Pickaninny (also picaninny, piccaninny or pickinninie) is a word applied originally by people of the West Indies to their babies and more widely referring to small children, as in Melanesian Pidgin. It is a pidgin word form, derived from the Portuguese pequenino ("very small", a diminutive version of the word pequeno, 'small', also used in Spanish, spelled pequeñito).
In contrast to this neutral meaning, the word has been used in North America as a racial slur referring to a dark-skinned child of African descent. In modern sensibility, the term can refer to an archaic depiction or caricature used in a derogatory and racist sense.
Together with several other Portuguese forms, pequeno and its diminutive pequenino have been widely adopted in many Pidgin or Creole languages, for 'child', 'small' and similar meanings. They are quite common in the creole languages of the Caribbean, especially those which are English-based. The Patois dialect of Jamaica, the word has been shortened to the form pickney, which is used to describe a child regardless of racial origin, while in the English-based national creole language of Suriname, Sranang Tongo, pequeno has been borrowed as pikin for 'small' and 'child'.
In the Pidgin English dialects of Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon in western Africa, pikin, or pekin – also derived from Portuguese – is used to describe a child. It can be heard in songs by African popular musicians such as Fela Kuti's Afrobeat song "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" and Prince Nico Mbarga's highlife song "Sweet Mother". Both are from Nigeria.
The word pikinini is used in Tok Pisin, Solomon Pijin and Bislama (the English-based creole languages of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, respectively) the word for 'child' or 'children'.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from 1653 of the word pickaninny used to describe a child, it may also have been used in early African-American vernacular to indicate anything small, not necessarily a child. In a column in The Times of 1788, allegedly reporting a legal case in Philadelphia, a slave is charged with dishonestly handling goods he knows to be stolen and which he describes as insignificant, "only a piccaninny cork-screw and piccaninny knife – one cost six-pence and tudda a shilling". The anecdote goes on to make an anti-slavery moral however, when the black person challenges the whites for dishonestly handling stolen goods too – namely slaves – so it is perhaps more likely to be an invention than factual. The deliberate use of the word in this context however suggests it already had black-vernacular associations. In 1826 an Englishman named Thomas Young was tried at the Old Bailey in London on a charge of enslaving and selling four Gabonese women known as "Nura, Piccaninni, Jumbo Jack and Prince Quarben".
In the Southern United States, pickaninny was long used to refer to the children of African slaves or (later) of any dark-skinned African American. While this use of the term was popularized in reference to the character of Topsy in the 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin, the term was used as early as 1831 in an anti-slavery tract "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by herself" published in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to the scholar Robin Bernstein, who describes the meaning in the context of the United States, the pickaninny is characterized by three qualities: "the figure is always juvenile, always of color, and always resistant if not immune to pain".[dubious ]
The term piccaninny was used in colonial Australia for an Aboriginal child and is still in use in some Indigenous Kriol languages. The word piccaninny (sometimes spelled picanninnie) was also used in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Its use is reflected in historic newspaper articles and numerous place names. Examples of the latter include Piccaninnie Ponds and Piccaninny Lake in South Australia, Piccaninny crater and Picaninny Creek in Western Australia and Picaninny Point in Tasmania.
The term was controversially used ("wide-grinning picaninnies") by the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell when he quoted a letter in his "Rivers of Blood" speech on 20 April 1968. In 1987, Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona defended the use of the word, claiming: "As I was a boy growing up, blacks themselves referred to their children as pickaninnies. That was never intended to be an ethnic slur to anybody." Before becoming the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson wrote that "the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies." He later apologised for the article.
The term is in current use as a technical term in Chess Problems, for a particular set of moves by a black pawn. See: Pickaninny (chess).
Cognates of the term appear in other languages and cultures, presumably also derived from the Portuguese word, and it is not controversial or derogatory in these contexts.
The term pikinini is found in Melanesian pidgin and creole languages such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea or Bislama of Vanuatu, as the usual word for 'child' (of a person or animal); it may refer to children of any race. For example, Prince Charles used the term in a speech he gave in Tok Pisin during a formal event: he described himself as nambawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin (i.e. the first child of the Queen).
In certain dialects of Caribbean English, the words pickney and pickney-negger are used to refer to children. Also, in Nigerian as well as Cameroonian Pidgin English, the word pikin is used to mean a child. And in Sierra Leone Krio the term pikin refers to 'child' or 'children', while in Liberian English the term pekin does likewise. In Chilapalapa, a pidgin language used in Southern Africa, the term used is pikanin. In Sranan Tongo and Ndyuka of Suriname the term pikin may refer to 'children' as well as to 'small' or 'little'. Some of these words may be more directly related to the Portuguese pequeno than to pequenino, the source of pickaninny.
Probably < a form in an [sic] Portuguese-based pidgin < Portuguese pequenino boy, child, use as noun of pequenino very small, tiny (14th cent.; earlier as pequeninno (13th cent.))...
1653 in N. & Q. (1905) 4th Ser. 10 129/1 Some women [in Barbados], whose pickaninnies are three yeares old, will, as they worke at weeding..suffer the hee Pickaninnie, to sit astride upon their backs.