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My research has resulted in theoretical reasons for the usage of the term "nigger", and I have failed to uncover any evidence as to how this nasty little epithet evolved into the usage and connotation it had and has to this day.

When the African slave-trade was in full-swing , my belief is that a good percentage of black slaves were captured and sold in Nigeria. If the ship's captain could read, he would probably not be able to pronounce "Nigeria" or "Nigerian" properly nor would he care. Since a four syllable word is difficult to pronounce anyway for the education level of seamen in the slave-trade of that era, I believe the term was shortened from nigerian to nigger which was easier for them to say.

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3 Answers 3

Niger is Latin for 'black'. That's the source of all the trouble. Nigger itself (with the Latin spelling) is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as being first used in 1574 'by whites or other non-blacks as a relatively neutral (or occasionally positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent'.

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Purely my own opinion, but I've always assumed the Texan/"Deep South" pronunciation of "negro" as "nigra" was part of the process by which "nigger" became ultra-offensive. But by now "negro", and even black are sensitive words in many contexts. –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 '12 at 2:00
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According to Etymonline.com:

nigger 1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro). From the earliest usage it was "the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks" [cited in Gowers, 1965, probably Harold R. Isaacs].

So it appears your theory about it having to do with Nigeria is merely a folk (or idiosyncratic) etymology.

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Hey -cool! I like the way you say idiosyncratic. That's a new word for me. Thanks! –  Harry O Gliffics Jan 6 '12 at 19:55
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As Barrie England's reference indicates, it was originally neutral, and therefor not an epithet. The question that is not being addressed in any of the answers so far is the process by which the neutral term became one. The answer to this is of course is the entire history of the relationship between the white and negro races over the past 500 years or so, but I'm guessing it did not become a widely used term of derision until black people started getting 'uppity'. That is, when most of them 'knew their place' and there was no push-back, the term was neutral. Only when they began to be a 'problem' and the whites had cause for fear and resentment, did it take on the shades it has had for the past (guessing again) century and a half.

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The word "epithet" was originally neutral, and therefore not an epithet. :P –  ShreevatsaR Jan 8 '12 at 5:31
    
@ShreevatsaR - Epithet has several meanings. In my experience, the one used here is the least frequently used. –  mickeyf Jan 9 '12 at 1:37
    
The term was use more or less with aplomb even in the South (urban Texas that is) except when one's status (Mexican or White) was imagined to be threatened. a –  lex Oct 17 '12 at 21:25
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protected by tchrist Mar 28 at 21:05

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