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And Then There Were None

August 26, 2014

I’ve just re-read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. When I first read it, in the 70s, it was still called Ten Little Niggers, its original title from 1939. It seems incredible now that this title was regarded as acceptable so recently. This is one trend in English I wholeheartedly approve of. It really does seem strange, reading novels of the early 20th century, that insulting racial epithets are used so freely – did it never occur to the authors that some readers might be offended? Actually Agatha Christie was far from being the worst offender. The niggers of the title refers to characters in an old rhyme, not to real people, and isn’t used in an intentionally derogatory way. (The rhyme itself, by the way, which is integral to the book’s structure, is now about ten little soldier boys.) It’s true that one of the characters in the novel uses the insulting epithet “Jew-boy”, but he is far from being a sympathetic character. It’s noticeable in Christie’s work as a whole that neither she, as author, nor her favoured characters, use such offensive racial epithets in a deliberately derogatory manner; it’s only the unsavoury characters who do so.

Anyway, by the 80s the title had been changed to Ten Little Indians. But that, too, was regarded as too controversial, and so we come to the present title, which I must say I prefer, even though it is ungrammatical (it really ought to be And Then There Was None, of course).

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