[The following is extracted from http://www.yaelf.com/history.shtml]
The Protean N-Word
Let's turn first to etymology. Nigger is derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and niggar. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as "negars." A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved "niggor" boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as "negers." (Currently some people insist upon distinguishing nigger--which they see as exclusively an insult--from nigga, which they view as a term capable of signaling friendly salutation.) In the 1700s niger appeared in what the dictionary describes as "dignified argumentation" such as Samuel Sewall's denunciation of slavery, The Selling of Joseph. No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.
Nigger was also a standard element in Senator Huey P. Long's vocabulary, though many blacks appreciated the Louisiana Democrat's notable reluctance to indulge in race baiting. Interviewing "The Kingfish" in 1935, Roy Wilkins (working as a journalist in the days before he became a leader of the NAACP) noted that Long used the terms "nigra," "colored," and "nigger" with no apparent awareness that that last word would or should be viewed as offensive. By contrast, for Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, nigger was not simply a designation he had been taught; it was also a tool of demagoguery that he self-consciously deployed. Asked by a white constituent about "Negroes attending our schools," Talmadge happily replied, "Before God, friend, the niggers will never go to a school which is white while I am governor."
(extract from the review of "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" at the Amazon site)
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/detail/-/books/0375421726/excerpt/ref%3Dpm%5Fdp%5Fln%5Fb%5F3/002-3739659-2040853 Annotated References: Africans ... General ... Race
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