In Colonial America, negars was used in 1619 by John Rolfe, describing slaves shipped to Virginia colony. Neger (sometimes spelled "neggar") also prevailed in northern New York under the Dutch and also in Philadelphia, in its Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities. For example, the African Burial Ground in New York City was originally known as "Begraafplaats van de Neger" (Dutch phrase meaning "Cemetery of the negro" in English).
In the United States, the word nigger was not always considered derogatory, but was instead used by many as merely denotative of black skin, as it was in other parts of the English-speaking world. In nineteenth-century literature, there are many uses of the word nigger with no intended negative connotation. Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad (who published The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' in 1897) used the word without racist intent. Mark Twain often put the word into the mouths of his characters, white and black, but did not use the word when writing as himself in his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi.
In the United Kingdom and other parts of the English-speaking world, the word was often used to refer to people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Kashmiri, Indian or Sri Lankan descent, or merely to darker-skinned foreigners in general; in his 1926 Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler observed that when the word was applied to "others than full or partial negroes," it was "felt as an insult by the person described, & betrays in the speaker, if not deliberate insolence, at least a very arrogant inhumanity." The note was excised from later editions of the book.
In the 1800s, as "nigger" began to acquire pejorative connotations, the term "colored" gained popularity as an alternative to "negro" and associated terms. For example, abolitionists in Boston, Massachusetts posted warnings to "Colored People of Boston and vicinity." The name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reflects the preference for this term at the time of the NAACP's founding in 1909.
Southern dialect in many parts of the southern United States changes the pronunciation of "Negro" to "nigra" (used most famously by Lyndon B. Johnson, a proponent of civil rights during the later portion of his political career). In the early editions of his dictionary, Noah Webster suggested the new spelling of neger for "Negro".
Black became the preferred term in English in the late 1960s, and this continues to the present day. In the United States this has been displaced to some extent by African American, at least in politically correct usage, though this blanket term does not accurately describe those from other African nations such as Morocco; this resembles the term Afro-American that was in vogue in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, black continues in widespread use as a racial designation in the United States and is rarely regarded as offensive.
Today the word is often spelled nigga or niggah, in imitation of the manner in which some pronounce it. (Less-common variants are nigguh or even nikuh.) Other variations, designed to avoid the term itself, include nookah, nukka, nagger and the much older "jigger."
Historically, British people would often describe a dark shade of brown as "nigger brown", but this and all other uses of the word "nigger" have long since been considered offensive in Britain.
The singer Elvis Costello used the word in his song Oliver's Army. He sang 'One more widow, one less white nigger,' referring to the disadvantaged population of Northern Ireland. On a later edition of the programme Stars in Their Eyes a contestant sang this song and was forced by the producers to substitute this line as 'One more widow, one less white figure'.
Big Brother 2007 contestant Emily Parr was ejected from the Big Brother house only hours after saying the word 'Nigger' in reference to a fellow housemate. Despite making the slur in jest, she was removed due to tighter rules in response to a previous similar situation causing public outcry.
In the first half of the 20th Century, before Major League Baseball was integrated, ball players with a dark complexion were sometimes nicknamed "Nig. The following major league players bore the nickname: Johnny Beazley (1941-49), Howard Berry (1921-22), Bobby Bragan (1940-48), Nig Clarke (1905-20), Nig Cuppy (1892-1901), Nig Fuller (1902), Johnny Grabowski (1923-31), Nig Lipscomb (1937), Charlie Niebergall (1921-24), Nig Perrine (1907), and Frank Smith (1904-15). Other nicknames include the word hidden in the anagram "Ginger".
Louisiana Governor Earl Long also used the term when advocating expanded voting rights for African Americans. At that time, the term was less noteworthy than the expressions of support by white Southerners, as it was a common regional term for blacks, along with negro and colored.
Today, the implied racism of the term is so strong that the use of nigger in most situations is a social taboo. Many American magazines and newspapers will not even print the word in full, instead using "n*gg*r", "n*ger", "n——", or "the N-word."
The shock effect of the word can also be used to deliberately cause offense. Several historians and activists, such as Dick Gregory, have said the use of "N-word" instead of nigger robs younger generations of the full history of black people in America.
The term nigger has sometimes been extended in meaning so as to refer to all disadvantaged people. For example, Ron Dellums, an American politician, once said that "it's time for somebody to lead all of America's niggers".
The New York City Council passed a resolution on February 28, 2007 that symbolically bans the use of the word nigger. There are no penalties for non-compliance. The resolution also asks that songs including the word nigger in their lyrics be excluded from consideration for the Grammy Awards.
Concerning its use among African-Americans, Cornel West says "There's a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence and you have to say 'cat,' 'companion,' or 'friend' as opposed to 'nigger,' then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people... When Richard Pryor came back from Africa and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making."
However, nigger has seen common use in rural or semi-frontier districts. In this context, the usage was British colonial, that is, applying generically to dark-skinned people of any origin (cf. Rudyard Kipling). This has led to controversy, since Australian Aborigines have started to take the term strongly to heart, in both the pejorative and revisionist senses (see below under Names of places and things). Most Australians would have never identified Aborigines as "niggers" though, believing it to be a specific reference to African Americans and American usage, rather than Australian.
Interestingly, in some places these words refer to people with an only slightly darker appearance than those native to Northern Europe, i.e. people who might be said to have a typically Mediterranean, Southern European/Eastern European appearance without any facial or hair-texture characteristics associated with black people. There are also socio-economic reasons behind this as southern Europeans but particularly eastern Europeans are stereotypically deemed more backwards and less well off than their northern European cousins.
Forms ultimately derived from Latin niger have been borrowed into various non-Romance languages, and may be used to refer to people without negative connotation; The Hungarian néger referred to black Africans without any negative connotations until the 1990s when its meaning changed under English influence. In Latvian, "nēģeris" is still referred to black Africans without any derogatory meaning. The word nigger, typically with the same spelling and more or less similar pronunciation, also appears as a loanword in languages other than English and has the same racist connotations as the English word. In Nazi propaganda, the German compound niggerjazz was used as a derogatory term for jazz music, which Nazi ideology held was a degenerate form of music. In Yiddish, "shvartzer", meaning 'black' is considered offensive while "neger" is the standard word.
The term nigger was used in lumber mills until the mid-point of the 20th century. It refers to a device that turns a log while it is being stripped of its bark. This may be an off-hand reference to the prejudicial use of the word, as until the machine was invented, this was considered a job too dangerous for anyone other than a black man.
No book could possibly be as bad as Nigger Heaven has been painted. And no book has ever been better advertised by those who wished to damn it. Because it was declared obscene, everybody wanted to read it, and I'll venture to say that more Negroes bought it than ever purchased a book by a Negro author. Then, as now, the use of the word "nigger" by a white was a flashpoint for debates about the relationship between Black culture and its White patrons.
'Topsy neber was born, / Neber had a moder; / Specks I growed a nigger brat, / Just like any oder.
The famous controversy over Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a classic frequently taught in American schools, revolves largely around the novel's 215 uses of the word, often referring to Jim, Huck's raft mate. Advocates of the book point out that use of the word is not intended to spread racist stereotypes but simply reflects the situation at the time of writing, and that Jim is clearly depicted as a sympathetic character.
Nigger in the Window is a book written by a young black girl who describes the world from her window.
Slaves often pandered to racist assumptions by using the word nigger to their advantage in the self-deprecatory artifice of Tomming. Implicit was an unspoken reminder that a presumably inferior person or subhuman could not reasonably be held responsible for work performed incorrectly, a fire in the kitchen, or any similar offense. It was a means of deflecting responsibility in the hope of escaping the wrath of an overseer or master. Its use as a self-referential term was also a way to avoid suspicion and put whites at ease. A slave who referred to himself or another black as a "nigger" presumably accepted his subordinate role and posed no threat to white authority.
An example of this historical use in American literature occurs in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Gold-Bug" (1843). The narrator and a white character in the story use negro to refer to a black servant, Jupiter, while Jupiter himself uses nigger.
Ian Fleming makes use of the term in his 1954 novel Live and Let Die. One of the chapters is called "Nigger Heaven" and two of the main characters, James Bond and Felix Leiter, make regular use of the word.
Bram Stoker, the Irish author best known for Dracula, makes use of the word 46 times in his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm. Edgar Caswall's African servant, Oolanga, is often referred to as a "nigger" throughout the book.
Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None, also known as Ten Little Indians, originally appeared as Ten Little Niggers. Among the classic novels of Joseph Conrad (famous for his use of the word in Heart of Darkness) is The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897).
Other examples of literary usage in the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggest a more neutral usage of the term, which can cause a problem when reading such books today when the word has such an offensive meaning.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado uses the word nigger twice. The executioner Ko-ko, in his song "I have a little list", sings of executing "the nigger serenader and the others of his race" (Gilbert meant white performers performing minstrel songs in blackface, a popular Victorian entertainment). The Mikado, in his song “Let the Punishment fit the Crime”, sings of having overly-made-up society ladies “Blacked like a nigger/With permanent walnut juice”. Both lyrics are frequently changed in contemporary performances.
The Scarlet Pimpernel contains a black character referred to casually as a “nigger”, in a way which suggests no serious insult is intended.
In one John Buchan novel the hero goes into a night club in the early 1920s, where “a rather good nigger band” is playing.
Ronald Firbank's 1925 novel about the failed attempts of a family of blacks to enter high society in the capital of a West Indian nation was entitled Prancing Nigger. The title was recommended to him as a publicity-getter by Van Vechten.
The Reverend W. V. Awdry's story Henry's Sneeze (part of The Railway Series of stories that is most known for Thomas the Tank Engine) originally described some soot-covered boys as being "as black as niggers". After complaints were made in 1972, the description was changed to "as black as soot".
War Comes to Willy Freeman by James Collier and Christopher Collier (ISBN 0-440-49504-0) mentions the word nigger nineteen times. Current readers complain as this use of the word is unnecessary and, in the 18th century context of the story, is not historically correct.
Rudyard Kipling's Just So Story "How the Leopard Got His Spots" tells of how an Ethiopian and a leopard, who are originally sand-colored, decide to paint themselves for camouflage when hunting in dense tropical forest. The story originally included a scene in which the leopard, who now has spots, asks the Ethiopian why he doesn't want spots as well. The Ethiopian's original reply, "Oh, plain black's best for a nigger", has been changed in many modern editions to read, "Oh, plain black's best for me."
'Finally we went up to Montmartre. Inside Zelli's it was crowded, smoky, and noisy. The music hit you as you went in. Brett and I danced. It was so crowded we could barely move. The nigger drummer waved at Brett. We were caught in the jam, dancing in one place in front of him. "Hahre you?" "Great." "Thaats good." He was all teeth and lips. "He's a great friend of mine," Brett said. "Damn good drummer."'
It's also used to reference a boxer in an incident recounted by one of the minor characters in the book.
In Graham Greene's short story "The Basement Room" (1935) , the (sympathetic) character Baines tells a boy who admires him of his time at a British colony in Africa: "You woudn't believe it now, but I've had forty niggers under me, doing what I told them to". To the boy's question "Did you ever shoot a nigger?" Bains answers "I never had any call to shoot. Of course I carried a gun. But you didn't need to treat them bad, that just made them stupid. Why, I loved some of those dammed niggers. I couldn't help loving them". In the 1948 film "The Fallen Idol", made on the base of the atory, the word was avoided and replaced with "natives" (in the film version, however, Baines did on one occasion shoot and kill a rebellious "native").
In other parts of the world, however, this is not the case. As recently as 2007, a black household in Canada took delivery of a chocolate-brown leather sofa manufactured in China. To their surprise and dismay, the label on the sofa listed the item's color as "Nigger Brown. In fact, "Nigger" remains common in China today as a descriptor of a dark shade of brown. The China-based Nanhai De Xing Leather Shoes Habiliment Co., Ltd.'s online store describes a leather men's boot: "this product is comfortable for wearing, it looks very simple and artistic. Size: 39#-46# Color: nigger-brown.
Additionally, the word "nigger" has appeared in many films (perhaps most famously in Blazing Saddles, which used it to ridicule racism itself), television shows and songs. The word was also used in all stage productions of the musical Show Boat from 1927 until 1946. It is part of the original lyric to the famous song Ol' Man River, as well as of Cotton Blossom, the show's opening chorus. It was not used in any of the film versions of the show, but it was included in the 1988 EMI "authentic" recording of the complete score, featuring its original lyrics, orchestrations, and vocal arrangements. Musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger and conductor John McGlinn have both argued that the word was not intended as an insult, but rather as a blunt illustration of how whites at that time perceived blacks.
One specific example is that of Nigger Head Mountain, located just outside of Burnet, Texas. For decades, a particular hillock was referred to as such due to the forestation at the peak resembling a black man's hairstyle of the times. It became a popular spot for the predominantly white local high school students to show their spirit by holding pep rallies and post-game parties, and even during the start of the Civil Rights Movement news services continued to refer to the hillock as "Nigger Head" with almost no reported complaints from either side of the rights struggle. In 1966, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, as part of her beautification efforts at the time, denounced the name and asked both the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and the U.S. Forest Service to take immediate steps to change the name to something more acceptable to reflect changing views. The name was officially changed to "Colored Mountain" in 1968, and while both maps and road signs were replaced with ones bearing the new name, local inhabitants still refer to the location by its original name. There was also a "Dead Nigger Creek" in central Texas that changed its name to "Dead Negro Creek".
"Nigger Nate Grade" in Temecula, California was named after former slave and early settler Nate Harrison, but was changed in 1955 due to a request by the NAACP and renamed to Nate Harrison Grade. Many other place names in California use the word as well.
The Pacific Northwest region of the USA has many uses of the word. Near Penticton, British Columbia, a prominent summit just west of the city used to be called Niggertoe Mountain but was renamed Mount Nkwala.
A point on the Lower Mississippi River was known well into the middle and late 20th century as Free Nigger Point, or Freenigger Point. A later variation was Free Negro Point, but the location, in West Baton Rouge Parish, is now known as Wilkinson Point.
A jagged rock formation resembling a silhouetted human face protruding from a cliff over highway 421 north of Pennington Gap, Virginia was called "Nigger Head Rock" until the 1970s, when the name was changed to "Great Stone Face." Checks issued by a local bank in the 1940s bore an illustration of the rock accompanied by the original name.
Stephen Hagan, a lecturer at the Kumbari/Ngurpai Lag Higher Education Center of the University of Southern Queensland and the first Aboriginal Australian to be posted overseas in the diplomatic service, took offense when visiting the ground with his family. He took the Toowoomba council to court over the use of the word, but lost at the district and state level, and the High Court ruled that the matter was beyond federal jurisdiction. Local Aboriginals generally did not share Hagan's stance. Hagan then campaigned further, going to the United Nations and won a recommendation that federal Australian authorities press the Queensland government to remove the word, to which the federal government responded by citing the High Court decision that the matter is not within its jurisdiction.
The stand was demolished in September 2008, and Queensland Sports Minister Judy Spence, whose department is funding the the stadium upgrade, declared that the use of the word "nigger" would be unacceptable, both on the new stand or on a plaque which will be created there to commemorate E. S. Brown.
Brown died in 1974; his headstone is engraved with the word "nigger". Hagan has written a book, The N Word: One Man's Stand (Magabala Books, 2005, ISBN 978-1875641987), which includes this episode. He is also writing a doctoral dissertation titled The Origin, Maintenance, and Legitimization of the Word 'Nigger' in the Australian Vernacular. Hagan has now reignited his efforts against the brand name of Coon cheese.
The words "niggardly" ("miserly") and "snigger" ("to laugh derisively") do not refer either to black people or to characteristics or behavior attributed to black people, nor do they have any etymological connection with the word. "Niggard" (a miserly person) is related to Old Norse nig, "stingy," and the verb "niggle" is most likely derived from the Old Norse verb nigla — "to chew, gnaw, or potter at". As such words are easily mistaken for "nigger," their use is frowned upon by some and sometimes seen as offensive. David Howard, a white city official in Washington, D.C., resigned from his job in January 1999, when he used niggardly in a fiscal sense while talking with black colleagues, who took offense at his use of the word. After reviewing the incident, Washington mayor Anthony Williams offered Howard his job back. Howard declined that position but accepted another position in the mayor's administration.
A colloquialism in the British music industry for a freeloader is the word "ligger" (one who seeks to attend concerts and music industry events without paying). The word derives from another colloquialism lig (a gig or event) and variations thereof "to go ligging" (to go to a series of events.)
Many chat rooms and forums have the word "nigger" censored with replacement characters. "ni99er" and "NI66ER" are sometimes used to circumvent these measures.
The word nigga as variant of nigger has been used self-referentially by many in the African American community, often as a pronoun to refer to a black man. With the rise in popularity of rap and hip-hop, the term has become more widely used among some black youth and among some non-blacks as well. This revisionist usage, particularly among non-blacks, has been the source of considerable controversy, especially of rapper Fat Joe.