Latin?

When I first read about the car-sharing entity called Uber, I assumed that the name would be pronounced as Yuber, in accordance with the usual English way of pronouncing word-initial “long u“: union, usage, uterus, utopia,… But I’ve never heard it pronounced as anything but oober, which makes me think that this is how the company calls itself, and that the name is meant to be interpreted as Latin. Now uber as a Latin adjective means ‘fertile’ or ‘productive’ and as a noun it can mean something like ‘fertile ground,’ but by far the most common meaning is that of ‘(female) breast’ or ‘teat.’ Why a company whose goal is to transport people would call itself that, I don’t know.

And whenever I think of Latin, I think of the many terms used to denote a person of (at least partly) sub-Saharan African descent, especially in America. Such people have been called darkies, Negroes, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American, and in the more distant past also Moors, Abyssinian, and Ethiopian. The geographic inaccuracy of the last three designations doesn’t really matter, any more than the actual color described as black (or, for that matter, white; chessboards and chessmen are not always strictly black and white either). Of course, negro is just the Spanish or Portuguese word for  black.

But then there is the Latin word for black: niger. This, two was commonly used in English to designate people in or from Africa from about the end of the 16th century onward (as was pater for father — it must have been a kind of affectation by educated Britons). Around the end of the 18th century some (but not all) writers began adding a second g, presumably in order to insure a pronunciation closer to the Latin one, rhyming with bigger and not, at least in English, with tiger (though Robert Burns rhymes nigger, vigour and tiger).

And, around the same time as the spelling change, the Latin word became offensive, both in the mouths of those saying it and in the ears of those hearing it. What is it about Latin?

Incidentally, the word nègre plays a similarly offensive role in French, but perhaps not to the same extent. The English version of Jean Genêt’s play provocatively titled Les Nègres  was given the inoffensive title The Blacks. (Conversely, black is now an OK word in French for referring to people of African origin or descent.)

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