I have big plans for Black History Month, y’all. I’m a history nerd regardless, so I’ve been saving up lots of material for February. (Text and audio in particular.)
I might encourage you to invite your children to read my Black History posts... except for, ummmm, ya know, the bad language. I don’t want any kids being corrupted by my silliness. So maybe not.
Speaking of bad language, I must warn those of you who hate seeing the N-word in print... this post is all about that word. So if you’d rather not read it, I’ll understand.
Now, my favorite reference book of all time is the authoritative “Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang”... a project so massive, they haven’t got past the letter “O.”
The thing about “nigger” is, it wasn’t used merely to refer to human beings. “Nigger” worked itself into the American vernacular in lots of ways, to describe everything from flowers and foods (like the nuts pictured above; you know what them nuts used to be called, right?) to rainstorms and fireworks.
It’s part of the cultural history of the United States, so why ignore it? Let’s study it. And not forget.
Here are some interesting examples, culled from the Random House slang dictionary:
nigger-chaser – a type of firecracker that would shoot off in several directions. The Random House dictionary cites a usage of this term as far back as 1882. And it quotes this line from Jack Conroy’s novel “The Disinherited” (1933): “The squibs were like Fourth of July nigger-chasers.”
nigger out – to back out in a cowardly fashion. In “Taking Chances” (1900), his collection of newspaper columns about the gambling life, Clarence L. Cullen wrote: “Of all the niggering out I ever saw... this is the worst.”
nigger luck – undeserved or unexpected good fortune. A once-well-known medical doctor named Rodney Glisan wrote in his 1874 memoirs (“Journal of Army Life”): “... I occasionally made him a little envious by my nigger-luck, as he is pleased to term it.”
nigger navel – a Black-Eyed Susan. According to a 1966 publication of the Indiana University Folklore Association: “Black-eyed Susans are called in Alabama by whites and coloureds, ‘Nigger Navels.’ ”
nigger toe – a Brazil nut. I heard this one from my own daddy. The slang dictionary cites journalist Robert Ruark, whose 1957 collection of magazine columns – “The Old Man and the Boy” – includes this: “The greasy, plump white Brazil nuts we called nigger-toes.” (Strange. Because it’s not the white nut-meat that earned them their nickname!)
nigger news – gossip. The Rev. J.D. Long, an opponent of slavery, wrote in 1857: “It is considered dishonorable for persons to break friendship on what is called ‘nigger news.’ ”
In the 1980s, a white journalist I worked with said that spreaders of newsroom gossip used to call themselves “the nigger network.” He laughed; I grinned.
nigger-heel molasses – 19th-Century Western vernacular for blackstrap molasses. As in Andrew Garcia’s “Tough Trip Through Paradise” (1942): “We had a quart bottle filled with black-strap or nigger-heel molasses, which was as black as tar.”
nigger in a blanket – a dessert made from raisins (or blackberries) rolled in pastry dough. In “Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West” (1944), Ramon F. Adams defined “nigger-in-a-blanket” as: “A cowboy dessert, usually made of raisins in dough.”
rain pitchforks and nigger babies – to rain heavily. For real. In W.R. Burnett’s 1940 novel “High Sierra” – which became a Humphrey Bogart movie – there is this: “It rained pitchforks and nigger babies.” And MacKinlay Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Andersonville” (1955) has it too: “It’s raining pitchforks and nigger-babies.”
I can’t top that one, so I’ll stop now.