Mind your language

Word of the Week: Does it matter who uses the N-word?

Context can be important — as is the case for the C-word

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

The BBC is to broadcast what is now referred to as the ‘C-word’ in a drama about Dylan Thomas. ‘It was in an actual letter by Dylan Thomas,’ the screenwriter Andrew Davies said at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, ‘and the word was being used in a tender and affectionate way. We won that battle.’

No doubt any word can be used in a tender and affectionate way. A fortnight ago, BBC Radio 4 devoted a whole programme to what the title called the ‘N-word’. The suggestion was made that nigger is offensive even when used by blacks. The poet Dean Atta, who had published a volume of verse called I am Nobody’s Nigger, particularly opposed black rappers using the term. ‘That’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard,’ he said. ‘So don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word.’


The Oxford English Dictionary ties itself into decorative knots in charting the connotations of the word, noting not only of whom it has been used, but also by whom. As long ago as 1949, the American folklorist Benjamin Botkin observed: ‘The Negro has taken over the objectionable word “nigger” (though not “darky”) and made it a term of praise.’ Among ‘African-Americans’, as the OED calls them, at least one meaning takes in ‘tender and affectionate’ usages. ‘Kim is my nigga, she’s just so understanding’ is an example from 1999. From 1960, before rappers were invented, came: ‘Obie, I got to be with you, you know that. You know you’re my nigger.’ But would it be so ‘tender and affectionate’ if it were ‘Kim is my bitch, she’s just so understanding’? Bitch is widely used by gangsta rappers, in a proprietary way.

Even as a synonym for ‘slave’, nigger can be taken as a badge of downtrodden pride. ‘My people [Jews] were the white man’s nigger when yours [blacks] were still painting their faces and chasing zebras,’ says Hesh Rabkin in The Sopranos. Roddy Doyle in The Commitments has a character say: ‘The Irish are the niggers of Europe.’ If you substitute the C-word for the N-word in the examples above, the tenderness and affection quotient shrinks markedly.

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  • William Haworth

    It’s OK to use it when the person you’re using it on DOESN’T want to hear it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be calling them a …

  • MikeF

    The BBC broadcast this word long ago when they did a radio adaptation of the Lady Chatterly trial. I remember it because I was driving my car at the time and quite literally the first six words I heard after I switched the radio on were the ‘F’-word uttered three times and then the ‘C’-word uttered with the same frequency. I remember thinking that the actor involved, who was playing the prosecuting consel, was obviously enjoying himself hugely.

  • rtj1211

    1. If they’ve killed thousands unnecessarily.
    2. If you caught them in bed with your wife, your girlfriend or your mother.
    3. If you caught them hacking your phone.
    4. If they are a tabloid editor.

    Just for starters.

    • dalai guevara

      Gambling away the cash, your cash, not on the list? Interesting…

  • dalai guevara

    A Conservationist is a Conservative green. I believe this went mainstream many years ago, well before someone redesigned that tree logo.

  • blindsticks

    ‘That’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard,’ he said.
    Says who –Saint Duyanne Brooks?

  • allymax bruce

    My, the masses are stupid; the elite enslave human beings as commodity, then moralise themselves as more-moral than thee, by outlawing their own slave-trade, then, the elite tell us it’s immoral to call their commodities what they used to sell them as!

    Take the ‘morality of banking’; it’s immoral for the masses to steal money from a bank, but it’s not immoral for bankers to steal money from the masses!

    Then there’s political correctness; it’s immoral for the masses to call a somebody a nigger, but it’s somehow moral for the ‘Political Correctness’ to call indigenous citizens racist in their own country …. What is it to be a ‘nigger’? What is it to use ‘context’? Is it the situation now, that the Class-enforced Political Correctness has made ‘nigger’s of all indigenous citizens in Europe? I mean, they sold us to the Lisbon treaty! They subordinate us, & our country, to an open-door immigration policy, that we don’t want, that has horrendous deleterious effects for us, and they tell us we’re bigoted, xenophobic, AND racist.
    What’s going on?
    Whose country is this anyway?
    Why do we allow the Class System, an Aristocratic bourgeois throw-back to Feudal-serfdom times, to abuse us this way? I ask again, ‘who are the ‘niggers’ now’?

  • Ricky Strong

    A transcript between Jay-Z and Oprah…

    Oprah: I was once at a Jay Z concert, and there was a moment when everybody–including white people–was screaming the N word. I gotta tell you, it didn’t make me feel good.

    Jay Z: That’s understandable.

    Oprah: But it didn’t seem to affect you. You were having a good time up there onstage.

    Jay Z: I believe that a speaker’s intention is what gives a word its power. And if we eliminate the N word, other words would just take its place. …

  • Eddie

    The BBC has used the C word before in dramas – in the 90s there was a film about Mosely, and the last word was from a prison officer who called him a C.
    Re the N word – well, yes, context is all. But best no-one uses it in my view.
    Funny though, any type of swearing or sexual reference on TV now seems accepted and even mild. But use a racial word, even in a comic context, and all hell breaks loose. I LOVE It ain’t half hot mum – sadly now banned by the puritanical pc beeb. I also loved Del Boys joke about a P— corner shop being open even after a nuclear war! How pompous our moral superiors can be eh?

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