You may have seen that a large granite boulder on the University of Wisconsin campus will shortly be either buried or destroyed because it insults students of color. The boulder, a glacial erratic, is officially known as Chamberlain Rock, in honor of the glaciologist and former university president Thomas Chrowder Chamberlain; but it was once (one time, not at one time) referred to by the English equivalent of the words in my title (hereafter NH), and must therefore be abominated and destroyed.
The appellation NH has in fact been used to name quite a number of things, either because they were black and bulbous, or because they were of a woolly texture, or woolly on top. Until around 1960, Texans called the wildflower known as the Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) a NH because its central florets are bulbous and black.* A similar analogy gave rise to the name of the bonbon long (although not lately) known to Europeans as a tete de nigre or negerkopf. Old dressmakers’ catalogues frequently mention a sort of raised-nap fabric called NH, and the name has been given to more than one dome-topped mountain, or mountain capped with a carpet of brushy vegetation. I first heard the word (with mild embarrassment) in my undergraduate course on periglacial environments (in 1974), where I was told that the grass-tufted tussocks that naturally form on an arctic tundra are called NH’s, and that a tract dominated by these tufted tussocks is called a NH meadow.
Other things were called NH’s simply because of they were of a dark brown color. NH tobacco was, for instance, a pipe or chewing tobacco that was dark and strong. Rich black soil was in some places called NH. So it was called, for instance, in the narrow river bottoms of northern California.**
Large boulders were also called NH’s, but such boulders were properly black or dark grey in color.
It is certainly possible that some people called large stones NH’s because they believed both were unintelligent, but I am unable to find an example of the phrase NH used with the same significance as the Yiddish phrase goyishe kop. The Dictionary of International Slurs*** defines the Yiddish slur as follows:
“‘Gentile head.’ A dunce, bonehead. It may be noted that the Gentiles referred to here were peasants, but the Jewish folk mind denies far-sighted, sensitive intelligence, understanding, and brilliance even to highly trained and distinguished non-Jews. Thus A goy bleibt a goy (‘A Gentle remains a Gentile’) is usually said in disappointment or mild disgust at the intransigent.”
The same book defines NH (along with many other N words) as,
(1) A black boulder. (2) The main dome at the head of a boiler.
Unlike goyishe kop, NH did not mean stupid.
* * * * *
It appears that Chamberlain Rock was referred to as a NH in one newspaper article in 1925. I am now inclined to think that the author of this article was a sloppy journalist who thought that NH was a colorful synonym for boulder, and that he either did not know or did not care that this particular boulder was not the right color. Because Chamberlain Rock was not black, or dome-like, or of a woolly texture, or woolly on top, the journalist’s sloppy solecism did not catch on. Indeed, it seems to have been altogether forgotten until this year’s “racial reckoning” recalled it from the Lethean land of forgotten metaphors.
It is extraordinary to watch a proud old university yield to the argument that mental anguish is caused by a rock because one man once misnamed that rock with an inaccurate epithet that would not have been an obvious ethnic slur, even if the epithet had been accurate.† That Chamberlain Rock will be banished from the face of the earth for the crime of lèse-majesté is a truly impressive display of cultural power.
Next summer I will be sure to cut down every Black Eyed Susan I see.
*) Gussie Mae Birdsong, Texas Wildflowers (1957).
**) Wilson Hamilton, The New Empire (1886)
***) A. A. Roback, A Dictionary of International Slurs (1949)
†) I mean obvious to the man who used it. The word NH was used by men who eschewed the word N into the 1970s. The professor who taught me that the tufted tussocks of the arctic are called NH’s would not have used the word N.