related to grammar and syntax). Some only support the use of the word if using the “gga” or “gah” suffix ending of word, not the “er” suffix ending of the word.

*These rules depends on each individual supporters of the use of the “N” Word*

Who gets to use the “N word” ?

See results
The N Word is Out
The N Word is Out

Even so, with all these facts the lasting legacy of the “N word" left its mark in American history. Since this month is Black History Month, I have created The “N Word” series, of which I will write and explore hubs about this very taboo, subject and word. The next two hubs of this series will be:

Why Some People Support and Use of the “N” Word”


Why People are against and Don’t Use of the “N” Word”

Look out for these hubs. In the mean time what do you think?


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