The Definition of Nigger, Niggle, Niggly

I love words. I love writing words. I love reading words. I love hearing words. I have a new WordPunk blog that deals with “words in the wilds.” The power of words is in their definition. Words have meanings only because they are shared in context and understood between people. Dictionaries help bridge the fuzzy confusion between definition and meaning. Imagine, then, my delight and horror in receiving this email from a university professor friend of mine:

Word came down from above that we are no longer allowed to use “niggle” or “niggly” or any variety thereof in writing or speaking with students because “they sound and look too much like that other word” (the N-word) and we don’t “want to upset the student body.” I thought they were joking at first until I also saw a warning against using “spook” in class, too.

Ah! Censorship in the classroom posing as social responsibility! Doesn’t it just make your skin crawl that university students are viewed by their administrators as too stupid to learn and too ignorant to ever know the true definitions of words?

What are we protecting them from by banning certain words: Poor reading and listening skills? Is this new policy what the Jena 6 have wrought? Is this the real lesson in the lynching of Black children? Have we finally found the aftereffect of Isiah Thomas’ Black bitches?

We have used the word “Nigger” here in various forms and consequences and the most famous instance is my “Nigger Tax” article. We use real words with real — perhaps even unpopular — meanings here because those words are accurate and definite even if they stab and wound. Our intention is never to hurt.

We only wish to provide a forum for analysis and a community well for the discussion of unpopular and uncomfortable topics. So let’s do the right thing and crack open the Merriam-Webster dictionary to learn the truth of these words in context and their use in American colloquial speech. Let’s start with “Niggle:”

“Niggle” has no racial implication or inference. It is “Niggle’s” fault that some people see or hear “Nigger” when that word is written or spoken?

Is this censorship a matter of political correctness or one of the misbegotten elementary need to appear protective? Here’s the definition of “Niggly” and it sends you to “Niggling” for more definition:

Now let’s hold our breath and cross our fingers and type “Nigger” into Merriam-Webster — not a simple feat — to see the real definition of what has become a denigrated and caustic word that now bothers other non-related words:

There are five definitions for the main “Nigger” entry, but only the first one relates to Race and skin color.

Now let’s look at all the other Merriam-Webster definitions of words that include the word “Nigger” — they’re listed in the sidebar when you search on “Nigger” via their online portal — to see the context and meaning of those word throughout the history of American culture:

Are all of those definitions variations on a “Nigger” degradation?

Should those words be added to the “Do Not Speak or Say” mandate at all universities colleges and high schools?

Do we forbid words from being employed in everyday usage because they may look and sound and even feel like other words some do not like?

Now let’s take a look at the word “Spook” and its meaning in definition:

Do we ban the use of “Spook” because of its fourth definition?

If we refuse to allow “Spook” to be written or spoken in any context — can “Spoof” and “Spoke” be far behind as banned collateral damage along with “Niggle” and “Niggly?”

34 comments

  • How ridiculous …………
    Over int he UK – “Nigger in the woodpile” is the most common use .
    They will be banning Nicorette smoking patches next as that can sound like Niggerette ……….
    And as for banning the use of the word *Spook* that is even more ridiculous ………
    Talk about destroying language – we will all be talking grey soon.

    • finally a person finds the original meaning of nigger.I was sick of people thinking nigger is a black person.It also means an ignorant person.

  • Nicola!
    Yes, this movement towards political correctness in speech and writing brings a dangerous blandness to the language and our history of using it in everyday reference.
    I think the “spook” policy was alarmingly inspired by Philip Roth’s fictional book, “The Human Stain” and here’s an excerpt:

    The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”
    Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he’d publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman told the dean, “I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn’t that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That’s all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: ‘spook’ as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that ‘spooks’ is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of work. What’s galling is that the charge is not just false—it is spectacularly false.” Having said altogether enough in his defense, considering the matter closed, he left for home.

    http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/excerpts/2003-09-05-human-stain_x.htm
    It is a troubling thought when stories written in fictional books by great Authors become a forced reality in the classroom by administrators who fail to understand the underlying lesson of the original context.

  • So if you follow this through to it’s conclusion you have ignorance breeding more ignorance ……… at and by the hands of the educational system.
    CRAZY

  • Right, Nicola!
    The ignorant perpetuate ignorance.
    That’s what happens when these kind internal, unofficial, memos that are spewed out daily by institutions of higher learning are made the policy of the day.
    These crazy ideas are expected to be enacted even though they are not official university policy.

  • Unofficial policy often carries more clout that official policy too.

  • Social responsibility!?! Since when can social responsibility be defined as fearfully avoiding any word, phrase or bit rhetoric that might offend someone? This “Political Correctness” must never be misconstrued with any form of responsible behavior!
    On a funnier note, it’s going to mess up geography. No more Nigeria. No more Niger river. LOL!

  • Nicola!
    Yes, that’s right! Unofficial policy is also much harsher because it can be revoked at any time if too much heat comes down. The trick is to keep it all spoken and unrecorded and you have individual meetings with people to propagate the policy to deter the power of groups.

  • jonolan!
    Ha! I think we’re in for a world of hurt when we protect people from unpopular ideas and hateful thoughts. Most people I know, when faced with a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing, will do the right thing — and I think that also translate to the common use of language. Banning bad words doesn’t make them go away — it just helps protect them as they move to underground usage.
    You’re “Niger” reference is especially interesting — Merriam-Websters defines its first usage as a modification of “Negro” — and it’s so funny how, lately, the mainstream TV news organizations now make a special effort to slowly and methodically pronounce “Niger” as “Neee-sheer” instead of “Ny-jur” as we ordinary human beings have pronounced it all our lives.

  • The Roth story has its own reality. People think it reAlly happened.

  • I’m finding that out as well, Anne, and it’s always in a quiet whisper… “did you hear about the guy who called the Black students ‘spooks’ in class”… to foment outrage in an event that didn’t even happen!

  • It is a whispering campaign from students mostly because as Roth writes students are quick to blame.

  • Anne –
    It amazes me how myths become legends and when fiction turns into reality merely by believing, inference, re-telling and swearing on the truth of an imaginary matter.
    That’s why scholarship demands proof beyond the self. Critical analysis also provides an opportunities for claims to be reasonably and put to the test of public inspection.

  • Hi David,
    It’s dangerous when the administrators try to be the moral guardian and decide what the society will be exposed to.
    The political correctness will cripple us one day if not properly dealt.

  • Hi Katha!
    Administrators are all about neutrality and getting along — because if there’s trouble, they have to deal with it. So it’s better for them to keep everything calm and vanilla and non-challenging.
    What’s good for an administrator, however, is terrible for helping for the mind of young people. To “round off” minds instead of sharpening them with lots of various points is what dulls us into a dangerous complacency.
    Oh, and the fact that Roth’s “The Human Stain” was a movie starring Anthony Hopkins gives it even more “reality” because people who know better can, in fact, say… “Did you hear about the professor that called a Black student a ‘spook’ in class?”… that’s when fiction becomes reality and facts and the truth are irreversibly blurred.

  • My daughter was suspended from school over the word nigler. I have tried to fight it but the superindendant of the school district won’t hear of it. It was taken directly from a Harry Potter book she said. The school stated it sounded just like nigger. I tried in vain to explain it to them, they will have nothing to do with me, help

    • Maurice D. Adams

      You should get an attorney because daughter did not say nigger. There is a difference and the school just wants to cover there tail from civil law suit. Fight it.

  • I don’t understand the problem, Heidi.
    What was the context your daughter used the word?
    What is the school district?
    Do you have an attorney?

  • Maurice D. Adams

    The word nigger in 1985 dictionary when I was growing up defined
    nigger the following : savage, unintelligent.
    Since then people have made this word popular so they change it true meaning. I dont like sensorship because it hides the truth, but that does not mean I have to accept that word or that persons conversation. The definitions you see now are add ons to make it more acceptable to use. No one should every be called this word even in casual converasation.

  • In response to John Lennons song “Woman is the Nigger of the World” many prominent Black Americans spoke out in defense of the song including stand up comedian Dick Gregory and co-founder and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ron Dellums. Dellums issued a statement saying:

    “If you define ‘niggers’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are 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’.”

    No racial intent, just the facts that ALL are defined by others!
    (Google the song title above for more info.)

  • Pingback: Taking the Nigger Out of Jim | Scientific Aesthetic

  • It’s depressing to see how the administrator of an educational facility can limit the use of seemingly harmless words (when used in correct context). How can they ban words that have no affiliation to the need-be censored word: Niggle? How does that coincide with Nigger? In what ways are those two words the same, other than the slight similarity in spelling. It’s also a shame that people resort to censorship, and definition changing to cope with society. Since when did the definition of “Nigger” become hostile towards one race, one color? I’ve always thought it meant an IGNORANT person, not a BLACK person, how can administration tell us otherwise? Gah, there’s so many questions, and so little answers, it amazes me at how uneducated this generation is. I’m only 16, so pardon me for the misuse of words (if there are any).

  • Pingback: The Negro in Eastern Europe | Boles University Blog

  • Pingback: The Unbearable Lightening of Beyonce | RelationShaping

  • Thank you so much for posting this. I have always taught my kids the correct definition to words. Most people who want to argue about this word and want to call it racist. I just want to take them and by them a dictionary. This shows how ignorant or government really is, and how people need to read instead of wanting to fight, argue. The word “racist” has become an overused word in today’s society. I think it’s become an excuse. I am a Native American and my ancestors were knocked down and found ways to build theirselves up again. We should all learn from them.

  • Pingback: Is Paula Deen a Racist? « Boles Blogs

  • Pingback: Harman/Kardon SoundSticks III 2.1 Channel Review | Boles Blogs

Share Your Thoughts:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s