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Stupid things I read on mailing lists....
Two different people on one mailing list posited these two explanations:

  • "Negro" originally meant "Black", "Nigger" originally meant "lazy person". It was only recently that nigger became solely associated with blacks and derogatory.

  • "Negro" is common in romance languages for "Black". "Nigger" originally referred to a person from Nigeria.

The first person, when faced with citations of etymology, admitted he must have remembered it wrong, and never knew that the two words were related. The second person made his claim after the first person admitted error. I've asked for a citation, pointing out that "Nigeria" as a place-name doesn't seem to have existed until the late 19th century, after the end of slavery in the US and long after slave-owners cared where their slaves came from.

How do people "learn" stuff like this?

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the first person might (just barely) have been confused by the similar-sounding word "niggard", usually seen in the adjectival form "niggardly". a niggard is a stingy or parsimonious person, a miser, a cheapskate. it comes from very different linguistic roots that have nothing to do with blackness. however, whenever someone uses "niggardly" in public, it usually draws gasps of horror from the uneducated audience. (although i admit that the leap from "cheapskate" to "lazy person" is pretty far-fetched.)

there is a river called the Niger in Africa, which flows through two countries, Niger and Nigeria; the names seem to derive from another form of the Latin word for "black", but all three were applied by the French when the areas in question were under French colonial rule.

some people in the American South pronounce the word "Negro" as "nigra"; i'm really not sure whether that evolved into "nigger", or whether "nigger" already existed and "nigra" was a slight euphemism for it.

and anyone can look up the derivation of just about any word online, beginning with dictionary.com and going on from there. if a person knows how to use the internet at all, they have no excuse for ignorance or misinformation.

I had, of course, immediately double-checked to see if, perhaps they were confusing "nigger" with "niggard". Once I verified that "niggard" meant "miserly" I ruled that out as miserly doen't mean lazy.

As for Nigeria... Nigeria comes from the name of the river Niger, but Wikipedia is fairly clear that Niger does not seem to derive from "black". After establishing that the origin is unclear and that the name Niger didn't always apply to the whole river, it goes on to say

A good possibility for a source is the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren "river of rivers", shortened to ngher, a local name used along the middle reaches of the river around Timbuktu.

It is often assumed, without evidence, that Niger derives from the Latin word for "black", niger, but it would have been more likely for the Portuguese explorers who first wrote this name on their maps to have used the Portuguese word, negro, as they did elsewhere in the world. In any case the Niger is not a blackwater river, which was the motivation for all other rivers that were called black. (See Rio Negro.) Some have rationalized that 'black' may have referred to the color of the people living on the river, but this did not happen to any other river in Africa. Therefore it would seem that the similarity between the name Niger and the Latin word niger is either coincidence, or that knowledge of Latin influenced the spelling of an indigenous name like ngher.

it seems fairly clear, though, that "nigger" has nothing to do with the river Niger nor the countries Niger and Nigeria. to further confuse things, there is a type of birdseed known as niger (often spelled "nyjer" to avoid offense), and in this case the name is derived from Latin niger - the seeds are shiny black.

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