The other day I was watching a video, in which one white teacher was being accused of using the word "nigger" in reference to one of his students who was black. The newscasters, before showing the video report, didn't dare to say the whole word "nigger" and instead just said "a teacher used the n-word in class...".

So, I guess, this word is really bad since the newscasters can't say it in the full length. But this reminded me of the song by John Lennon "Woman is the nigger of the world". I am kind of puzzled here: As far as I know Lennon had already moved to the USA by the time he released this song. I know that some radio stations refused to put it on air because of the n-word in it, but that was 40 years ago. Have things not changed since that time? If newscasters don't dare to say "nigger" even today, how would they refer to that song today if they needed to?


Just found this video on YouTube where Lennon himself explains the situation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5lMxWWK218

  • I wonder if "nigga" can be categorized under the "n-word" on the case of de jure v. de facto. – Gio Borje Nov 29 '10 at 9:33
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    @Gio: I dnno, try saying it to a bunch of people, both white and black, see the results. – Claudiu Nov 29 '10 at 15:03

You have to accept that in America, the n-word is regarded as a more vile epithet (or as more taboo) than it is elsewhere in the world. You generally wouldn't use it most places, except perhaps in a discussion of historical attitudes towards negroes and slavery (and I'm not even sure that the alternative n-word is really acceptable; people tend to use circumlocutions or euphemisms to avoid it), but in America, you really get into trouble for using it. The sort of level of odiousness is that kids using it at school will be hauled to the principal's office, and possibly suspended.

I would expect that the newscasters would avoid discussing the song if at all possible - there'd be other subjects to discuss instead.

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    I think "negro" is seen as a more old-fashioned-sounding form of "nigger", and if anything sounds more like a mockery of the down-home racism of yore rather than the current reality. I don't think anyone in their right mind really gets offended by being called black, white, dark, or fair. After all, your skin colour is a pretty obvious part of what you look like, and it's nothing to get touchy about unless someone's being a jerk about it. – Jon Purdy Nov 28 '10 at 20:19
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    @Jon Purdy: At 19, you've only lived in a time where American blacks have been legally equal and publicly respected. I remember when black Americans were routinely lynched in the South, and it was not only widely approved but completely legal to ban them from restaurants or prevent them from voting. In places, a white person could rape or beat or even murder a black with little to fear. For people of my generation, all that hatred, disrespect, and failure to consider blacks fully human is summed up in the word "nigger". Using that word is right up there with telling Auschwitz jokes to a Jew. – Bob Murphy Nov 29 '10 at 5:02
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    @Bob Murphy: I'd put it even worse than that. At least with the jokes you have some intent of jest, as ill-humored and inappropriate as it may be. I always considered saying the word "nigger" to be harmless if it's in reference to something that happened with the word. When people such as journalists say "n-word", it just makes me feel like they're too scared to say it, so they leave it up to our brains to say it in our head. How else would we know what "n-word" meant if we weren't mentally saying "nigger" when we heard it? Bill Burr has a comedy skit on that somewhere, I recommend it. – rownage Jan 13 '11 at 20:41
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    @Bob Murphy: It really makes me wish I could create another "bad word" that starts with N, just so everyone is like, "wait, did you mean that one, or..?" – rownage Jan 14 '11 at 19:33
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    @rownage - I understand that "nacky" is a 17th century vulgar term meaning "vagina" (look up the play "Venice Preserv'd"). You could try re-popularising that one! – user16269 Feb 11 '12 at 10:49

It seems the perception of "nigger" has regained quite a bit of its former intensity in the past ten years or so. In 2000, it didn't seem nearly as common for students to face repercussions for saying it in school, or for it to be avoided so strongly in the media. I don't think this reflects an increase in general social enlightenment so much as a growing culture of so-called "political correctness"—because actual correctness would be asking too much, of course. I'm sure this has something to do with the backlash after the World Trade Center attacks sparked rampant anti–Middle Eastern sentiments.

The sociopolitical climate in 1972 was very different from how it is now in 2010. The song was written to evoke a certain reaction by appealing to the sensibilities of the people at the time. Race relations were still a very touchy issue, as well as the women's rights movement. Then-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ron Dellums, gave a rather amazing response to the political uproar surrounding Lennon:

If you define 'niggers' as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then good news! You don't have to be black to be a 'nigger' in this society. Most of the people in America are 'niggers'.

Anyway, it doesn't seem to bother most people so much that there's such a stigma on those who use the word, though it is fully justified that they should be stigmatised. The only real reason to say it nowadays is in discussions of slavery and the civil rights movement.

And of course, if you happen to live in the right area, know the right people, and perhaps have the right skin colour, then it may serve as a term of endearment with your very very close black friends. Personally, I don't care for it.

  • lol, very well said. Since when was political correctness a valid reflection of what the minority group in question really actually felt about the usage of a word as a slight. – Anonymous Type Nov 28 '10 at 23:42
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    I grew up near Cleveland in the 60s and 70s. Even in peaceful 1964, "nigger" was a terrible insult and I would never have called my black pal that. Then things became more violent and people more touchy; we had multiple-fatality race riots in 1966, and anti-war protesters were shot by the National Guard in 1970. By 1972, calling the wrong person a "nigger" could get a white person beaten or killed, and a newscaster saying it on the air might have led to the station being firebombed. What may now seem overcautious "political correctness" was simply not being suicidal. – Bob Murphy Nov 29 '10 at 4:51
  • @Bob Murphy: Thanks for sharing that. I'm not even 20 years old, so my sense of the issue is necessarily a bit limited. I do get the feeling, though, that "nigger" will continue to fluctuate in intensity until it just dies off. No need for it crufting up the language. – Jon Purdy Nov 29 '10 at 5:34
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    I'm very happy we can have this discussion. It tells me Americans haven't commonly been murdered or badly abused for being "niggers" in a long time. I hope we can someday get to a time when, as Dr. King said, people are judged by the contents of their character - and "faggot" doesn't bring up memories of a teenaged corpse hung on barbed-wire fence. – Bob Murphy Nov 29 '10 at 21:40
  • In 20017 the N-word is alive and well in the USA. To utter the "N-word" on live TV even when it is not used as an insult but as a joke can still get you suspended or risk losing your job. See Bill Maher's close shave with HBO when he joked that he'd prefer to be a “house nigger” than toll in the fields. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 12:29

Taboo words worry me a great deal, because they're a sign of a social problem that isn't being dealt with. When a word has acquired heavy negative connotations, as "nigger" reeks of the slave trade, then the thought goes that we should use a different word instead which doesn't have those connotations. This is a very emotionally appealing argument as it avoids difficult confrontations. Unfortunately I don't believe it has ever actually worked. The new word quickly acquires the connotations of the old as well as its own, with a large dollop of cynicism added as people recognise the avoidance tactic for what it is.

I've tracked this particularly with relation to disability (my father's job was helping disabled people find work), through "cripped", "disabled" and "differently abled". Now we have "special needs", and I've many times heard people (myself included) look at a particularly silly mistake and say "Well, that was special." Unless you turn around and positively take back the word, as was done with "black," nothing really changes.

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    I wish everyone were like you. This threadmill of taboos is so incredibly ugly. Why do people who care about language let it happen time and again? A good argument against those who want to let the development of language run its course all the time without resistance. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 17:52
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    Part of the terms like "crippled," "disabled," "differently abled" and so on is that they are catch-phrases that lump people together, and thus are predisposed to being tools of prejudicial speech. After all not everyone who needs a ramp is in a wheelchair. Hateful people will always pollute words by speaking them with disgust. Luckily, with a quarter of a million words to choose from, the careful speaker can always construct a meaningful phrase that is crafted to a specific situation or individual, and avoids those terms that con – Tolerance72 Jul 17 '12 at 16:25
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    Ugh. Premature post, and took to long to edit. You get my meaning though. – Tolerance72 Jul 17 '12 at 16:35
  • The underlying social problem is what needs addressing, e.g. racism in the case of the n-word. If there were no racists, or at least, racism held no social power, then I'd imagine the taboo over the word would disappear. Much the same with disability words and "ableism". The words should still not be used in the interim, because they will justifiably be taken as a sign of prejudice, justifiably because a lot of people do in fact use them that way and that prejudice holds power in the society. – The_Sympathizer Feb 18 '15 at 9:23
  • The problem needs to be confronted, and that requires to talk about it, and that talk can even extend to discussing these words, however usage of the words in general speech is probably not a good idea until the problem has been overcome and they are no longer being used to exert any kind of prejudice, especially any prejudice which has power. – The_Sympathizer Feb 18 '15 at 9:27

And the Irish are the niggers of Europe, Roddy Doyle tells us. Social attitudes toward this sort of language can change very quickly over the generations.


I find the use of the word funny here in the US. I am not american and not white (unfortunately i hate the term black because I am not black, I just inherited a beautiful tan).

The word nigger meant absolutely nothing to me. We even had gumballs called niggerballs where I come from and it never bothered me. Perhaps because I did not grow up in the US makes me oblivious to the subtle issues related to the word.

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