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". Jul 11, 2011 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, 2011 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. Oct 5, 2013 at 14:37
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    It's worth noting that everybody in Huckleberry Finn who refers to what we now call "African-Americans" uses that word—even escaped slave Jim himself. It's also worth noting that Twain wasn't writing about the intellectual class, but about poor, mostly ignorant rural people.
    – Robusto
    Feb 28, 2020 at 22:29
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    Note, however, that the poor, ignorant, and rural as a class would be less inclined to be scrupulous about such matters of usage.
    – Robusto
    Feb 29, 2020 at 1:08

4 Answers 4


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". Jan 25, 2011 at 11:56
  • Fair enough. I'll remove "white" from that part of the answer.
    – Zoot
    Jan 25, 2011 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. Oct 8, 2011 at 17:10

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. ;-)


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. Jan 25, 2011 at 11:56
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    As a teenager in the 1960s (UK) I had to stop my mother from referring to a particular shade as "n* brown". She used it without any thought of being offensive, she had just grown up hearing it as a standard phrase (she was born in 1912). Sep 14, 2016 at 16:09
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    @KateBunting Far worse than that was a landlady I had, circa 1965 who used to refer to the Black & White Minstrels, quite approvingly, as the wonderful "N***** Minstrels".
    – WS2
    Feb 28, 2020 at 23:47

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.

  • Wow, really? Blazing Saddles has edited dialogue? I'll have to re-watch my copy... Sep 28, 2011 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, 2011 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. Oct 8, 2011 at 17:30

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