When political correctness meets pop slang meets provincialism by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2009, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Africa, Jews, Russia

A lot of people are giggling that the new GazProm-Nigerian joint venture company has selected the name “NiGaz”. This seems to me to say more about American hangups than about anything else. The word for “black person” in Russian is негр (“nyegr”), from the French nègre; it uses the letter combination n-e-g rather than n-i-g. As for Nigerians, obviously, if n-i-g tripped any insulting connotations for them, they would have selected a different name for their country. “Nigeria” comes from the name of the River Niger, whose etymology is unclear but likely stems from the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren, “river of rivers”, shortened to ngher. It almost certainly has no relation to the Latin root “niger”. The fact that southern American whites took the French word nègre, pronounced it with their own accent, then transcribed that as nigger, that this word acquired the derogatory connotations one might expect in racist American society, that American blacks then reappropriated the word and creatively misspelled it as part of a pop-music subculture — this is something neither Nigerians nor Russians should really be expected to keep track of.

More generally, it’s really not possible to keep track of which words in your language might be offensive in other people’s languages. In modern English, we identify people as “Jews”, from the root j-u-d (from the Hebrew yehuda, Judah or Judea); if someone called me “a Hebrew” I’d think they were either archaic or aristocratically anti-semitic or joking, and indeed “hebe” is an out-of-date anti-semitic slur that’s now been reappropriated as the American Jewish version of “nigga”. In Russian, the opposite is true: the neutral word is еврей (yevrei), from “Hebrew”, while the word жид (zhid), from the j-u-d yehuda/Judea root, is an anti-semitic slur.


1 Comment so far
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of course you’re right – its not as if the Russians and Nigerians should be hip to American slang, and even if they were they are under no compunction to respect it.

That said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with chuckling about it as our own little american inside joke.

I don’t think anyone is proposing this as an international travesty…

Comment by joypog

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