OK, the second instalment of our guide to the most taboo words in the English language focuses on what, along with ‘Cunt’, is one guaranteed to break the ice at parties…
Now, here’s a word that’s had more ins and outs than a Gateshead bridesmaid on a hen-night. At one time, a common slang term for anyone dark-skinned, not only in the American Deep South, but throughout the English-speaking world; it’s a word we now associate as applying exclusively to those of African and West Indian descent, but it could once be just as applicable to indigenous Australians and natives of the Indian subcontinent. It was viewed as perfectly legitimate colloquial shorthand for any non-white race, as reflected in early twentieth century ads for ‘Nigger Makeup’ (available from a joke-shop near you!) or even a colour shade from my mother’s immediate post-war childhood, Nigger Brown. Early Jazz vocal styles were referred to as ‘Coon Singing’ and Coon itself was one of the many interchangeable words with Nigger, such as Nig-Nog, Golliwog, Spade, Sambo, Sooty, Darkie, Blackie, and the slightly less-common (in Britain, anyway) Uncle Tom, Kaffir and Pickaninny, all of which could be used both as deliberate insult and non-malicious noun.
There were Nigger Boy candy cigarettes (two PC coronaries for the price of one), the Golliwogs of Enid Blyton’s Noddy series, the Black and White Minstrels Show on prime-time BBC1, and Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Niggers’. Even my own childhood editions of the Rev. W V Awdrey’s railway books still retained the original 1950s text, particularly a line in ‘Henry the Green Engine’, when Henry drenches a bunch of rowdy schoolboys in dirty steam, leaving them (I quote) ‘as black as niggers’. And, of course, there is the beloved black Labrador owned by the Richard Todd character in classic British war-movie ‘The Dam Busters’, with the poor hound neutered by censor’s scissors on some TV broadcasts of late.
The word of which Nigger is a corruption, Negro, was still in common usage during the Civil Rights era; Martin Luther King used it regularly in speeches, and a clip from BBC coverage of the 1968 Mexico Olympics has presenter Frank Bough describing Tommy Smith and John Carlos as ‘Negro Athletes’. By the time Smith and Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the podium, Black was becoming a cooler alternative to Negro amongst the black community, as emphasised by James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’. But despite the emergence of a more militant form of black activism at the end of the 60s and into the 70s, the likes of TV sitcom ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ still drew high viewing figures, even if its hackneyed aim to present a more balanced view of British race relations than Alf Garnett had managed before it makes it arguably less watchable today than ‘Till Death us Do Part’.
In the US, the official descriptive term for non-Caucasian or Hispanic citizens went from Negro to Coloured to African-American in a generation, whereas Nigger was banished from polite conversation, only to surprisingly re-emerge with the late 80s advent of Gangsta Rap, albeit spelt Nigga; the plural was evident in Niggaz With Attitude. Reborn as the exclusive property of American blacks, Nigga was noun, insult and term of endearment rolled into one, though when appropriated by white kids aping black style and attitude, it still sounded wrong.
So overly sensitive are the white powers-that-be to what they cautiously refer to as the N Word, any use of it in books such as ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ has provoked rewritten editions with the offending word excised, despite the fact that Mark Twain’s masterpiece is one of the acknowledged Great American Novels and its language is utterly authentic. How can Americans condemn ISIS if the fanatical radicals attempt to eradicate ancient relics representing idolatry in Islam when they themselves are quite content to butcher their own artistic legacy? They become apoplectic when it appears in contemporary movies attempting to recreate the past with accuracy; but to pretend it never existed is to effectively erase the Civil Rights era from history, as the word itself became taboo because of the Civil Rights movement.
Mind you, we’re all familiar enough with the British branch of the Ministry of Truth’s tactics, so expect Nigger and its variations to vanish from all future incarnations of classic texts. When John Lennon released ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ in 1972 – missing from most Lennon ‘best of’ collections, curiously – he appeared on US TV’s Dick Cavett chat show to explain his employment of the word, and he quoted black American congressman Ron Dellums. It’s as good a definition of the word that there is…
‘If you define niggers as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is 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.’
And on our now-customary lighter note…