‘The Little Piano Piece’ by Debussy

Wikipedia informed me that today is the birthday of the French composer Claude Debussy (the hundredth anniversary of his death in March this year seems to have passed without too much observance in the music world).

The first piano piece of his I played was titled by him The Little Nigar (performance). I remember that the book I used placed the last word in inverted commas. Debussy wrote it in 1909 for a piano tuition book. In 1934, it was published as an individual piece, now titled The Little Negro and subtitled Le petit nègre. (strong language warning)

At the time I played it, nigger was still in occasional use in some parts of Australian English, but not by me and certainly not by the elderly nun who was my teacher at the time. The second piano teacher at the convent was a (not-nun) woman with a daughter about my age. At one point she asked me about this piece, and I told her what I knew. She said “My daughter brought home a lolly* which I recognised from my childhood. I said ‘Oh, we used to call these “nigger blocks”’.** She [the daughter] indignantly said ‘Mother, we don’t say that any more. This is an “aniseed block”.’” From then, my teacher and I referred to the piece as The Little Aniseed. (*in Australian and New Zealand English, a piece of what is called candy in American English or sweets in British English) (**the Wikipedia article I link to below says “An Australian company produced various sorts of licorice candy under the “Nigger Boy” label”.)

Words in English and Romance languages derived from the Latin niger have gone in and out of fashion (at least in English – I’m not sure about the others). We still happily talk about Nigeria and Niger (quasi-French /niːˈʒɛər/ or English /ˈnaɪdʒər/) and any number of rivers and towns or political divisions named Rio NegroNègre may still be neutral in French [edit: apparently not. Wikipedia refers to it as “now-pejorative”], but in English negro is at best problematic and nigger is … well … read for yourself if you want to. I’ll leave it there.

[updated: No, I’ll make one more comment. The Wikipedia article mentions the “intragroup” use of “the word nigga (not nigger)”. With my non-rhotic version of English, those two words (or two pronunciations of the same word) sound identical, anyway.]


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