It is commonly believed that nigga has been reappropriated as a term of endearment. This misconception persists because public conversations are dominated by nonlinguists and we lack comparative studies of nigga’s historical and modern-day use. Addressing these issues requires a multilayered approach employed here. This study begins with a qualitative inquiry into the historical, linguistic and social factors that have fueled the current perception of the nigger/nigga two-word dichotomy, and of how nigga was used by Blacks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second part is a quantitative study that examines the current apportionment of nigga by speaker race and gender, and linguistic context, as observed in computer-mediated conversations.

Multivariate analysis revealed differences among black and white speakers, males and females, and in various linguistic contexts. Comparative analysis revealed that many of nigga’s current meanings, referents and uses have existed since at least the nineteenth century, and that any changes occurred gradually and not through abrupt reanalysis, thus lending no support to the reappropriation hypothesis. And crucially, the data show that the epitomized example of reappropriation, my nigga, does not function primarily as a true-blue term of endearment, but as a masculinizing marker of social identity.

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