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"WORD is but wind," wrote the Chaucerian poet John Lydgate. "Leave words and take the deed." But a single word did as much as anything to acquit OJ Simpson of murder. Did Detective Mark Fuhrman use it? If so he must have been prejudiced against the accused.

is not in the 1980 Oxford American Dictionary and is not recognised by the spellchecker in my American computer software, which asks me whether I didn't mean niggler, or nagger, or perhaps nudge. Some high school editions of Huckleberry Finn have long banished it from its pages, so that "a nigger woman" becomes "one of the servants". This may be understandable, but it distorts history: after all, negro slaves in Huck's day used the word themselves ("Out of the way, you niggers," says Aunt Chloe to her children in Uncle Tom's Cabin), if only because it was a word their masters used. Today blacks alone are allowed it, just as none but the disabled may speak of cripples.

When Huck talked of niggers he was not being rude, any more than it was rude to call a cat a cat. was a term of contempt only among those who consciously classed blacks, like cats or dogs, as inferior beings; but then most whites did. The word had come straight from niger, the Latin for black. Roman poets used it unfavourably of dark-haired girls, preferring them to be candidae, or blondes, such beauties being rarer. In English, black was often bad. Blake's little negro boy protests that though he is black his soul is white. We are more enlightened now, and to call a person black is no insult, at least outside the PC movement: why should it be? , on the other hand, can never be detached from its associations with slavery, and will always be a nasty word.

Nicholas Bagnall

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