February 14, 2003
Even Worse Than They Thought

Eugene Volokh links to a news report about political correctness run amok in Minnesota:

Technical High School students involved with the play "Ten Little Indians" will make some changes to tonight's opening after people complained to the school's administration about the title. . . .

The program will be printed with "And Then There Were None," the name of the Agatha Christie book on which the play is based, in large print and the title in small print. . . .

Principal Roger Ziemann said he asked for the changes after some people involved with American Indian outreach at St. Cloud State University complained. They complained because the title is based on a children's counting rhyme from the early 1900s that is derogatory toward American Indians, he said. Nationwide, other schools have changed the name, he said.

And Then There Were None was not in fact the original title of Christie's book. It was Ten Little Indians in the first American edition (1940) and Ten Little Niggers in the first English edition (1939).

Here is the pertinent part of the blurb at Rosetta Books, an eBook publisher:

A note about the title -- Christie originally called the novel Ten Little Niggers, a reference to an old nursery rhyme that she places, framed, in the guest rooms of the ten characters in the story. Each dies in the manner described in a verse of the sing-song rhyme -- e.g., "Ten little nigger boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there nine." The rhyme ends with the words, "... and then there were none." The offensive word, which carries an extra dimension of ugliness in American culture, was replaced with "Indians" for American publication. Ironically, "Indian" is now also a politically incorrect term, so the novel has officially been retitled And Then There Were None. As Charles Osborne points out in his delightful and indispensable study The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, the shift in the old American title creates a bit of confusion. For Americans think it refers to another nursery rhyme that begins, "One little, two little, three little Indians ..." The nature of the original title reflects the time in which the novel it was written and the world in which Christie became an adult and a writer, one shaped largely by the British Empire and the racist thinking of the past. The cosmetic change of title to And Then There Were None is merely that, however. It erases a troubling shadow from an extraordinary, hugely entertaining achievement.

I've never read the book, but knew it by reputation as Ten Little Indians. (My occasional forays into mystery reading are pretty much restricted to John Dickson Carr and his alter ego Carter Dickson.) I would never have suspected the previous title change if I hadn't once run across a German paperback titled 'Agatha Christie: Zehn Kleine Negerlein'. In German, 'zehn' is 'ten', 'klein' is 'little', 'neger' means 'black' (as in African, cognate with 'negro') and '-lein' is a diminutive, and I immediately realized that Ten Little Indians was a euphemistic retitling of a far more offensive title. Apparently the Germans are not so sensitive.

By the way, many people have found that a good way to improve one's German is to read familiar works in German translation. I imagine the same is true of other languages. One college friend prefers Agatha Christie, though another recommends Luther's translation of the New Testament. In either case, familiarity helps develop fluency.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at February 14, 2003 11:40 PM

On reading Prof. Volokh's comment last night, I Googled the title and found the same startling information, which was certainly news to me.

Apparently the book and the play have different plots. In the book as I know it, the reclusive "U. N. Owen" (= "unknown" — get it?) invites ten miscellaneous people to his mansion on "Indian Island" (= "Nigger Island"? I suppose so), and then kills them all off with means corresponding to the nursery rhyme. "Owen" turns out to be a man passionately concerned with justice, who thinks that these ten are all guilty of murder in one way or another, though nothing can be proved; he's assembled them in order to execute them one by one, in order of increasing guilt (that is, the guiltiest die last).

But at www.agathachristie.com (yes!) I read that the play alters the book's ending to one more "romantic." I don't see how that could be done. Unless . . . well, the last two miscreants are a man and a woman; in the book she shoots him and then hangs herself. I suppose in the play they band together? But then it should be called And Then There Were Two, yes?

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on February 15, 2003 04:30 PM

Agatha Christie is just one in a long line of fine mystery authors who were unrepentant racists..

Posted by: Suman Palit on February 16, 2003 12:11 AM

Suman Palit: Hmmm. Which others did you have in mind? And was Christie the "end of the line," or does it continue beyond her?

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on February 16, 2003 09:04 PM

The PC (politically correct) police are at it again. So, OK, lets remove all references to "Indian" (Indiana) and "Saint" (as in St Cloud ), and de-genderize everything possible. Oh let's not forget about Negro, Black, and pretty soon it will be Afro-American, too. But then let's not forget that English remains the legal language here as well, so let's remove the bilingual funding, the cultural awareness programs (basically brainwashing and segregation re-invented). We should never again stop a suspicious Arab, like the shoe-bomber, because the Arabs might take offense. Rest easy, the pendulum will swing the other way...oops...did I offend you Mr Poe?

Posted by: Fred Zwick on February 17, 2003 11:12 AM

While I'm anti-PC, some things are a bit too much, and still calling the book 'ten little niggers' might be it. Regarding 'squaw', if you went to France, and found that they had something called Mont Snatch, wouldn't you want that changed?

Like Dr. Weevil, the only reason I can remember knowing about the original title was because of a Russian film adaptation of the book which (IIRC) used the non-PC title.

Posted by: Lonewacko on February 17, 2003 03:04 PM

Here in Barcelona they put on the Christie play last year with the title "Diez negritos", which literally would be "Ten Little Blacks". "Nigger" has no real translation in Spanish; a word I have heard, though, is "negrata", clearly pejorative. There were a couple of stories in the Vanguardia about the racist connotations of the original name.

A lot of Spaniards just don't get it about ethnic slurs; their use is not considered a sign that one is beyond the pale as it is in America. I've heard many Spaniards use "nigger" without knowing what it really means. They've heard it too many times in rap songs and Tarantino movies. They say, "What's wrong with calling black people black?" I respond with, "Of course you call black people black. You don't call them niggers because that's a racist word and people who respect black people don't use it." "So why do they call each other niggers?" "Most of them don't. Those who do are using it as an in-group word, and if you're not in the group you can't say it." "Why not?" This is when I say something like "Because you'll get your ass kicked if you do, either physically or verbally."

There are various anti-Semitic references in Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels--they were written pre-Holocaust, if that's any excuse. In the first Ellery Queen book, The Roman Hat Mystery (1928), the motive for the murder is that a blackmailer is extorting a young socialite who is trying to conceal "a touch of the tarbrush".

Posted by: John on February 27, 2003 05:40 AM