"You’ve got to remember to think of them as coloured people not niggers"

The history of racial terminology is perhaps the most fraught area of language development and it reveals much about the way in which ethnic identities have been constructed, appropriated and fought. Today, Nigger is the most offensive word in the English language, but it has not always been thus. Deriving from the Latin niger (black), it began its life as a neutral descriptive term but quickly became inextricable from rhetoric aiming to establish and maintain white cultural supremacy. By the 1800s, its derogatory nature was already fully-fledged and negro had become the standard neutral term. Coloured was an appellation which freedmen embraced after the Civil War to express a positive sense of racial identity, particularly in the North. The South took a while to catch up with this and nigger continued to be standard in neutral and racist use alike. In fact, Quentin’s reminder to himself to “think of them as coloured people” itself shows a lag in understanding, for northern black civil rights activists had returned to negro as the most appropriate descriptor. During the heightened political consciousness of the 1960s, this was replaced by black; these days, African American is generally preferred.