Date: Sat, 24 Feb 1996 10:21:38 -0500


Subject: Re: etymology: 'negro', 'necro'

question from hel-l

i shudder to imagine who moderates "hel-l"

I believe 'negro' derives from a Latin root for 'black' and 'necro'

derives from a Latin root for 'death'. We see 'necrosis' for 'death

of living tissue' and 'necromancy' for 'divination / magic by use of

death'. Necrotic tissue is often dark or black as the result of said

necrosis. Could this be the source of the popular term '"black"

magic' for some perceived perpetration of evil through magical acts?

well, first of all, _necro_ or _nekros_ is greek for 'corpse'. the

latin for death is usually _mors_ (and for corpse is _cadaver_). i

can't tell from the american heritage whether _nekros_ and _niger_

(latin for 'black') have the same IE source, since it doesn't seem to

give a source for _niger_.

i don't think this is a linguistic issue, but a more general semiotic

kind of thing. there are probably multiple sources of the

association of _black_ and evil. the dark is the unknown, we put our

dead in the dark (if we bury), we associate dirtiness with darkness,

and, as you note, most things turn dark when they rot. of course,

black is not universally associated with death (e.g., in japan), but

i don't think that the link was an arbitrary one forged by

coincidentally similar-sounding words. i'd aver that "black

magic" probably takes its metaphor from christian dichotomy of "the

light" (christ/holy spirit) and "the darkness" (satan). dark magic

serves the prince of darkness (or at least is believed to by


it's often claimed that the use of _black_ to mean evil things has

its roots in eurocentrism/racism. the OED's first uses of _black_ to

mean "evil" occur in the late 16th century, but then the OED's first

citations of a lot of stuff aren't til that late just because earlier

sources are scarce. certainly the link between darkness and evil

has been exploited for racist purposes (i think of _the book of

mormon_), but it's less likely, i think, that the 'evil' meaning was

caused by european judgments of african "paganism". but, back to

_black magic_, the term is often (but certainly not always) used to

describe "magic" as performed by black people--as in voudou.

from the whitest part of darkest africa,