It’s amazing what you miss when something grabs your attention. Focus, and life fades into the background. Start a conversation in a crowded park and most of what you hear will be your friend’s voice. But listen to a recording of the conversation and you’ll hear 27,000 things in the background that were louder than your friend’s voice.

This phenomenon is called selective attention. We have limited brainpower; selective attention helps us tune in to what’s important while ignoring what’s unimportant. It’s essential for holding conversations in crowded parks or navigating downtown Brooklyn on the way to work, where locals like me run an obstacle course consisting of bikes, buses, and tourists meandering down the sidewalk, savoring the cityscape.

I am carrying a white cup of coffee with green lettering and my name written on it. A block away, I hear reggae playing. I tilt to squeeze between two people. A little girl is dancing with an old lady. They’re in my way. I bear left. A bus passes on my right. My head bobs. I haven’t heard this song in a while. I’m walking on a vent. I feel cold air rush out as I hear, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” I’m further down the block. The reggae is still loud enough to hear, but fades as I approach the guy selling Christian music. Someone’s cooking cabbage this early in the morning? “I got edibles.” The bus beeps. I am at the corner, preparing to turn. It’s noisy, so I don’t quite hear the word. I hear the man. I hear the scorn in his voice. I hear that scorn directed toward me.

I slow down.

My neck starts to turn.

My eyebrow starts to rise. 

* * * * * * *

I couldn’t tell you when I first learned the word nigger was supposed to upset me when a white person said it. Mom says I never asked. I knew what racist meant by the time I was 11 – I told Mom all about it. But nigger? No idea. People in my neighborhood said it often enough that I certainly learned the word as a child. But I never heard a white person use it during my childhood. Not in person, anyway. And I went to school with white kids from the age of six. 

Maybe I’m too young. After all, during his 1983 stand up routine Delirious, a 22-year old Eddie Murphy observed, “Racism ain’t as bad as it used to be anyway, man. I mean it’s fucked up, but they don’t call niggers niggers no more and shit. White people don’t say it — especially when there’s niggers around, so I guess I wouldn’t know.” But a year before Murphy told this story, further explaining that he went to the deep South “looking for racism” only to be treated well by the white people he met, Chris Rock dropped out of high school after years of being bullied by his white classmates in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood he went to school in. “I was getting called nigger every day, and you get spit on and it’s hard to make friends,” said Rock in a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes. “In elementary school, kids imitated their older brothers and said, ‘My older brother calls black people niggers, so I’ll do it, too.’ But in junior high it starts to get physical — and more physical by high school,” said Rock in a 2005 interview in the New York Post.

I asked a few friends I went to grade school with, just to be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. Seven said they never heard a white person say it. Four said rarely. Four said sometimes. But while I was growing up, I definitely heard stories. From people 20 years older than Murphy. Though in retrospect, I heard them from a small portion of people I knew, who oft repeated the same one or two incidents many times over several years.

They might also be too young. U.S. newspapers printed the word 115,047 times between 1810 and today. Australian newspapers printed it twice as often. In the U.S., the word barely appears from 1820-1849, appearing four times from 1820 to 1829, 187 times from 1830 to 1839, and 896 times from 1840 to 1849. Then the word went viral. 6,921 appearances from 1850-1859. 20,588 appearances from 1860-1869. And there it stayed, being printed between 10,000 and 20,000 times a decade until 1919. But then, as viral phenomena are wont to do, it faded, never appearing more than 1,200 times in a decade after 1939. 

If I had been born when it was common to see the word in the newspaper, perhaps I’d have also heard a white person say it in public and would have learned I was supposed to be upset from direct experience. Alternatively, if I had been born after the internet became widely available, perhaps I’d have learned its meaning from one of 38.5 million search results. Or, I could’ve opened a book published in 1863, 1938, or 1969, years when the word peaked in that medium. As it stands, I learned from hearsay. Therefore, It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment I learned nigger was a “bad word.” My best guess is that I learned it from a combination of those stories and a “very special episode” of some TV show.

None of this matters in the first moment after the word was spoken. I’m not even aware that I’ve heard anything, or that I’m reacting to it. My reactions in these first milliseconds are automatic. What matters in this moment is that I perceived a threat. Though I’m not conscious of my actions, I’m preparing to face that threat. If he had instead used the Cantonese phrase boon chon doi, I wouldn’t have reacted. His tone might have told me it was an insult, but I don’t speak Cantonese. I wouldn’t have had enough information to know how to react. Likewise, if I were a native English speaker raised outside the United States (except, perhaps, Australia), I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction. I would have just looked at him, confused.

* * * * * * *

Words come into existence to serve a need. They evolve. Acquire and lose meanings. Jump between languages. Become fashionable for a time and fade into obscurity.

Nigger started life as the Latin words nigrum and niger. These meant black, sable, dark, or dusky, and were used to describe a variety of things, including the complexion of dark-skinned Aethiops (Ethiopians) or Afer (Africans). Sometimes, Latin speakers skipped description, opting to use nigrum and niger in place of Aethiops or Afer.

The Roman Republic, via war, brought Latin to much of Europe and Northern Africa starting in the third century BCE. Eventually, civil wars would give birth to the Roman Empire. The empire died in 476 AD, but the language lived on. With time and isolation, Latin evolved from one language into many, today called the Romance Languages. In the branch that became Spanish, niger and nigrum evolved into negro (roughly pronounced “ney-gro”). In the branch that became French, they evolved into nègre. Form and pronunciation had changed, but meaning did not. The words still referred both to the color black and to Africans.

By the 1500s, people speaking Germanic languages were borrowing negro from people speaking Romance languages. But these languages already had words for the color. In German, it’s schwarz. Swedish – svart. Icelandic – svartur. English dictionaries still have an entry for swart, but somewhere between 400 and 1000 AD, Old English speakers started using blæc instead. Blæc evolved into black and blacke. Without a need for an extra word to describe the color, the English word negro (later Negro) came to refer only to Africans and their descendants.

The English negro probably sounded a lot like its Spanish parent. This is because English used to be pronounced differently. The Great Vowel Shift occurred from 1350 to 1700, affecting the pronunciation of most English words. High, for example, used to be pronounced “hee.” Like sounded closer to “lake.” Shakespeare’s works contain rhymes and puns that disappear when spoken with the English accent known as BBC English or Received Pronunciation.

The Shift happened around the same time English spelling was being standardized, and is thus responsible for most of English’s weird spelling issues. For example, Reason uses the newer pronunciation of the ea combination, but bear and swear maintained their original pronunciation. Likewise, the shift likely changed ney-gro to nee-gro. Meanwhile, people who spoke Dutch, Scottish, and Northern English dialects transformed negro and nègre into neger and negar. Neger appears to have been a neutral term until nigger makes its first written appearance in the 1770s or 1780s. Nigger was always used as an insult.

Except when it wasn’t.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is the 20,120th most used word in the English language. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider this: there are 171,476 English words currently in use. This places nigger in the top 12% of all words used in the English language. The top 20% of all English words make up 80% of all English words used. Nigger is used more often than mussels (20,211th), pea (21,669th), thug (28,787th), lubricate (55,625th), yolks (28,935th), and raindrops (31,923rd). If all the words we used each day were evenly distributed among all English speakers, each of us would hear it a little more than once a day. But the distribution is skewed. Some people never hear it. Some hear it several times a day. When I was fourteen, I probably said it several times an hour, often in front of my mother. When I asked Mom how she felt about my use of the word, she said, “I hated it.” 

Of course, I wasn’t using the racial epithet nigger, I was saying nigga. As in person, friend, companion, or acquaintance. I told Mom it was new. We’re taking the word for ourselves. All the hip-hop artists are saying it. All my friends are saying it.

“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?”

“Mom, you just don’t understand. It isn’t like when you were a kid. We’re doing something new. Something different.

We weren’t.

Nigga dates back to at least 1925, representing a Southern pronunciation of the word. Self-referential usage can be found even earlier. In the book Remembering Slavery, former slave Rachel Cruze talked about boys trying to get a date with the girls from a neighboring farm:

Gainan he watched his girls closely — used to sit on a chair between his two houses where he could see everything — and if a skinny reedy-sort of nigger made his appearance among the young people Gainan would call him over and say, “Whose nigger are you?” The boy would tell him. Gainan would look him over and say, “Well, that’s all right, but I don’t want you comin’ over to see my gals. You ain’t good stock.” And it would be too bad for that nigger if Gainan caught him there again.

Elsewhere, in The Music of Black Americans: A History, Eileen Southern said, “During a woodcutting song hundreds of slaves, paired off in twos in front of the trees, marked ‘the blows by the song’:”

A cold frosty morning, The niggers feeling good, Take your ax upon your shoulder, Nigger, talk to the wood.

Self-referential usage of this sort is normal. Words coined by one social group often transfer to another. Indeed, no one cared when nigger or its cousins were seen as merely descriptive (though I’m certain some Latin-speaking kids also used it as an insult from the beginning). But when a word is used as an insult, disempowered groups tend to take it for their own use. For these groups, the would-be insult is converted into an expression of affiliation. A term of empowerment. A way of saying, “this is who I am, no matter what kind of box you try to put me in.”

Mom wasn’t impressed with that explanation either.

* * * * * * *

Two-thirds of a heartbeat has passed.

My forward motion has stopped.

My body is starting to turn.

My consciousness is coming into play. My brain is sorting through a lifetime of information. It’s quick. Jumbled. Something isn’t quite right, but I don’t yet know what it is.

* * * * * * *

The only thing remarkable about the appearance of nigger in Australian newspapers is how unremarkable it is. Advertisements offering nigger brown as one of several colors of pantyhose. A play titled The Nigger, where the white Governor of a U.S. State learns he’s part black. Another titled Ten Little Nigger Boys. A report noting that Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, formerly known at the Nigger Quartet, was inspired by Negro folk songs (now called Spirituals). Articles about events in the United States. Racehorses and missing dogs named Nigger. Fish (ludericks) nicknamed nigger. Nigger Boy steel wool pads.

Limiting the search terms to nigger leaves you with only a hint of the relationship between the 400+ distinct peoples now collectively known as Aborigines and the descendants of the British colonists. A 1951 article talks about extending voting rights to the Aborigines. A 1979 report concerning Carnavon, West Australia noted, among other things, that Aboriginal children “were asked scathingly if they ate grubs by white schoolmates.” A 1923 article titled Election Workers Entertained reports that Billy Hughes, the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, hosted his supporters at an event. Mr. Hughes didn’t want to discuss the political matters of the day. But he didn’t want his guests to get the wrong idea, so “Mr. Hughes told a story which he thought was not inappropriate.” In the story, one man unsuccessfully tries to get another to speak, getting angrier with each subsequent attempt. It wasn’t funny. But the audience laughed.   

Britain established its first colony in Australia in 1788 after losing the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the colonies it ruled for nearly 200 years. A year earlier, the United States were writing compromises to protect slavery into their new Constitution. Five years later, Britain was taking its first steps toward ending slavery. The Aboriginals may not have been slaves, but, as noted by Loretta de Plevitz and Larry Croft, in “the era of colonial and post-colonial government, . . . [if you] had a ‘strain’ of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” These limitations on Aboriginal life help to explain the casual, nonchalant use of nigger in Australian newspapers.

Casual and nonchalant are not words one would use to describe the American use. Nigger was considered an insult in both Australia and the United States, but in the United States and the colonies that preceded them, nigger developed a personality. “Monkies, if da no had a tail, be nigger’s kin-folks” (1835). “The fiendish nigger” (1832). “‘Snowball’ is a curious thing to gather vegetables – but we suppose this is another name for ‘free nigger’” (1835). “There lay his murderer, a soulless nigger, grinning in death, the hideous grin of triumph over his fallen master!” (1835). During the Civil War, numerous editorials were written about the nigger question. In 1868, a few years after the war, there are stories about nigger radicals, nigger rights, nigger outrages, and the Virginia nigger mob convention. By the 1890s, the Southern States invented convict leasing, using spurious criminal charges and harsh sentencing to force ex-slaves to once again work for free. This system was possible thanks to a longstanding rule, incorporated into the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing for slavery as punishment for a crime. By 1900, 30% of the U.S. prison population was black. Nigger became lazy and an assumed criminal.

Again, limiting the search leaves you with only a hint of a complex relationship. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name, historian David Levering Lewis said, “If you were to ask most Southerners, white Southerners what they thought of African-Americans in the 1850s, the 1860s, even into the 1870s, one profile would’ve been of people who are loyal, dutiful, trustworthy.” Newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves tend to agree. A slave named Celeste was described by her master as “very smart & Capable … & was a very competent servant.” Letty Brown was described as “a steady, clever, hard working woman & a good washer & ironer.” Isaac was “very intelligent, can read very well, and I [his owner] believe write.” Sam was “extremely proud, smokes segars, and walks with a considerable air – he is a good cook, an excellent waiter in the house, and carriage driver.” However, Lewis said, “Those same people in the 1880s and by the 1890s have been demonized. They are no longer trustworthy. They no longer have the capacity for citizenship.”

Nigger blossomed in the United States while black people were in a state of perpetual mutiny. They escaped, tried to escape, revolted, engaged in work slowdowns, maintained a sophisticated communication network, stole food and clothes, had parties, held private religious services, and killed others and themselves in their fight for self-determination. Slave owners responded by separating the interests of poor white and black people, ending indentured servitude (which mostly affected Europeans), inventing lifetime and intergenerational slavery (which mostly affected Africans), limiting education and access to weapons, separating families, inflicting physical punishment, and arming themselves. They also spread propaganda, seeding ideas in the general population to further their own agenda. Some of these ideas stuck.  

* * * * * * *

“There’s like a civil war going on with black people, and there’s two sides: black people, and there’s niggas,” said Chris Rock in his 1996 routine Niggas vs. Black People. In the routine, nigga is a person quite similar to the nigger of a hundred years earlier – definitely lazy, possibly criminal, and purposely ignorant. But instead of referring to black people generally, nigga referred to people whose behavior ruined the image and daily life of black people.

Rock’s routine was considered controversial for the same reason Richard Pryor’s use of the word and George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television were considered controversial – because at some point nigger had become taboo and an abusive swear word. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, taboo words activate areas of the brain associated with negative emotion. Our brains process these words involuntarily, and they register automatically, with meaning and negative emotion intact. When one engages in abusive swearing, they are calling on the negative emotion automatically evoked by the word to intimidate or humiliate someone. For those of us who don’t embrace neutral or descriptive definitions of taboo words, just hearing abusive swears can be an unpleasant experience.   

When the New York Times Magazine asked Rock in 1997 why he used such a “heavy-duty” word in his routine, he said, “It’s not that heavy-duty. The thing with ‘nigger’ is just that white people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is.” In 1974, Pryor would have agreed with him. When he was asked about his use of profanity, including nigger, in his shows, he responded, “I think that people should say what they feel…. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello…. And when I say white, man, I don’t mean everybody. You know who you are.”

But white people weren’t the only ones complaining. Many black people feel that no one should use it because of its history as a racial slur. But, according to the Washington Post, “As Pryor saw it, ‘nigger’ meant ‘black like me and millions of others, who’ll never get on this stage….’” Rock, Murphy, Carlin, and Pryor would have also argued that this is how people talk in real life. Real life includes a heavy dose of taboo words. (Their observation is correct. English speakers use words like shit and fuck as often as we use words like us and we.)  

Real life is the reason why I eventually stopped using the word. Fourteen year old me wanted to be like his friends. Eighteen year old me wanted to express himself more precisely. Nigger faded as I started to use a larger vocabulary in my everyday speech. It’s nearly vanished now that I spend most of my time around people who never use the word. But it hasn’t disappeared completely – I still listen to hip-hop and only censor myself when certain people are in the room. Mom is grateful.

Elsewhere, Rock eventually retired the routine, saying that racists were beginning to think it was okay to use the word. Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa, saying, “When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.’” Pryor continued, “I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say ‘nigger’ again.”

But nigger isn’t going away any time soon. The more popular a word is, the more likely people are to use it. For example, researchers estimate that it will take 700 years for the past tense of stink (19,191st) to have a 50% chance of transforming from stank (29,866th) to stinked. So, for now, that leaves the question of whether to use nigger a matter of personal preference. The arguments over whether it should be said, and if so who can say it, will continue. In the meantime, the word will continue to evolve.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is supposed to be the ultimate insult. It isn’t. The Serbian phrase yebem ti mrutvo dete u ladno dupe (eбем ти мъртво дете у ладно дупе) is. Nigger’s power comes from the reaction of its intended target, not from an agreed-upon meaning. Its meaning depends on the era, location, and who’s saying it. Ask people to define it. The definition will vary from person to person, if they’re able to define it at all. The best the Merriam-Webster could do was, “Offensive; used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person.”

And as I become fully aware of what I just heard, it clicks. The meaninglessness of the word irks me. His tone is wrong; I expected contempt. And who would say that with all these black people around? I get it – this mother fucker is trolling me.

I only have a few milliseconds left to figure out whether I’m going to respond, and if so, how. Except that I’ve completely turned to face him. I could’ve ignored him but I’m already annoyed at this lazy comedy designed for an audience of one. I can do better than that. I’m going to see if he can. I bet he doesn’t have much else in his arsenal.

I look down to see precisely what kind of idiot I’m dealing with.

“What did you say?” I ask.

“Niggard,” he replies. “From Old Norse. It means ‘stingy.’ Goes back to the 1300s.”

My gaze falls on a set of amused eyes. While the tourists were watching the skies and I was watching traffic, he was watching people as they passed him by. He’s a lay anthropologist, with a Ph.D. in observing the world. He saw the little girl when she started bobbing up and down in front of the old lady, and heard the old lady ask her new friend, “Do you want to dance?” He saw the bus driver exit the bus to buy a CD from the guy selling the reggae, who turned to music down to make the sale. He saw the garbage truck as it rumbled past, smelling like old food. And he saw me rushing to work, and predicted my most probable reaction.

He shifts his attention. I follow the direction of his gaze from me, past his dowdy beard, down a ragged sleeve, to the stained, wrinkled, blue paper cup in his hand.

Three heartbeats pass.

The left side of my mouth arches slightly upward as I nod my head and shrug my shoulders. I reach in my pocket. I give him a dollar and continue walking to work.

“What did you think I said?”