The History Of The N-Word

Ep 1/1

Saturday 21 June



Ellah Allfrey looks at the evolution of the N-word from the mispronunciation of the Spanish "negro" through to its subsequent re-appropriation in rap and hip-hop culture.

There are some words in English that are so controversial that they are shortened to a single letter lest they cause offence. Perhaps the most inflammatory is the N-word. The proxy barely disguises the racial insult, ‘nigger’, which has topped lists of ugly and hateful words since it was first uttered in the 17th century. It has regularly wounded black people, its target, down the ages. When, for instance, the African-American boxer, Muhammad Ali, was asked why he resisted the draft in the Vietnam War, he is alleged to have said: ‘No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.’

Allfrey illuminates how and why the capitalised ‘Negro’ became the more acceptable version of the word in the 1920s (the landmark adoption of ‘Negro’ by the New York Times was in 1930), through to the subsequent re-appropriation of the N-word in rap and hip-hop culture. But even when coming from the mouths of black people, the N-word continues to cause offence. There have been calls for the word to be banned. But is this possible or desirable?

Presenter/ Ellah Allfrey, Producer/ Colin Grant for the BBC


BBC Radio 4 Publicity