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The N word

Time and a generation is heralding a changed meaning

William Covington | 9/12/2013, midnight

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Gwyneth Paltrow & Jay-Z

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H. Rap Brown book cover

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Richard Pryor comedy album cover “That Ni***r’s Crazy”

Nearly two weeks ago a federal jury in New York ruled that Rob Carmona, who identifies as Black and Hispanic and STRIVE, the nonprofit employment agency he co-founded, must pay punitive damages to African American employee, Brandi Johnson.

STRIVE, the non-profit employment center where she worked, was a hostile workplace according to Johnson, who claims she had to endure verbal harassment while working under the management of Carmona. The employment center in East Harlem argued that the use of the word was part of a “tough-love culture.”

The jury ruled that Carmona must pay $25,000 and his non-profit organization must pay $5,000 in punitive damages. Jurors also awarded $280,000 in compensatory damages to Johnson, 38, who sued Carmona personally and STRIVE, which he founded in 1984 and described as a “empowerment movement disguised as an employment agency.”

According to anti-racist expert Tim Wis, usage of the N-word among Blacks is very common, and to younger African Americans is an affirmation of Blackness. In fact, some argue that public usage of the word and its derivations has become widely acceptable.

At the same time, old-guard civil rights-minded African Americans and their supporters remain ever watchful of usage of the N-word and continue to call out those who utter it.

Known today as possibly one of the most visceral and offensive words in the English language, the origin of the N-word cannot be exactly pinpointed by scholars.

To understand the history of the word, one must venture back to a time between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Blacks were widely portrayed as subhuman. Some scholars believe a variation of the word was first printed in 1555 in an old world Spanish version of a publication similar to today’s National Geographic magazine.

Etymologists fail to agree on an exact time period that the N-word was born, however they believe it originates from the root word “nigrum,” a Latin term meaning black. The N-word has undergone changes in spelling becoming niger, negro, noir, nègre, and n*er.

Others often incorrectly associate it with the Biblical term “niggardly” and believe it originated around the year 30 A.D.

The word “niggardly” appears in 2 Corinthians—“But do not forget that he who sows with a niggardly hand will also reap a niggardly crop, and that he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” According to theological behavior expert Wendy Walsh, this usage has nothing to do with race.

In the 2004 documentary “The N Word,” actor Samuel Jackson reiterates that he is a “N*a.” After repeating this several times, he laughs and says, “I am one of those guys you really don’t want to mess with.” He also informs the interviewer that “if you piss me off, I am going to do some niggerly shit to you.”

Niggerly is often confused with niggardly.

The racial order that exists today in the United States originated during the introduction of slavery and continued through the Jim Crow period. However, eventually the Civil Rights Movement peacefully challenged the White-Black hierarchy. After that, the word n*er was used publicly primarily for social and historical commentary in such examples of literature as Dick Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger” or H. Rap Brown’s book, “Die Nigger Die.”