Monday, July 28, 2008

An old Italian family name...

It seems that the word 'Negro' as a name goes back a long way – to tenth century Europe, in fact. According to online sources, the name is first found in Ferrara, Italy, "a Renaissance gem close to Venice," where Carlo Negri di Pietra Santa was a Bishop in 929. There are many variations of the name, including Negri, Nigri, Nigris, Nigra, Negris, Negrelli, Negrotto, Negrello, Negroni, de Negro, dal Negro, del Negro. This shouldn't really be surprising, of course. The triangular Atlantic slave trade being the seminal event for diasporic black people, it is easy to forget that for geographical ages, Africa and Europe have in fact been very close, the Mediterranean being a comparatively small body of water, crossed and recrossed by visitors, traders and migrants from the North and South for millenia. Who knows why the family Negro were so called? Was there perhaps an African contribution to the family? At any rate it appears that the word and the name may well have had no pejoration attached to them when they were first used in Italy, whether it was or was not with Bishop Carlo Negri di Pietra Santa. I've been dipping into Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence 500 Years of Western Cultural Life now and then, and thought I'd do a quick tour of the Index to see what I could find. Africa turns up twice: on pages 49 (epic) and 542 (railways in). The following words do not appear in the Index at all: black(s); sugar; plantation; rum; settler; Atlantic; south, negro. (This doesn't mean they don't appear in the book – just not in the Index.) 'Slave(s)(ry)' gets short shrift. In fairness I should say that the word 'Moors' figures on seven pages. Not much help to be had there, but a lesson learned nonetheless. So Negro, and its French versions, Negrier, etc., may be with us to stay, at least as family names. The fact that they are family names, and therefore, one would like to think, names that are proudly held, does seem to have some bearing on one question: Can any one group of speakers dictate to other groups the attitude they should have to a word, or their right to use it? Your thoughts welcome, sistren and bredren. I've done one and two things in my life, but I've been neither a student of history or sociolinguistics. BTW, if you have a copy, or access to a copy of Jamaica Woman (ed. Pamela Mordecai and Mervyn Morris; 1980; 1985) have a look at the short preface, in particular, the first paragraph. We're going to talk about it soon.

21 comments:

FSJL said...

You might also want to consider that in Spanish and Portuguese the words for black person aren't just 'negro' but also 'prieto' (Spanish) and 'preto' (Portuguese), and these are both surnames as well. Indalecio Prieto, for example, was a prime minister, of the Second Spanish Republic.

clarabella said...

Thanks for this, fsjl. Prieto is indeed a surname. There appear to be any number of North American Prietos, as I'm sure there are Prietos elsewhere in the world. Can we fairly ask all the folks called Prieto, as well as those with Negro (in all its many versions) and, for consistency's sake, Blackman as surnames, to change their names?

FSJL said...

Change their names towhat? The surname 'Prieto' may indicate a black ancestor. Or it may indicate an ancestor with dark hair. Same with 'Negro'. My mother's patronym is 'López', originally meaning 'Son of Lopo'; somehow, I don't think that the original Lopo was actually a wolf. My mother's matronym is 'Pardo' meaning 'Dark' or even 'darkie' (and it is used to mean 'darkie' in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world to this day); now it may very well be that a dark-skinned person was an ancestor of the family, although since the branch of the Pardo clan from which I spring had to prove its nobility to the great Spanish chivalric orders that's moderately unlikely.

I looked up Don Indalecio after I posted, and realised that he hadn't been prime minister, but minister of finance and minister of defence during the Second Republic of honourable memory.

Jdid said...

I think to put it simply those words are here with us to stay.

FSJL said...

I'm not 100% sure, jdid. When last were you called a 'blackamore' or a 'darkie'?

FSJL said...

Make that 'blackamoor' and call my spelling 'Elizabethan'.

Jdid said...

came across this today on Slate regarding names that judges disallowed

4. Misteri Nigger, second "i" silent. No, said the California Court of Appeal in 1992, because it constitutes "fighting words": "[I]f a man asks appellant his name and he answers 'Mister Nigger,' the man might think appellant was calling him 'Mister Nigger.' Moreover, third persons, including children hearing the epithet, may be embarrassed, shocked or offended by simply hearing the word. This example illustrates how use of the name may be 'confusing' with the potential for violence." Definitely does sound like asking for trouble; "Russell Lawrence Lee" is much safer. [Lee v. Superior Court, 9 Cal. App. 4th 510 (1992).]

lets see if i can figure out how to do the link

here

clarabella said...

Thanks, fsjl and jdid. I don't think the NAMES are going anywhere. People are attached to names – their own names, the names of places, the names of events, etc. There's a Blacks Road and a Sodom Road in southern Ontario. Nobody seems to have made a move to change either. If I understand your point, fsjl, it's possible to assume significance of a name and be quite wrong, since the meaning we attach may not in fact be what prompted the name at all. Furthermore, the negative connotations attendant on many things at a particular point in time – say, post slavery – may not have been there at the start. That was, in part, the point of the post about the "old Italian name". And jdid, thanks for the link. I'd read in the paper about the New Zealand couple who wanted to commemorate the Hula in their little girl's name, but the other cases are also enlightening, especially the 'Misteri Nigger" applicant. Of course, these legal cases apply to people wanting to change their names, not to people who already have surnames like Negro and Negrier and Negri, etc.

FSJL said...

Hell is located in Michigan, it has frozen over: http://www.cs.tut.fi/~simona/Hell_Frozen_Over.jpg

I'm reading a book called Slavery by Another Name (which I urge you to read) about the use of the penal system in the American South to effectively reimpose slavery for decades after the Civil War -- effectively down to World War II. The author is a white man, his name is Blackmon.

clarabella said...

Ha ha! fsjl! I think I did know that Hell, in Michigan, has frozen over. SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME sounds very much worth the reading. If indeed its author, Mr Blackmon, is a white man, he is the (I'm sure by no means singular) counterpoint of a former Minister of Education in Jamaica, Burchell Whiteman, who was an indisputably, phenotypically black man. All of which perhaps speaks eloquently to the question, What's in a Name?

FSJL said...

That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet you mean?

Burchell Whiteman was the first person to hire me out of UWI, when he ran the Brown's Town Community College.

clarabella said...

Well, I guess I meant, 'What's in a word?' The linguists say a word is a series of sounds, empty of meaning till it is used to signify. So a rose would indeed be a rose, by any other name. Calling it a rose doesn't do anything essential to it. Presumably the man who wanted to call himself "Mister Niggeri', with the second i silent, didn't feel he would be demeaned by being called 'Mister Nigger' – even if that was his idea of a joke. Perhaps he was being deeply ironic, for he added the 'Mister', after all! The folks, many, if not most of them white, whose surnames are Nigra, de Negro, and so on, who have not chosen to change their names, obviously don't feel that being so called is an insult. The question remains: Should the people who abhor the word nigger be upset and angry at others who continue to use it, see no harm in using it, and do not use it pejoratively?

FSJL said...

My question is when did 'Negro' become pejorative? Back when I was a boy it was the neutral, indeed, polite term for a person of African descent or appearance. Now it has become almost as troublesome as its more scandalous relative.

FSJL said...

And, not at all by the way, this being August Morning: Happy Emancipation Day.

'Jubilee! Jubilee!
Dis is de year of Jubilee
Augus mawnin come again
Augus mawnin come again'


(Just stole that from the Emancipation Day greetings sent out by Michael Cooke.)

Jdid said...

regarding blacks rd and somod rd i could have sworn that two years ago while working on a project i came across someplace called either n*** or coon i southern ontario

clarabella said...

Hi jdid. There's apparently a Coon's Road in Elizabethtown, Ontario. Wikipedia says there's a Homer Road running from Route 70 to Route 89 that was formerly Coon Road. I've no idea if they're the same road. There's also a Negro Creek Road in Ontario. When there was a proposal in August 1995 that the road be renamed Moggie Road to honour a 19th Century white settler, George Moggie, people agitated AGAINST changing the name, and saw it as as a deliberate attempt to wipe out Black history in Holland Township. The Ontario Black History Society's website says, "The area around Negro Creek Road, as the name of the road implies, was first settled by negro pioneers and their descendants who farmed the fertile lands in and around Holland Township probably after the war of 1812 until European settlers moved into the area." Seems that what some people fight against, others fight for! And obviously, as far as the OBHS is concerned, there's nothing wrong with the term, 'negro'.

clarabella said...

Hi fsjl! Happy Emancipation Day! Thanks for the good wishes. Of course, as the book you're reading by Mr Blackmon points out, there's freedom and freedom! Mervyn Alleyne has interesting things to say on this issue of words that represent race and ethnicity in a fascinating book, THE CONSTRUCTION AND REPRESENTATION OF RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE WORLD. As has been suggested, much of it comes down to usage, and the history of usage, of a given word. I don't take everything he says as Bible, of course. For example, he speaks of the word 'jungle' as having negative associations "in Jamaica, as elsewhere" in the world (xiii-ix in the Preface and p. 89). His example is the phrase, 'law of the jungle'. But, to my knowledge, jungle doesn't always have negative associations in Jamaica. A "jungle fowl" (free range chicken), for example, is a tastier creature than one penned and raised for eating, precisely because of its unrestricted diet. An overgrown yard is often described as a jungle – "Child, me don't do no work in the yard this last month. It favour jungle!" in a purely descriptive, non-pejorative use of the word. More from Alleyne shortly.

FSJL said...

Well, Mervyn may be thinking of the negative associations of 'Concrete Jungle' (as in the slum neighbourhood in Kingston). I haven't read the book, it sounds like something I ought to read given what I work on.

clarabella said...

fsjl: Remind me, please. "Concrete Jungle" appears not to be of our own, native, Jah-Mek-Ya devising. According to Wikipedia, "the term’s popular usage probably originated with British zoologist Desmond Morris, who wrote 'The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.' " I'm trying to think of other uses of jungle, negative and positive...

FSJL said...

Pam: While Desmond Morris certainly used the term (and others before him), in Jamaica 'Concrete Jungle' refers to a housing development in Kingston formally known as Arnett Gardens (though I doubt that the late Vernon Arnett would have been that proud of it). As you may recall 'Junglists' were frequently and quite literally, at war with 'Tivolites' in the 70s and 80s.

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano: I know about our Concrete Jungle, have no fear. What I'm interested in is whether – as I am pretty certain is the case with 'jungle fowl' – the term originates with us. It doesn't. It originates somewhere else, so even if we adopt it, it isn't ours in the way that say, 'jackass rope' or 'dry head' or 'coolie royal' is. I don't have Allsopp handy, but I'd be interested in whether 'dungle' and 'jungle' are cognates. That would be more persuasive for me...