Thursday, January 31, 2008

That versatile N-word

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.


Cal said...

I bought the A-H part of this reference book years ago, cause I know they were working on finishing the rest at that time.

So, I haven't seen parts 2 and 3.

Do they have this one: "nigger-rigged"?

When I worked in Dallas in the late '80s, an older black guy told me that white people used the term "nigger-rigged" to mean something that was jerry-rigged to make work.
He said he overheard some white co-workers using that term, so one time he was talking about fixing something and he told them he nigger-rigged it. Needless to say, they were speechless. It might be a Texas thing, because I haven't heard it anywhere else.

Undercover Black Man said...

Yep, that's in there, Cal.

Vol. 2 of the slang dictionary came out in 1997... and I've been waiting ever since for "P-Z." How much time could it possibly take to finish??

(By the way: Best bathroom books of all time! Kind of hard to handle... but something fascinating on every page.)

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Dave, I'm coming back to this but you helped cement an idea I was twirling in my head for the theme of my next piece for The Wire.

BTW, Black History Month screams for some Stakes Be High. I know it's your turn. So hit me on the email with your thoughts.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ I haven't been in a scrappin' mood lately, DeAng. I don't know what it is...

Invisible Woman said...

Nigger News! haha...sadly I am addicted.

I used to hear the term "Nigger" Toe for the Brazil nut when I was a kid too. And never thought twice about it....ahhh...the blissful ignorance of childhood...

Anonymous said...

I remember being MORTIFIED one Thanksgiving when my grandmother announced that she had been 'nigger-buying' all week, running from store to store, buying just one item at each one.

Hearing smiling, racist slang from an upperclass white septuagenarian was a little much. I'd love to say that I stood up and said "I will not tolerate that word!" and stormed out or something, but mostly I just let the awkwardness of the comment hang in the air for awhile as I munched my tubers.

Anonymous said...

For a real eye-opener, try entering the N-word into Google Patent Search. A variety of machines from before the Civil Rights Movement make use of:

- A pivoting "nigger-bar"
- A "saw log nigger"
- A "traveling nigger for sawmills"

Anonymous said...

You have got to love America.

Anonymous said...

Nigger rich. I think I learned this word on Def Comedy Jam or some such.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I'm not too sure how well this ties in with today's post but it's worth mentioning.

Of course there is the Agatha Christie novel from 1939 which is now known as And The There Were None, which is arguably the most popular mystery novel of all time. It was adapted and called Ten Little Indians with a tie-in version of the novel sharing the same name. But the original title of the British version in 1939 was Ten Little Niggers, and in the UK all editions carried this title until the 1980's.

More information can be found at Wiki (and other places)

"The novel was originally published in Britain under the title Ten Little Niggers in 1939.[1][4] All references to "Indian" in the story were originally "Nigger": thus the island was called "Nigger Island" [1] rather than "Indian Island" and the rhyme found by each murder victim was also called Ten Little Niggers [1] rather than Ten Little Indians. Modern printings use the rhyme Ten Little Soldiers and "Soldier Island"."

Dollar Bill said...

This movie played last Saturday on our equal to PBS,TVO.

The Dam Busters(1955)

They re-dubbed later versions of the film,but this was the original print.

I just had it on in the background,but my ears perrked up and my jaw dropped when the hero calls his dog for the first time.

He really likes calling his dog in that movie.

From what I hear it was a very popular name for black dogs.

I've heard Nigger used to describe color before,paticularly in South America,but it never fails to jolt me regardless of it's useage.

Just surprised no one has sampled it yet.

The Stepfather of Soul said...

When I was a kid people referred to chocolate drops, not Brazil nuts, as "nigger toes" (or, in my mom's hometown, "nigger tits") - my wife was mortified when she learned that black people used those terms for the candy! As for the British use of the word, one of my e-mail correspondents told me how her elderly mother, picking out an outfit to wear to church, said that she would wear a "nigger brown" suit (apparently, there was a color to that effect)!

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Thanks, Stepfather.

I. Love. These.

Keep 'em coming, folks!

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of what I posted earlier--racist steam technology!


Chancey Lamb of Clinton, Iowa


To all whom it may concern,
Be it known that I, Chancey Lamb [...] have invented certain new and useful Improvements in "Nigger-Engines."

Undercover Black Man said...

Well done, John G. Who knew that 19th-Century patent applications could be interesting?

bklyn6 said...

I LOVE Brazil nuts. But, that's definitely not what I heard them called when I was growing up! :-(

Unknown said...

In Baltimore, it was the movie candy, Sugar Babies, that were called "nigger toes."

Outside of that, where I've been it was not brazil nuts but filberts (aka hazelnuts) that were called nigger toes.

It's fucked up, but given the lighter circular top at the head of a filbert which resembles a nail - damn if it don't kinda make sense.

bklyn6 said...

Maybe this is somewhat revelant.

I took a class a few years ago in which the assignment was to write about some aspect of 19th century life.

So I went to the NY Historical Society. There was an exhibit called "The Games We Played" featuring US board and table games. The games that REALLY caught my eye were the racist ones like a jigsaw puzzle called "Chopped Up Niggers." There were others, but I don't remember the names.

Them Gilded Age mofos had waaaaay too much time on their hands!

I want to buy the book , but I'm guessing the racist games will be omitted.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Bklyn6, I worship your linking skills! That puzzle is incredible.

Anonymous said...

You know the old nickname for seedless watermelons? My late mother-in-law, an Italian-American in New York, once in the Eighties purportedly asked an African American gentlemen working in the produce section of a supermarket in Queens where she could find the "niggerhead watermelons." I am told he politely pointed them out to her, while my father-in-law walked away in embarrassment. I've found that New Yorkers seem a lot more comfortable expressing racial language about other groups (these days it's Muslims and Arabs) than I'm used to.

Here are some images of the cover of Agatha Christie's book: first edition in the UK from 1939 (dig the little figures on the cover), 1940 edition from Pan (with another statue), 1974 French edition, 1976 edition from Fontana Books (with a lynching theme).

Undercover Black Man said...

Fabulous, Pop View! Now... that little doll swinging from a rope in the last one... there's a name for those dolls. Do you know what it is? (If you were British, you'd know in a heartbeat.)

Anonymous said...

There's a type of pan dulce that's referred to as "nigger heads" (cabezas de negritos, I think). I once asked the girl at the panaderia I frequent if they had another name, and she giggled in embarrassment and said, "No."

A long time ago in another life, I was taking sax lessons from an old white jazz musician. One day, while teaching me to blow "dirty sax," he told me I had to "nigger lip" it. I looked at him in shock, and he calmly explained that's what his black musician friends called it.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Remember 15 years or so when Ted Danson got in trouble for his blackface routine during a Whoopi Goldberg roast? (They were a couple.)

One of Danson's lines was "Don't nigger-lip it." That phrase is in the Random House slang dictionary, by the way. Truman Capote used it in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Grant Barrett said...

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang was taken over from Random House by Oxford University Press in 2003. Work continued on the dictionary for three years and then OUP stopped all production on the dictionary indefinitely. It is unknown if, or ever, the project will be completed. I write as a former editor on the project.

Undercover Black Man said...


How could they stop in the middle? It's absolutely the coolest reference book ever! I've given it as a gift!

I very much appreciate your finding this post and commenting, Mr. Barrett. But your news breaks my heart.

But I tip my hat for the work you put in.

Anonymous said...

Is the 'nigger lip' expression not that universal? I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior (on the Canadian side no less) and that was a very common expression when youths would be sharing a herbal cigarette. Or so I've been told.

Anonymous said...

^I'd heard the term before, but I couldn't believe my sax teacher was using it in such a matter-of-fact way. Not in a racist context, either, just as a musical term. It was kind of weird.