Thursday 28 May 2015

The US is good at advertising itself, and the soft power it projects is often greater than the hard power it unleashes at its foes. In most conflicts it is better to have Hollywood and Elvis Presley on your side rather than the US Army, because locals more readily queue to be entertained than incinerated, and tend to look more kindly at what is fashionable than that which is imposed upon them.

So great is US power that the colonies do not know that they have been colonialized (my speller checker rejected “colonialised”). In Wim Wenders’ “Im Lauf der Zeit” (Kings of the Road) the protagonist listens to:

Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let, fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but, two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I'm a man of means by no means, king of the road.
(Roger Miller).

and then exclaims: “The Americans have colonized our subconscious”. It was said as much in admiration as complaint.

Colonials watch US movies, sing US songs, and view US news from the rich and confident No 1 nation. US tragedies are well reported, US accomplishments even more so. One of the many results is that racial matters in other countries are often seen through the prism of the American experience. Movies, books, and songs chronicle the Civil Rights Movement until it becomes an emblem even more accessible than the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. So great is this power that internal US discussions about the correct language of race quickly affect the English speaking world, and the global English vocabulary is bound by internal US sensibilities and social theories.

Of course, it need not be so. There is another large country with a big African slave population with an entirely different racial history, one of much mixing and inter-marriage which should attract our attention and understanding: Brazil. They describe races as: branco (white), pardo (brown), preto (black), amarelo (yellow), and indigenous. Brazil has as many “browns” as “whites” and while that does not preclude all discriminatory practices, it is very different from the US. If the particular social history of the US is a major reason for lower African ability and achievement, then the ability and outcomes for Brazilian Africans should be distinctly better. Brazil is the test case that deserves further study. Any interest among researchers?

Meanwhile, back to the US. I have put together a list of race words to see how they have fared over the last two centuries. I first looked at “black” and “white”, and while these are general rather that racial descriptions, they are more frequent than other non-racial colour words (such as red, green, blue) but in the end I thought it better to concentrate on what appear to be specifically racial words, and followed them by Ngram.



As per Figueredo and Woodley, I have looked up each “word age” on the reasonable supposition that words which have been used for a long time (first used long ago) have proved they serve a purpose, and thus will probably be frequently used today unless some social change alters them. In judging date of first use I have relied upon the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Racial” (first used in 1854: “Such extremes have always been characteristic of the barbarous northmen, and we may not be wrong in referring to racial causes for the solution of this problem of contrarieties otherwise inexplicable”) as a concept begins to be visible in the 1880s and then oscillates upwards: important in the Second World War (forced integration through conscription?), the 60s (Civil Rights Movement) and then a sharp rise to the millenium, with something of a fall since.

“Colored” (Coloured, first used 1758, “was adopted in the US by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the American Civil War. It was rapidly replaced from the late 1960s as a self-designation by black and later by African-American, although it is retained in the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In Britain it was the accepted term for black, Asian, or mixed-race people until the 1960s”) was far more far more frequently used for a longer period. It shows the same peak in the Second World War, probably for the same reasons, and then falls out of favour.

“African American” (first used in 1835) is of relatively recent confection, and shows a very sharp rise in the 1980s.

“Racism” (first used 1903) begins to show up in the 1940s. “Genetics” (first used 1905) rises slowly, but is relatively little used.

“Negro” (first used 1555, meaning “black”) was the most established word in the 1800s, makes a rise in the American Civil War, rises again in the First World War, and then falls away to less usage, with a slight recent upturn.

“Nigger” (first used 1557,  originally a neutral term meaning “from the river Niger” but also nigor, nigre, nigar meaning “black”) was in some use since the 1830s but was never particularly popular,  and is now considered taboo, except when used by African Americans about themselves. This exception is similar to the notion that some Jewish jokes ought to be told only by Jews, and raises an interesting point about self descriptors.

Why does racial self-description matter? As a matter of principle, some people may regard their football team as more important than their genetics. Nonetheless, racial appearance is obvious to all, and identifying with similar people comes naturally. Why all the changes in descriptors: negro/colored/black/african-american? The conventional explanation for changes in descriptors is that the old ones have become tarnished. Cassius Marcellus Clay said his name arose from slavery, and re-named himself Muhammed Ali. Why the stigma? Companies rebrand themselves after bad events. Malaysian Airways (see my frequent posts on their missing plane) are about to re-launch themselves, naturally with a new name. For those who find their descriptors irksome, and worse, the change can be liberating. For others citizens it becomes something of a minefield: a slightly out of date racial descriptor can be seen as an insensitive slur. A white British actor who companionably bemoaned the lack of good roles for colored actors was excoriated for his use of the word “colored”, thus missing the point of his lament.

The dynamic of self-description brings paradoxes: a person’s name is their own choice, but their racial description contains both polite and entirely factual elements. Individuals can choose to favour one set of ancestry over another when they describe themselves socially, but they cannot change their genome. Others people are allowed, or ought to be allowed, to describe the person as they see fit, because self-descriptions do not trump reality. Descriptors vary but the genome carries the real result of past choices of mate.

What is the motivation for such frequent changes of descriptions? Traditionally such changes would indicate a desire to abandon former associations: a fugue from past characteristics and associates, like those who change their name by deed poll to begin again with a new self, not bound by parental naming choices, or to dump the stain of a criminal past. Understandable, but at a cost. I don’t do policy, but I think that too frequent a name change is counter-productive. Building reputation requires a strong and consistent brand.

In sum, these word counts reveal the rise and fall of epithets, shibboleths, and euphemisms, like slivers of litmus paper indicating preferences, imaginings, self-perceptions and self-doubts, as well as the acidity or sweetness of social forces.


  1. There has been a continuous hope by blacks in the US and their well-wishers that they would soon see the improvement of their status to equal that of whites, and each name change has happened with a legal change that was supposed to make this happen. The situation of blacks improves some each time, but the hoped-for result never materializes.

  2. In what 1903 publication was "racist" first used?

  3. In fact the earliest I can now find is 1924 Portland Oregonian 14 Dec. 70 The elections show the Germans at the moment want neither racists nor [printed now] communists—that is, neither extreme nationalists nor extreme revolutionists.

  4. I am a fan of the music of Fats Waller, the jazz pianist, composer and singer, 1904 - 1943. I have a recording of part of a radio broadcast in his memory, made shortly after his death. At one point the announcer refers to him as a "colored boy". This would now be deemed abhorrent, but it occurred at a celebration of his life, with former colleagues, black and white, playing in his honour.

  5. Here is Mr Waller's song on the subject, as performed by Louis Armstrong, the black trumpeter and singer. Waller's lyricist was Andy Razaf.

  6. ah its as I imagined the germans views.quite an over reaction by one.hmmmm