Could Latin niger "black", of uncertain origin, come from *negʷ- "bare, naked"?

For an analogy, compare black, blank, Spanish blanco "white, argent", and their roots PGem *blakaz "burnt", PGem *blankaz "white, bright, blinding", PIE *bʰleg- and *bʰleyǵ- respectively, both “to shine”. bleak in OE could mean "shiny", from PGem *blaikaz "pale, white", also from PIE *bʰleyǵ-. All taken from wiktionary, none sourced but often taken from LIV or Pokorny.

At least bleak and niger both have negative connotations.

Ger. Blanker is short for blanker Hintern "naked butt"; blankes Kabel is an exposed, unisolated wire, perhaps not dull (oxidized) so as to be conductive.

Supposing there was the slur *nig- or *neg- "slave, dark skin" (cp. nigger, negro, Neger) or something close, which should be hard to falsify, the idea is it would have been formative for niger, because one common justification for enslavement, not just "Negroes", was incivility, and that would stereotypically include nakedness. Also, slaves would have to appear naked at auctions and often cater to sexual submission.

For comparison maurus "Moor, Mauritanian, African" is comparable to Ancient Greek μαυρός (mauros) "dark, black, dim, weak, ...", which is uncertain but might derive from the name of the Moors. (Edit: notes of unyielding comparisons removed)

I'm afraid I'm too pessimistic, and downright paranoid about not being pessimistic enough about the darker parts of history. So, any input would be appreciated, in comments. Although, an answer should focus on publications on the matter.


Following maurus, I wonder, can a comparison Nubian versus nudus "nude" be fruitful? nudus is derived from PIE *nogʷedós through *gʷ > Lt. u (thanks @TKR), but b < du is not unknown in Latin (cp. bellum, duellum). The etymology of Nubia is unclear to me, not Egyptian apparently, unless from nwb "gold".

A term encountered in Roman ideas about slavery is social death. Hence including necro in the comparison might be helpful. The negation marker *ne should be considerable. Insofar the actually used word was mortis, mors, cp. maurus.

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    Slurs like "n-gger" postdate Classical Latin by millennia. The Romans kept slaves from all across the world, regardless of skin color; Gauls from France were seen as less civilized than e.g. Carthaginians from Northern Africa. – Draconis Dec 29 '18 at 16:40
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    From a relevant Wikipedia article: "While slavery was a deeply-stigmatized social status, the great majority of slaves were from European and Mediterranean populations; inherited physical characteristics were not relevant to slave status. Black people were not excluded from any profession, and there was usually no stigma or bias against mixed race relationships in Antiquity." – LjL Dec 29 '18 at 18:28
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    So there's no evidence... Anyway I'm not convinced Latin even had "taboo" words. Lots of extremely rude words are attested in Latin literature. – TKR Dec 29 '18 at 21:24
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    You might like to ask this at the Latin Language site. – curiousdannii Dec 29 '18 at 21:44
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    Also, it wasn't quite d>b in Latin, it was *dw>b. *Necros was a Greek word for "corpse", not Latin at all, and maurus was afaik a loan from Greek—while the Romans would have known both words, those borrowings postdate the word niger by quite a long time. – Draconis Dec 30 '18 at 6:39

Semantically it seems easier to start from PIE *negʷ- "dark" (the source of the word for "night" in many languages), though of course it's possible that this and the "naked" root are actually the same -- a semantic link doesn't seem impossible. Such an etymology for niger has in fact been suggested by Frisk, specifically from *negʷ-ró- (with the common adjectival suffix *-ró-); cf. Arm. nerk "color". The only formal difficulty with this etymology is the vowel change: though there are sporadic cases of *e > i in Latin, it doesn't seem to have been a regular change. (As for *gʷ, though it regularly gives Latin u, there is an exception before r, so that *gʷr > gr.) Though this is a problem, it isn't a huge one and I'm surprised that de Vaan, the most recent etymological dictionary of Latin, doesn't even mention this idea.

  • Well *gʷr does give gr word initally at least (eg. gravis), not sure if word medially. But yeah *e > i is inexplicable here, and wouldn't one expect the zero grade with -ró- anyway? – user54748 Dec 29 '18 at 21:54
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    @user54748 Word-medially too, cf. mīgrō : ἀμείβω from *h₂meigʷ(-r-). You're right that -ró- generally takes zero grade but there do seem to be some e-grades, e.g. *cārus < keh₂-ró-; and Arm. *nerk < *negʷ-ró- seems to be an accepted etymology. – TKR Dec 29 '18 at 21:56
  • Does De Vaan offer a different etymology? I'm afraid I don't have easy access to his work. – Draconis Dec 29 '18 at 22:39
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    @Draconis No, he just says "Unknown etymology". – TKR Dec 29 '18 at 22:43

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