The Historical Development of the Terms "Colored", "Negro", "Black" and "African-American"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 14 Pages

American Studies - Linguistics



1 Introduction

2 Dictionary Entries
2.1 Colored
2.2 Negro
2.3 Black
2.4 African American

3 Diachronic Development of the Terms
3.1 Corpus Based Research (COHA)
3.1.1 Colored
3.1.2 Negro
3.1.3 Black5/br /> 3.1.4 African American

4 Historical Contextualization

5 Conclusion

6 References

1 Introduction

This paper is to demonstrate the diachronic development of the frequency the racial labels “Colored”, “Negro”, “Black” and “African American” were used in the United States. I will point out that the changes in preference of racial notions are by no means an instance of coincidence.

Thus, my aim is to retrace the varying connotations of the above-mentioned labels and their causes which are well-grounded in the historical, social and political living environment Blacks were faced with since they first arrived in the United States about 400 years ago. In consideration of the historical context, this paper aims to prove that the changing racial labeling is an effort of African Americans to redefine themselves in a society which consistently held them subordinate.

For this purpose, I will compare the dictionary entries “Colored”, “Negro”, “Black” and “African American”[1] in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English(LDOCE) and the Oxford English Dictionary(OED). Subsequent, I will examine the diachronic development of the frequency of the terms using The Corpus of Historical American English(COHA). The results will be interpreted with the help of secondary literature, which provides an overview about the historical context.

2 Dictionary Entries

The above-mentioned racial labels have all been used to refer to the same race, though with alternating preferences that changed during the past centuries. Nevertheless, the explanation of each term reveals its own peculiarities. By consulting two different dictionaries, I aim at pointing out the varieties in how (negative) connotations of racial labels can be understood. There is an immense uncertainty in determining which terms describing skin color should be accepted, respectively classified as “taboo-words”.

The definitions will only provide a contemporary view on the terms used to describe non-white people. A diachronic examination on the connotation of racial labels will be done in chapter three and four.

2.1 Colored

The racial term “Colored” is defined as “dated or offensive, a person who is wholly or partly of non-white descent”. Moreover, it is an expression for “South African, a person of mixed ethnic origin speaking Afrikaans or English as their mother tongue[2] ” (“Colored”, OED).

The definition in the LDOCE is more concentrated on the negative connotation of the word. The reader is even requested not to use the term “Colored”: “taboo old fashioned, a very offensive word for someone who is a member of a race of people with dark or black skin. Do not use this word” (“Colored”, LDOCE). Another very interesting difference is that the definition in the OED makes use of the antonym of “Black”, namely “non-White” to refer to “Colored” people. This fact makes the definition much more inclusive and vague: Also Asians can be of non-White descent, whereas the LDOCE only defines people with “dark or black skin” as “Colored”.

2.2 Negro

“A member of a dark-skinned group of people originally native to Africa south of the Sahara; from Latin niger, nigr- 'black'” (“Negro”, OED). In contrast to the OED, the LDODE entry does not establish any geographical reference.

Furthermore, the definition of the skin color is more precise: “old- fashioned, a word for a black person, usually considered offensive” (“Negro”, LDOCE). It is astonishing that “Negro” is only considered to be offensive in certain situations, whereas “Colored” is seen as a “taboo-word”.

2.3 Black

“Black” people are referred to as “of any human group having dark-colored skin, especially of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry” (“Black”, OED). The dictionary entry in the LDOCE only includes “people belonging to the race of people who originally came from Africa and who have dark-brown skin” (“Black”, LDOCE). A crucial common point in both dictionary entries is the foreign ancestry and the accordance that “Black” is a generally accepted term. The OED definition is repeatedly more open towards interpretation because the perception of what is “dark-colored” is highly subjective. “Dark-brown” is a rather narrow term, because it implies that (light) brown and people with truly black skin, can not be considered “Black”, which would be a truly paradox thesis.

2.4 African American

The definition “A black American, originally native to the part of Africa south of the Sahara Desert” (“African American”, OED) is quite similar to the one in the LDOCE: “an American with dark skin, whose family originally came from the part of Africa south the Sahara Desert (“African American”, LDOCE). Both entries show an evident focus on the geographical origin of “African Americans”. The definition raises the question why Africans with dark skin and origin in the midst of the Sahara are not called “African Americans”. A possible explanation could be that most slaves forced to the States came from countries south of the Sahara Desert. Consequently, the majority of Blacks living in America are those who remained after slavery was abolished. Nevertheless, there are a lot more reasons apart from slavery, why any human being from any country in Africa could live in the United States. There seems to be no satisfying reason not to call those people “African American”.


[1] definitions are deliberately not given in alphabetical order, but according to the diachronic development

[2] In South Africa “Colored“ is only used to refer to people of mixed raced parentage (not for Blacks) ; it is not considered an offensive term due to its completely different history.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
"Colored" "Negro" "Black" "African-American" "Racial Labels" "Black Power Movement" United States Discrimination skin color race



Title: The Historical Development of the Terms "Colored", "Negro", "Black" and "African-American"