The Most Dangerous Word in English: The N Word

This article is by Sila. She lives in Barcelona, Spain where she teaches English and does translation work. Sila lived in England for five years where she realized that most Spanish speakers’ level of English is very poor, and having struggled with English herself, she wanted to help solve this problem. Her blog (Aprende Inglés-Sila) aims to make learning English funpractical, and entertaining. For more information, check out Sila’s awesome blog!

Si quieres leer este artículo en español, pincha aquí.

I’m going to talk to you about a word that is very tabu. Yes, it is one of those words that YOU CANNOT SAY because it is politically incorrect. I’m going to explain just a little bit about a word that few English speakers even dare to pronounce (very few even dare to think it!!)

The word is so prohibited that it is referred to for its first letter: “The N Word.” They don’t even dare to pronounce the word that starts with “N,” and this is why they call it “the N Word.”

Many of you will have come to the conclusion that I’m referring to the word, “nigger,” Ohhhhhh… I’ve said it! Throw me in jail!

Yes, in English, this word is totally forbidden, above all in the USA. In the UK it sounds terrible, but not as much as in the United States. In America, I believe they can even turn you in for racism for just mentioning this word.

But this is an English learning blog, and we’re going to go for it (to risk everything), to learn everything about it, from the politically corrrect to the forbidden, because, what good is it to teach you guys English if I can’t immerse myself in the culture of English speakers?

The N Word

The famous  “N WORD” means “NIGGER,” a racist epithet that refers to black people. “Nigger” translates to something like “Preto” in Portuguese, but with a much more offensive connotation. In Spanish, it translates to “Negro de m****” (remember that I’m just teaching English).

IMPORTANT NOTE: Because they seem similar, Portuguese and Spanish speakers often INCORRECTLY translate “negro” for “nigger.” In reality “nigger” has nothing to do with color. In other words, outside of this racist, derrogatory term used by black people and against black people, this word doesn’t exist. The word “negro” in Portuguese and Spanish means black, NOT “nigger.”

This word is prohibited. Do not say it. Don’t even think about saying it out loud! If you say it, you are a bad person and a racist, above all in the USA. And no wonder! This word has been used for years to abuse and ridicule the people that had the darkest skin.

Why is it worse in the United States?

Okay (and this is just a personal opinion), but I think that the reason for this is because of the history of slavery in the United States and their feeling of guilt. Americans are scared shitless of calling blacks “niggers” because their ancestors did it for so much time and such terrible consequences that I wouldn’t even dare either.

For the entire history of slavery (which was abolished in 1863), blacks worked in sugar fields, as servants, as slaves, etc… they were called “niggers”… and, therefore, in for shame of its own history, many people don’t even dare to pronounce that word… it shows them who their ancestors were. Right?

What’s the Real Problem?

The problem is that literature flows out of history. Thousands of writers have written works of art in which the word “nigger” was a term of normal daily use, and this is why it has been reflected in the texts.

Take Mark Twain as an example and his Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. “Nigger” was a word that was used in the corresponding era without any problem. But the times have changed and they have taught people that just by saying this word, they will go to hell.

The Consequences

The consequences of this are many. On the one hand, we no longer say the word that can hurt the feelings of many people, and it’s obvious, therefore, that to erase a word we get an overall benefit: we don’t hurt people. But there is a huge downside that is very apparent:

As George Santayana said:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

In wanting to erase the past, we don’t confront what we did (what our ancestors did), what we fucked up and how we can make sure it DOESN’T happen again (remember the holocaust).

And What About Literature?

On the other hand, this is literature. Did you know that Huckeleberry Finn, a masterpiece wherever it’s been, has been banned in a small number of American high schools.

Why? Simply because it contains the “N Word,” the cursed word, and just because of this students can’t read the original language of genius of Mark Twain.


Literature vs Political Correctness

It may be that to some it seems like nonsense, but what comes first, literature or political correctness? I opened a debate on this topic here.

There are many people that have thought about this, and among them there is an editor named Allan Gribben that has edited Twain’s book.

Do you know what he’s done?

He has replaced all instances of the word “nigger” (219 times) for the word “slave.”

I’ll explain it to you: he has replaced all instances of the word “Nigger” for “Slaves.” He thought it was better to call them slaves than “Niggers.” I swear that I’m not making this up. Look at this: Huckleberry Finn loses the ‘nigger’ he loves, thanks to a publisher’s ethnic cleansing.

Why has it been done?

Very simply, to avoid the forbidden word and substitute it for a word that isn’t tabu (in other words, “slave” is not tabu, but “nigger” is) and therefore…. it sells more books to the schools that have banned the book!! (money, money)

If you want to know more about this controversy that erupted with the reissue of the book, don’t miss the following CBS video/documentary (it’s only about 12 minutos).

The video perfectly explains the reason for the controversy.  Is the word, “Nigger” offensive in itself or does it have to do with racism?  I prefer the professor’s words:

  • “If you replace “ N word,” it’s no longer Huckleberry Finn.” It’s a different book.

And what does this wonderful argument that refers to replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” in the book?

  • “To be a slave is a condition. Anybody can be a slave and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Nigger has to do with shame. Calling someone ‘nigger’ is what made slavery posible.”

Huckleberry Finn and the N word

What do I want to tell you with this whole mess?

1) Don’t use this word in the USA.

2) It is not politically correct.

3) Literature can’t be manipulated. If a book was written 200 years ago, when slavery officially existed, leave it as it is. Don’t try to change history. What we did in the past is what is still reflected. If we try to change and be deny it, it’s a sign that we aren’t capable of advancing.

Buuuuf!! Now I’ve vented!

See you around!!

Return from The Most Dangerous Word in the English Language: The N Word to the RLE Articles Page

  • very nice, everday is good see a few of culture.

  • Bebby Skidoosh says:

    Nigger stands for Nigga right? I've seen many native speakers posting status saying NIgga all over facebook and twitter.

    • Justin says:

      Hey Bebby, Thanks for your comment. Just because people use it on facebook doesn’t mean they don’t sound ignorant to somebody who knows what it means. There’s no safe way to use it.

  • NOh says:

    Yo I am black well brown really, I also want to ask you a question?
    Are youblack too?

    • Justin says:

      Hey Noh, I’m not black. Sila, the person who wrote this article is not black either. I believe she’s from Spain. Just out of curiosity, where are you from, and what are you thoughts on this article?

  • James says:

    yeahhh this didn’t age well. The Louis CK bit was the icing on top of this racist sh*t pie.

    You know that the word is demeaning and harmful and triggers past wounds, and yet knowingly write it a thousand times in one article? You’re normalizing the word when you have no right to. It’s not your word. It’s not for you to ever say or use. You clearly know nothing about the word or its history. You clearly haven’t listened to what black people have to say about it before deciding you get a free pass and have the ultimate say on when and where it can or can’t be used.

    It’s not about “hurting feelings.” It’s about the dangers of dehumanizing whole groups of people. It’s about respecting what black people want to be called. It’s about listening to others before forming conclusions. You’re not the expert on this topic and you need to listen to black people about it before you spout off.

    • Justin says:

      Hey James, Thanks reading and commenting, serving as a real-life example of how powerful and offensive this word can be. I didn’t write this (it was a guest post) and I definitely would have written it differently- the woman who wrote this gave her outside opinion (she’s Spanish, not American), and in my opinion, a bit loose and insensitive with some of her ideas. I don’t agree with her, but I also think differently than you, which is why we’ve left it up. We definitely should be aware of historical factors, but we should also take into account the emotions and intent behind the word, and I’m not a big fan of social justice warriors. But really, I’m not too concerned about that, because we’re here to teach English- the way it’s used in the real world, and unfortunately, there are a lot of Spanish and Portuguese speakers innocently using the word “Nigger” without any intention to offend, but end up looking really silly because they have no idea about any of this. They’re translating the word “Negro” to “Nigger,” and are not aware about the context or the cultural conversation going on here. Anyway, thanks for helping illuminate the conversation with your perspective!

  • Oscar says:

    Excellent article , thanks to my techer Collins by share

  • Loretta says:

    I just googled “Why is the N word forbidden” and I still can’t get my head around it. First of all, thank you for a great article. Second, you are indeed very brave. Third, my ancestors have been hung, beheaded and impaled upon stakes by the Turks. Yes, there are some bad words for Turks in my language and vice versa. Yet, noone is getting “canceled” for uttering them publicly, say, on TV. We are aware of the history and all the bad things that were, but life goes on. We go on summer vacations to Turkey. It’s sad to see the U.S. become a country in which there are so many loaded words that you can’t even say “blackboard” without the fear of committing a mortal sin.

    • Agnieszka from RealLife English says:

      Thank you for sharing it Loretta. In RealLife English we decided to focus on what connects us, not what divides.

  • Jon says:

    We can’t discuss, think about the world (and if necessary change it) – and especially do this in another language – without having the relevant words available. And I mean understanding it from all perspectives, experiences and sensitivities; using a euphemism (“the X/Y/Z-word”) requires the use of the word itself to understand what the euphemism means.

    If the current state of mind about such matters continues, we’re going to have to rewrite a lot of past literature – and doubtless rewrite a lot of today’s literature in the future. Studying literature – and a language – should always be taught alongside its cultural context and history; then we educate a critical mind, rather than a (different kind of *) slave (* “A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.” [Lexico/Oxford Dictionaries])

  • Jorge says:

    Saying the word nigger isn’t a problem. There are plenty of white niggers. And sometimes you run into a Mexican that wants to act like a nigger.
    The people who are Offended are the ones who call people njggers.
    Ask yourself is this a bad WORD…… NO……..

  • Mike says:

    Please don’t teach anyone anything about American history. This article reads like a high school essay written at the midnight hour.

    • Agnieszka from RealLife English says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Mike!