Yes, it's an offensive term and the origin may seem obvious but I wanted to dig deeper. The mechanical device in a sawmill which turned (rotated) the logs in order to saw a new face was known as a "sawmill nigger"--even as late as the early 60's, USA patents for the devices still used that term for the device.

A search pulled up only a mason's term of nigged or nigging from the term nidge which is to dress a stone with a pick or kevel (origin uncertain). I was wondering if the currently offensive term "nigger" in sawmill equipment may come from similar roots and not really be the offensive version we jump to today. Is there a root similar to nigging that may apply to the sawmill machinery/event or is it more likely that the offensive meaning is the true one, that job being a low skilled grunt work which was likely relegated to folks of color? Can anyone find the actual origin of nidge and could it possibly be the origin when used as "sawmill nigger"?

I am restoring a large 1920's sawmill for the local museum and the research led me down this prickly path...I'm not just a crackpot who wanted to use that offensive term over and over. I'd like to suss out the actual history behind the term.

  • 2
    From what you say, you question is not about language so much as about history. I am a Brit, so cannot give you an authoritative direct answer. For what it is worth, This is my suggestion. Just to label it with the standard name of the day and describe what it does, using what probably are verbs derived from the objectionable word would be grossly insensitive. But you have an opportunity to help open eyes to the historic injustice by including an explanation of the unpaid slave labour a mechanical sawmill replaced, leaving the it buried in plain site in the language. Research the history.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 22:29

1 Answer 1


You mentioned the verb "nidge"


To nidge - Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps < a variant of nitch n.

Scottish. Building. rare.

transitive. To trim (stone) roughly with a sharp-pointed hammer.

1850 J. Ogilvie Imperial Dict. Nidge, in masonry, to dress the face of a stone with a sharp-pointed hammer in place of hewing it with a chisel and mallet.

It is unrelated to nigger.

For nigger, in the sense enquired of, the OED gives:

2.a. A person who does menial labour; any person considered to be of low social status. derogatory. Cf. (and earliest in) white nigger n.

1835 R. M. Bird Hawks of Hawk-hollow I. xi. 154 Wa' to been married soon, but faw the white nigga Gilbert, what cut the Colonel's throat!

1974 J. Willwerth Jones: Portrait of Mugger xii. vii. 177 A nigger around here don't mean a black dude, you dig? It's a low-class dude who ain't going' [sic] nowhere—that's the true meaning of the word.

This idea then seems to have been used in an extended sense as a noun for any piece of crude machinery that did menial labour:

9a. U.S.. A steam-driven capstan used on some riverboats; a steam engine used to drive such a capstan (also more fully nigger engine). Now rare.

1867 J. A. Hosmer Trip to States by Yellowstone & Missouri 58 The boat..struck the bar; they then began to work with the spars and nigger, and at two o'clock we got off.

9.b. A device used to hold and turn logs in a sawmill. 1890 Cent. Dict. Nigger,..a strong iron-bound timber with sharp teeth or spikes protruding from its front face, forming part of the machinery of a sawmill.

(As far as your apologies are concerned, you may find this helpful: "The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge." Carl Edward Sagan)

  • Hear! Hear! for Carl Sagan. And your answer.
    – Elliot
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 2:06

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