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Was the word "nigger" a deliberately derogatory and offensive word in Mark Twain's time, or was it just a normal word to describe an ethnicity in those days?

Background: I'm curious as to whether Twain could have anticipated the use of the word being so controversial nowadays (though discussing the Bowderlization of Huckleberry Finn is off-topic for this web site).

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BTW, expletive does not mean "derogatory and offensive word". It means a word used as an exclamation. "Damn" is an expletive as are many more offensive words, but so is "ouch" and "oh" and "huh". –  Malvolio Jul 11 '11 at 16:15
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Also, what time are you talking about: the time the book was written (1883), or the time the book was set (1840)? –  GEdgar Sep 28 '11 at 13:36
    
@Malvolio, how do you figure that (he asks, two years later)? An expletive to me is either a meaningless filler word in verse, or a profanity/swear word/oath. ‘Oh’ and ‘huh’ are certainly not expletives in my vocabulary (except if they happen to be used as filler words in some kind of poetry or verse), nor in the OED’s. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 5 '13 at 14:37
    
@JanusBahsJacquet -- expletive literally means "filler", so a an adverb like "you're fucking right" would be an expletive, but that's not what we're talking about. –  Malvolio Oct 5 '13 at 18:56
    
@Malvolio, I realise that—what I can’t see is how ‘expletive’ can simply be used to mean any exclamation. That does not tally with my own personal vocabulary, nor with that of the OED (I admit I have not searched further than that). Both I and the OED, however, do have the word as referring to profanity/swearing (which I think most would agree ‘nigger’ is nowadays). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 5 '13 at 19:04
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5 Answers 5

Etymology Online has this quote:

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]

and then goes on to state that

But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult

I will refrain from speculating what Mark Twain was indending when he used the word, as I'm no expert on things Twain. ;-)

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The Daily Show recently did a bit on this issue, and the interchange between John Stewart and Larry Wilmore explains the tension around the "N word" and the US tendency to indulge in revisionist history.

Here is a partial transcript:

...

JON STEWART: Well, the editors of this new version are trying to make the book more accessible, they say, so that it can be taught without making students in the classroom, who may be uncomfortable, repeat the word nrnrnnrnrnrnr….

WILMORE: I’m sorry?

STEWART: Just so that the children don’t have to say, in the class, say nnrnrnrnernnnrr….

WILMORE: I’m sorry, what word were you…

STEWART: Nnnnnuuuuuuu….

WILMORE: Say it, Jon!

STEWART: Nnnnniiiuuuuuuu…. It’s uncomfortable!

WILMORE: And it should be! Look, Mark Twain put that word in for a reason. The n-word speaks to a society that casually dehumanized black people; “slave” is just a job description. And, it’s not even accurate! In the book, Jim is no longer a slave. He ran away! Twain’s point is he can’t run away from being a nigger.

...

Many people in the US feel extremely uncomfortable with the "N word" because of its checkered history and negative connotations, though the word was much more commonplace at the time that the story was written. The common term for African American ethnicity was derogatory and dehumanizing, so Twain went with the common term as a sign of the times.

Another item of note is that the term "Injun Joe" was changed to "Indian Joe", and that appears to have garnered considerably less attention, despite being a similar switch.

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At risk of going off-topic, I don't think it was only whites who were objecting to the word "nigger". –  Andrew Grimm Jan 25 '11 at 11:56
    
Fair enough. I'll remove "white" from that part of the answer. –  Zoot Jan 25 '11 at 14:38
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Personally I think it's highly unlikely Twain used the word with even the slightest intention of calling attention to its potential offensiveness, so Larry Wilmore is wrong to say he put that word in for a reason. He's right that Twain was calling attention to the fact that (Michael Jackson notwithstanding) a person's skin colour is a lifelong characteristic, not an optional variable. But I doubt Twain was susceptible to the modern tendency to transfer opprobrium from the prejudice to the word, which hadn't yet happened in his day. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '11 at 17:10
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Based on several articles I read in the aftermath of the "n-word translating to slave" issue, it seems that it was indeed a derogatory epithet chosen deliberately by Twain for the way it reveals southern prejudice, but it was apparently a common, uncontroversial word in everyday speech. See Prof. Thomas Glave's reaction

While Twain would undoubtedly reject efforts to whitewash his works of controversial words, he would undoubtedly be proud of a society that has progressed enough in racial tolerance to have become uncomfortable with a word with such negative history.

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I felt there was too much opinion, and not enough fact, in that column. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 25 '11 at 11:56
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As I think you suspect, the offensiveness of "the N word" has indeed increased.

It may always have been that offensive to black folk. The difference is that back in Twain's day, white folk didn't really care how they felt about it. Today they (for the most part) do.

I'm actually old enough to have personally seen a certain amount of this transition. Until about the mid 70's, white folk had very little problem saying the "N-word". It was considered derogatory, but only in the way similar words like "Jew" are. I went to an integrated school, and used to hear it regularly when someone got upset with a black schoolmate.

In the mid-70's things started to change. I think I heard the word from the lips of a white person exactly once (and in a whisper) between 1977 and 1980, and never since then.

This process can be seen in popular culture. Mel Brooks made a hilarious movie satirizing race relations in 1974 called Blazing Saddles. As such, naturally the evil or ignorant white folk in the movie casually used the "N-word" throughout directly at the black protagonist. Today it is very difficult to find a copy of that movie that doesn't alter the dialog, and watching such a copy is very uncomfortable.

Three years later another comedy named Kentucky Fried Movie was released. This was right when the transition was happening, and a skit in there captures it perfectly. It was meant to satirize the change in the acceptability of the word by showing a white person commiting suicide by merely walking into a rough neighborhood and shouting the word. When watched today, it doesn't seem funny at all, and one's first reaction is that the jerk deserves whatever he gets. But clearly things with that word were different (and in transition) when it was written, because somebody thought it funny. The joke is just "dated" to a time when everybody remembers the word being more acceptable.

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Wow, really? Blazing Saddles has edited dialogue? I'll have to re-watch my copy... –  Sean McMillan Sep 28 '11 at 15:08
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@Sean McMillan - Depending on where you got a copy, possibly yeah. If the townsfolk and white bad guys use the N-word an uncomfortable amount of times, you may have an unedited version. Check out its article on IMDB for how to figure out for sure. I can't provide you a proper link, as IMDB is blocked here. –  T.E.D. Sep 28 '11 at 16:24
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The only time I ever shared accomodation with a black guy was back in '75. We were in our early 20s, and I'm pretty sure we saw the movie together. I know we both thought Up yours, nigger! was excruciatingly funny in context, because for weeks afterwards we often jokingly said "Up yours, nigger/honky!" to each other. I don't recall us only doing that in the privacy of our own home, and it was a mixed-race neighbourhood. I doubt many/any people were offended, regardless of skin colour. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '11 at 17:30
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Personally, I believe that calling somebody by their nationality, ethnicity, or skin color is prejudiced in and of itself. We're all homo sapiens, after all.

While they may be accurate descriptions, terms like Irish Twins and Muslim Dress are all prejudiced in their motivation, however thinly veiled.

Calling someone a black newscaster is just as racist as nigger. Why does the skin color matter? Does it make them different that you need to apply adjectives? Why can't they just be a newscaster? Nobody called Bush a "white" president, but Obama is a "black" president? No. He's the president. No adjectives necessary. Skin color is about as relevant as height or weight or ear lobe size to defining a person.

</rant>

So here's my answer: Mark Twain intended them to be racist. Racism was just more acceptable in his day than it is now.

But you can read up on it in this timely Washington Post article or here on Wikipedia.


[EDIT]

Changed innappropriate uses of Racism to prejudiced.

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Islam is a religion, not a race. Something that people choose. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 24 '11 at 22:04
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-1 because the rant is off-topic, and doesn't answer the question to boot. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 24 '11 at 22:30
    
How can nationality, ethnicity, or anything other than race be "racist"?! I could post a long rant myself on the abuse of the word to cover all forms of prejudice entirely unrelated to "race", but I won't. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 25 '11 at 9:19
    
@JSBangs, does so. "So here's my answer: Mark Twain intended them to be racist. Racism was just more acceptable in his day than it is now." –  Stephen Furlani Jan 25 '11 at 13:10
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@Andrew, technically yes, but apostasy is so strictly enforced in many areas of the world that you don't get to choose. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 25 '11 at 13:17
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protected by RegDwigнt Jun 4 '12 at 10:03

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