Monday, May 18, 2009

Out of Africa

So Agent Prance Closer forwarded me the following image, a vintage ad for the Maidenform line of brassieres.

The limerick contained therein, aside from admirably rhyming svelte and veldt, reminded me that I should put something up on this blog about Nigeria, the African nation whose name does not imply what my American ears think it might. In short, there does exist a Latin word niger that gives us several English words referring to the color black. However, most historians and linguists seem to think that the resemblance to this particular color word and the name of the river are mere coincidence.

A slightly more elaborate version: Wikipedia posits that the nation of Nigeria takes its name from a coinage by Flora Shaw, who for whatever reason saw fit to smash Niger into area. (Somehow, I’m guessing that Miss Shaw looked nothing like the girl in the Maidenform advertisement and probably never ventured into the jungle to hunt clip art tigers.) That Niger would be the Niger River, which runs through this particular nation. The river’s name is a rather complicated matter, etymologically. “What is clear is that Niger was an appellation applied in the Mediterranean world from at least the Classical era, when knowledge of the area by Europeans was slightly better than fable,” Wikipedia notes. depending on who is picking the name and where they’re considering the edges of mapped civilization, it could very well be true that, over time, a whole host of rivers were then considered to be the Niger — or Ni-Gir, in some texts, which was named in some attempt at contrast to another river known as the Gir. Theories abound as to where Niger/Ni-Gir came from, but a particularly attractive one lies in the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren, “river of rivers,” which may have referred to a river running near Timbuktu.

Regardless of whether the “actual” or “original” Niger River was, the point of this post is to disseminate the notion that its name has no etymological connection with the color black. I initially found this very strange, but upon considering it for a few moments, I realize that I had no business thinking this. First off, the river is fairly clear — not like those murky bodies of water whose low level of clarity earned them the label blackwater. Secondly, why should this one particular chunk of the African continent be labeled as being black? Why would the Nigerians refer to themselves as such? Wouldn’t they have looked around at neighboring lands as perceived themselves to be not dark-skinned people but, you know, just ordinary people who looked like most everyone else they saw on a daily basis? Africa’s history is often one of subjugation and interference by non-Africans, but it’s also the home of the oldest civilizations on the planet — places that easily predate the Indo-European language and its etymological legacy.

In presuming that Nigeria must more or less share a verbal root with the English word negro and its relatives, I was forcing a subconsciously forcing a language to play by my rules, looking at it only from an Anglocentric perspective — or at least a Romanocentric perspective.

I would chalk this up to my own ignorance, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only English-speaker or even Romance language-speaker to glance over a map and assume that Nigeria refers to the color of its inhabitants’ skin. Hell, even those who know a thing or two about the history of African nations might have reason to think so, as Liberia, the name of another African nation that exists in fairly close proximity to Nigeria, comes from the Latin liber, meaning “free,” and was specifically named to honor of the freedom enjoyed by liberated American slaves. It’s a good lesson for the verbally minded — even if a given thing looks to be a certain way, it may not be — as well as for those who tend to cling to their native culture — even if a word means something in your language, it may been something wholly unrelated in someone else’s.

But now you know. Please recall this when next perusing a map of the world.


  1. "Niger" doesn't exactly rhyme with "tiger," does it? Or maybe it does in some English dialects. I don't know. I think there's a song in "The Mikado" that rhymes "tiger" and "Niger."

  2. Some might pronounce it with a hard "G," but I think it's correct to pronounce the word with a "J" or "zh" sound in the middle.

  3. spence11:09 AM

    If memories of high school productions serve, I would suggest that several Gilbert and Sullivan 'rhymes' were best when very very elided, as if one were gargling marbles.

    Also, Drew, you missed the opportunity to title this post "'Out of Africa' meets 'Pretty Woman.'"

  4. Anonymous2:44 PM

    Given the inherent racist themes associated with “color words,” white people’s presumptions, and the history of Nigeria, I have to point out the awkwardness of the fact that Bra Woman is catching a tiger. In the sanitized version of the eeney-meeney-miney-moe rhyme, it’s a tiger that’s being caught by the toe, and not something more politically incorrect.

  5. Spence: Damn. I should consult you before I title posts, I think.

    Anonymous: Good point.

    Also, another reason to hate the Maidenform ad: the limerick rhymes tiger with tiger

  6. Yeah, the last rhyme should have been "liger." Or possibly "Geiger."