Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

The n-word is not nuclear, but the fallout is just as deadly

Once upon a time the most repulsive word in English was f*ck. Now it’s a misspelt brand of clothing.

Then there is the c-word. That lost some of its kick-ass taboo when spoken in a film by a masked character played by an 11 year old girl.

But there is one word that is off-limits to white people. It is the n-word or words: n*gger and n*gga. They are considered by many to be the most controversial and offensive two syllable words uttered in the English language today.

But first, a little history: The words originate from the Latin niger which means black and then became synonymous with the violence and horrors of slavery and racism.

Utterance of this word by a middle-aged, non-black person is akin to immediate loss of all rights; Do not pass go. Go directly to jail.

In French, a similar term is negre; perjorative, but still in relatively common usage. 

In the USA and the UK especially, the n-word is enshrouded in taboo and double bubble-wrap protected by a vigilant political correctness. We are now used to watching highly emotional and very public mea culpas.  They have become a gripping genre of confessional video, along with I want to apologise to my wife and my children for my unforgivable indiscretions…

Recent apologists include US celebrity chef Paula Deen, and the UK host of TV motoring show Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson, who mumbled the word in the context of a well known children’s rhyme Eeny, meeny, miny, moe... This is how the news broke. And this is his excruciatingly uncomfortable apology.

Others that have fallen foul of the term, despite layers of celeb and street credibility, are Madonna  who used the word  as a term of endearment to describe her son, and Gywneth Paltrow who used the word in a tweet, as a quote from a song to talk about her friend Jay-Z, the hip-hip artist and other half of Beyoncé.

Compare these events to 1972 when ex-Beatle John Lennon released the song Woman is the Nigger of the World and Lennon spoke and sang the n-word on US prime-time television, The Dick Cavett Show.

Lennon then quoted popular US black politician Ron Dellums: “If you define ‘nigger’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is that you don’t have to be black to be a nigger in this society. Most of the people in America are niggers.”

Today the word is being purged from history. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the great American novels, has had the word nigger and injun removed as they are considered unacceptable in the ‘new classroom’. Not everyone agrees with this sanitisation of language and literature.

Generally, mainstream media has become so sensitive and politically rigid about the n-word that it implodes at almost every mention. The most meaningful discussion is in comedy, a format best suited to exploring taboos. But a warning: explicit and funny language.

Louis CK explains why he is offended by the ‘the n-word’?

Chris Rock asks: Can white people say n*gger?

What seems clear is that the word cannot be used by a white person unless he or she is alone and lost in the middle of an extremely large desert and has an undeniable urge to silently lip-synch their favourite rap/hip hop song.

But there are more than a few different schools of thought among black Americans on the usage of the word.

Jay-Z and the queen of US television Opray Winfrey agree to disagree on the usage of the word. One wants to own it and the other wants to ban it.

The Urban Dictionary offers a glimpse of the complexity and confusion associated with these words: It has 475 definitions of the word n*gger (some extremely racist). They include:

- a word that everyone else is afraid to define except in utter seriousness, for fear of being branded a racist, in total ignorance of the colloquial usage of the word, its characterization in popular culture, and the populations of people it is used most by.

- a term that is racist, as long as the speaker of it is not black. Forbidden on most all of television and other forms of public entertainment, at times referenced to as the "n-word".

- a nigger is to black person as a redneck is to white person. (Here’s Chris Rock again on  Black people versus Niggaz)

There are 62 definitions of the word n*gga including:

- a word which evolved from the derogative term "nigger". Tupac best defined the distinction between the two. Nigger: a black man with a slavery chain around his neck. Nigga: a black man with a gold chain on his neck.

- a word a white person can NEVER say while a black person is present or they will be beat up. But they say it with fellow white people.

- slang term for homie, friend, buddy, etc., used primarily by African-Americans but has spread to other races as well.

One genre that escapes any kind of n-word censorship is music, especially gangsta rap and hip hop. Mainstream artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Nick Minaj  and YG use the word n-word prolifically.  But they pale in comparison with the track Nigga Nigga Nigga by Gangsta Rap. It takes the cake with an average of more than 50 n*ggas per minute.
























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