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Postcard depicting a group of African-American children of varying ages, standing barefoot in front of a low wall with foliage visible behind it, all looking away from the camera to the left; the oldest child holds an infant on her hip
Postcard titled "Six Little Pickaninnies" (Detroit Publishing, 1902)

Pickaninny (also picaninny, piccaninny or pickinninie) is a pidgin word for a small child, possibly derived from the Portuguese pequenino ('boy, child, very small, tiny').[1] It has been used as a racial slur for African American children and a pejorative term for Aboriginal children of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. It can also refer to a derogatory caricature of a dark-skinned child of African descent.[2]

Origins and usage[edit]

Postcard photograph of eight black children kneeling against a felled palm tree in a tropical forest
Postcard depicting eight black children, titled "Eight Little Pickaninnies Kneeling in a row, Puerto Rico", published in 1902 or 1903.

The origins of the word pickaninny (and its alternative spellings picaninny and piccaninny) are disputed; it may derive from the Portuguese term for a small child, pequenino.[3] It was apparently used in the seventeenth century by slaves in the West Indies to affectionately refer to a child of any race.[4] Pickaninny acquired a pejorative connotation by the nineteenth century as a term for black children in the United States and Britain, as well as aboriginal children of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand.[3]

Pidgin languages[edit]

The term piccanin, derived from the Portuguese pequenino, has along with several variants become widely used in pidgin languages, meaning 'small'.[5] This term is common in the creole languages of the Caribbean, especially those which are English-based.[6] In Jamaican Patois, the word has been shortened to the form pickney, which is used to describe a child regardless of racial origin.[7] The same word is used in Antiguan and Barbudan Creole to mean "children",[citation needed] while in the English-based national creole language of Suriname, Sranang Tongo, pequeno has been borrowed as pikin for 'small' and 'child'.[8]

In Papua New Guinea, pikinini is the word for 'child'. Here local children are seen at Buk bilong Pikinini ('Books for Children') in Port Moresby, an independent not-for-profit organisation.

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);[9] it may refer to children of any race.[citation needed] For example, Charles III 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).[10]

In Nigerian as well as Cameroonian Pidgin English, the word pikin is used to mean a child.[11] 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";[12][non-primary source needed] both are from Nigeria. In Sierra Leone Krio[13] 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.[citation needed]

United States[edit]

Cartoon of a small, naked, jet-black grinning child silhouetted against a full moon with exaggerated eyes and lips, holding a large frosty watermelon slice; text reads, "Eat Seeds 'n All! Piccaninny Freeze: 5¢: A Pal for Your Palate"
Reproduction of a tin sign from 1922 advertising Picaninny Freeze, a frozen treat

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.[14] The term is now generally considered offensive in the U.S.[5][4]

The character of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin became the basis for the popular caricature of the pickaninny, described by scholar Debbie Olson as "a coon character [...] untamed, genderless, with wide eyes, hair sticking up all around the child's head, and often 'stuffing their wide mouths with watermelon or chicken'".[15] These characters were a popular feature of minstrel shows into the twentieth century.[4] According to historian Robin Bernstein:

The pickaninny was an imagined, subhuman black juvenile who was typically depicted outdoors, merrily accepting (or even inviting) violence [...] Characteristics of the pickaninny include dark or sometimes jet-black skin, exaggerated eyes and mouth, the action of gorging (especially on watermelon), and the state of being threatened or attacked by animals (especially alligators, geese, dogs, pigs, or tigers). Pickaninnies often wear ragged clothes (which suggest parental neglect) and are sometimes partially or fully naked [...] the figure is always juvenile, always of color, and always resistant if not immune to pain.[3]

Commonwealth countries[edit]

Piccaninny is considered an offensive term for an Aboriginal Australian child.[16] It was used in colonial Australia and is still in use in some Indigenous Kriol languages.[17][18] Piccaninny (sometimes spelled picanninnie) is found in numerous Australian place names, such as Piccaninnie Ponds and Piccaninny Lake[19] in South Australia, Piccaninny crater and Picaninny Creek in Western Australia and Picaninny Point in Tasmania.[20][original research?]

The term was used in 1831 in an anti-slavery tract "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by herself" published in Edinburgh, Scotland.[citation needed] 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".[21][non-primary source needed] The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says that in the United Kingdom today, piccaninny is considered highly offensive and derogatory, or negative and judgemental when used by other black people.[16] It was controversially used ("wide-grinning picaninnies") by the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell in his 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech.[citation needed] In a 2002 column for The Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson wrote, "It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies."[22][23][24]

In popular culture[edit]

"Shake Yo' Dusters, or, Piccaninny Rag", sheet music of an 1898 song by William Krell.
Advertisement for the comedy short film The Pickaninny (1921) with Ernie Morrison aka "Sunshine Sammy."


  • 1911 – In the novel Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie, the Indians of Neverland are members of the Piccaninny tribe. Writer Sarah Laskow describes them as "a blanket stand-in for 'others' of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States" who generally communicate in pidgin with lines such as "Ugh, ugh, wah!".[25]
  • 1936 – In Margaret Mitchell's best-selling epic Gone with the Wind, the character Melanie Wilkes objects to her husband's intended move to New York City because it would mean that their son Beau would be educated alongside "Yankees" and "pickaninnies".[26]


  • 2015 – Season 1 Episode 14 of Shark Tank Australia featured Piccaninny Tiny Tots which has since changed its name to Kakadu Tiny Tots.[citation needed]
  • 2020 – Episode 8 (Jig-A-Bobo) of the HBO television series Lovecraft Country features a character chased by Topsy and Bopsy, two ghoulish monsters depicted as "pickaninny" caricatures.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ pickaninny (draft revision ed.). March 2010. 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.))... {{cite encyclopedia}}: |work= ignored (help)
  2. ^ Room, Adrian (1986). A Dictionary of True Etymologies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-415-03060-1.
  3. ^ a b c Bernstein, Robin (2011). "Tender Angels, Insensate Pickaninnies: The Divergent Paths of Racial Innocence". Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York University Press. pp. 34–35. doi:10.18574/nyu/9780814787090.003.0005. ISBN 978-0-8147-8709-0.
  4. ^ a b c Herbst, Philip (1997). The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press. pp. 178–179. ISBN 978-1-877864-42-1.
  5. ^ a b Hughes, Geoffrey (2015) [first published 2006]. An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking World. London: Routledge. p. 345. ISBN 978-1-317-47678-8.
  6. ^ "Pickaninny". WordReference.com Dictionary of English. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  7. ^ "Pickney | Patois Definition on Jamaican Patwah". Jamaican Patwah. Retrieved 8 July 2023.
  8. ^ Muysken, Pieter C.; Smith, Norval (2014). Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa–Surinam Sprachbund. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. p. 228. ISBN 978-3-11-034385-4.
  9. ^ Crowley, Terry (2003). A New Bislama Dictionary (2nd ed.). Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies. p. 205. ISBN 978-9-8202-0362-4.
  10. ^ "Prince of Wales, 'nambawan pikinini', visits Papua New Guinea". The Daily Telegraph. 4 November 2012.
  11. ^ Faraclas, Nicholas G. (1996). Nigerian Pidgin. Routledge. p. 45. ISBN 0-415-02291-6.
  12. ^ Mbarga, Prince Nico & Rocafil Jazz (1976) Sweet Mother (lp) Rounder Records #5007 (38194)
  13. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Le Page, Robert Brock, eds. (2002). Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press. p. 502. ISBN 976-640-127-6.
  14. ^ "pickaninny". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  15. ^ Olson, Debbie (2017). "African American Girls in Hollywood Cinema". Black Children in Hollywood Cinema. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 83. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-48273-6_3. ISBN 978-3-319-48273-6.
  16. ^ a b Partridge, Eric (2006). Dalzell, Tom; Victor, Terry (eds.). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Volume II: J–Z. London: Routledge. p. 1473. ISBN 978-0-415-25938-5.
  17. ^ "Last of the Tribe". National Museum of Australia.
  18. ^ Meakens, Felicity (2014). "Language contact varieties". In Harold Koch & Rachel Nordlinger (Eds.), the Languages and Linguistics of Australia: A Comprehensive Guide. Berlin: Mouton. Pp. 365-416: 367. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  19. ^ "Piccaninny Lagoon, Lake". Location SA Map Viewer. Government of South Australia. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  20. ^ Maiden, Siobhan (23 June 2009). "The Picaninny Point Debacle". ABC Australia. Retrieved 24 December 2022.
  21. ^ The Times, 25 October 1826; Issue 13100; p. 3; col A, Admiralty Sessions, Old Bailey, 24 October.
  22. ^ Brown, Alexander (2021). "Stonewalling". An Ethics of Political Communication. Routledge. pp. 92–131. doi:10.4324/9781003207832-3. ISBN 978-1-0004-4122-2. S2CID 242520414.
  23. ^ Bowcott, Owen; Jones, Sam (23 January 2008). "Johnson's 'piccaninnies' apology". The Guardian.
  24. ^ Johnson, Boris (10 January 2002). "If Blair's so good at running the Congo, let him stay there". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 20 June 2008.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  25. ^ Laskow, Sarah (2 December 2014). "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe". Smithsonian. Retrieved 20 December 2022.
  26. ^ "Gone with the Wind". Gutenberg.net.au. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 22 March 2020.
  27. ^ Hill, Nicole (7 October 2020). "How Lovecraft Country Uses Topsy and Bopsy to Address Racist Caricatures". Den of Geek.
  28. ^ Smail, Gretchen (4 October 2020). "The Real History Behind The Terrifying Girls Haunting Dee On 'Lovecraft Country'". Bustle.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]