Date: Tue, 28 Oct 1997 14:35:37 -0500

From: Jesse T Sheidlower jester[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PANIX.COM

Subject: Re: What does the "n" word mean? (was PC dictionaries)

The reporter who interviewed me about the n word for the local TV station is black and said

she was surprised to see all this discussion, since when she was growing up her working definition

of the word was 'an uneducated person' and it had no racial connotation. She was surprised when

I told her it was connected to Negro. I thought this was very interesting. Jesse, and others: is

there any additional confirmation for such a use of the word in the African American community?

I alluded to this in a previous message. The short answer is that it

depends on how you interpret the evidence. Both DARE and HDAS have an

entry for this sense with many citations. However, most of the

citations consist of declarations from black people that _nigger_

has no racial sense but instead refers to reprehensible people of any

race. A prominent early example of such a declaration:

1942 Z.N. Hurston _Dust Tracks_ 25: He called me Snidlits,

explaining that Zora was a hell of a name...."Snidlits, don't

be a nigger*," he would say...."Niggers lie and lie."....

*[footnote from Hurston:] The word "nigger" used in this sense

does not mean race. It means a weak, contemptible person of any


Most examples are similar; we've quoted from many letters written

to the Random House dictionary department with such claims. There

are a small number of examples where it could be interpreted in

the sense claimed, but it's not entirely clear that these examples

have no racial connotation--cf. the Chris Rock routine I quoted in

my last message. (Oh, an ambiguous example that in HDAS we placed

under the relatively neutral "fellow; person" sense that may actually

belong in the "reprehensible person" sense: a1994 "Queen Latifah,"

in C. Major _Juba to Jive_ 320: Those niggers [sc. the U.S.

government] don't know what the fuck they [sic] doing.)

I would say that there is certainly a very strong belief in the

African-American community that this is what the word really means,

but whether it's actually used this way is doubtful.

Jesse Sheidlower