Is there a word like "colored" or "darkie" that would be offensive to a white southerner during the Civil War? I don't think the N word would work here. I'm working on a screenplay and want a southern mom to be offended when someone calls her slave a "darkie," but, sadly, I don't think anyone white would have found this word offensive at the time--so I'm looking for a different word.

  • I think any such term would have to reference assumed traits of the individual, such a sexual perversity.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 29, 2015 at 20:02
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    Does the concept of any such term being offensive to an antebellum white southerner make any sense? Wouldn't be the other way round, that she would get his knickers in a twist over terms that were not offensive? IOW, why would a slaveholder be offended when someone calls her slave a "darkie" or the N word? That is surely what she would say herself, as a slaveholder she is not likely to have the values of modern polite society. BTW, there was a time when the commonest term for African slaves was "Guineas". I think it was 17th C and may have died out before the CW, or not, I don't know.
    – David Pugh
    Apr 29, 2015 at 20:12
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    Notwithstanding @DavidPugh's perfectly sensible comment, if it is fiction, you would develop the internal sensibilities of the character to promote offense at any word you choose. If she has any sympathy for the black man, her sentiment is diametrically opposed to the overwhelming sentiment of her day, but sentiment is never universal.
    – ScotM
    Apr 29, 2015 at 21:41
  • Oddly, a term that might work is "boy".
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 30, 2015 at 2:35
  • Thanks all. Very thoughtful comments. I agree with you David, and that's why this is difficult. Scot hit the nail on the head--she's a poor woman who owns one slave and doesn't seem comfortable with the term. The problem is that the whole country (see Harper's etc.) was comfortable with Darkie. Thanks again; I'll keep looking here for other suggestions. I like Boy as well, but it doesn't have much punch in context. Apr 30, 2015 at 15:03

5 Answers 5


I don't think any of our answers are helpful. The unfortunate fact is that if you want to capture an era, you have to steep yourself in that era. The only way to do that is to read widely and deeply -- Faulkner and Angelou and Baldwin and even (gasp!) Mitchell (inheritors of that era) and some diaries from that era. There is one in particular that I read a review of, or a comment about, recently -- it was called something like "Diary of a Charleston Lady", but you should get the more recent, unedited version -- the earlier version was extensively edited (whitewashed ?) according to the review or comment, and thus was far politer than the original. According to the review/comment, present day Charlestonians love the edited version, but not the unexpurgated version. Sorry not to give you a detailed reference, but I just don't have it.


There are a number of slurs that have been used throughout history. The hardest part, I think, is making sure the term is period-specific. I know people who used "Apes" "Ace Of Spades" or just "Spade", along with others.

I found a website which lists slang words, but it does not give the era in which they were used, so I guess you could look at them and hit up dictionary.com to find the origins and times. http://www.rsdb.org/race/blacks

Hope this helps! -- John

  • spade from 1928, ape probably from some time after Darwin theory of evolution (1858). May 3, 2015 at 18:01

The word 'Coon' was used in this time period.


Would "field hand" work in your context? In that era, it would imply the woman could afford only an unskilled slave. Another thought, and you may have already done this: Go through a couple of books by William Faulkner, and I think you will find what you need.

  • Is 'field hand' racist or offensive? That's what the OP wants.
    – Mitch
    May 9, 2015 at 19:07
  • Calling a house slave a field hand was very offensive. And only blacks were field hands. "White trash" would till their own plots, but work side-by-side with field hands? No. And this is a screenplay; the actor could project any degree of ugliness..
    – ab2
    May 9, 2015 at 19:18
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    To hurt someone's feeling about something she owns you can disminish the perceived level quality of the thing, it's really the only way: i.e. I'd call your car a "lemon", if it's your most expensive piece of equipment and essential to your revenue (which is the case for a slave, they cost the price a small car), you may be hurt. I think @ab2 is spot on
    – P. O.
    May 9, 2015 at 20:03
  • Any word can be offensive then. 'Field hand' is not inherently a racist or offensive term. 'piss', 'pee', 'urinate', 'pass water' 'micturate' are all the same behavior, but they are very different in how offensive they are. Calling a car a lemon is using 'lemon' pejoratively (it is not in fact a lemon). Calling someone a 'field hand' is, though the work is not favored well, is only offensive by implication. You might have had a better argument if you started with 'boy', which is certainly offensive/racist in those contexts. Also, it's difficult to assess these values truly for 150 years ago.
    – Mitch
    May 9, 2015 at 20:49
  • What would have been a term of great insult actually used 150 years ago would have been "field n-----", but the person asking the question did not want to use the n-word.
    – ab2
    May 9, 2015 at 21:03

A word commonly used by the Southern Aristocracy that applied to poor whites and Blacks was “inferiors”. Oddly Darkies was a term of endearment mostly used for house workers, Mammies, cooks etc.

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