a wide flat of niggerheads

< Previous | Next >


Senior Member
France, french
Good day everybody!

I'm reading the short-novel "To build a fire" from Jack London and there are just so many words that I've never seen before that I keep checking my dictionnary every two lines ^^
But here, there's a sentence I really don't get:

"He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed a wide flat of niggerheads, and dropped down a bank to the frozen bed of a small stream."

I guess it might be translated as something like:
"Il continua (d'avancer) à travers la grande étendue de bois durant / sur plusieurs miles, traversa ..?..?..?.., et abandonna au bord du lit gelé d'une petite rivière."

The only thing ressembling "niggerheads" that I was able to find was
nigger --> nègre
but I don't really see what "tête de nègre" might mean in this context... The character is travelling by foot somewhere in Alaska, in a tremendous cold. [...] I would really appreciate any help on this. The novel is very short, but also very hard for a non-native... ^^
Thank you all ;)
Last edited by a moderator:
  • Kelly B

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Found this here: I had landed on "niggerheads," an unpleasant term applied to huge earth hummocks created by centuries of alternate freezing and thawing. Some were two feet high and all showed large, deep gaps between them, extending toward the banks of a nearby braided stream.
    Selon Oxford Hachette, hummocks sont donc des monticules. J'ai l'impression que le mot provient du tête de nègre, oui.:(


    Enlish, UK
    Hi Jessila

    I hadn't heard of the term before either but, just for confirmation, here is how the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

    "Applied to various black or dark-coloured roundish objects. (Cf. Negro head.)
    A clump or tussock of vegetation (U.S.), the black or rough head of some plants (Austral.), in mineralogy a dark coloured nodule or boulder; = Negro head."

    My sense is that the term is a child of its time (1859) and would be considered politically incorrect or even offensive these days, at least in the UK.

    Happy reading!


    Senior Member
    Français, Canada
    We use snowshoes lots when it's like that, like right now [thin snowcover]. That's not because it's deep but it's good to walk through niggerhead [tussocks].
    Source : there


    New Member
    english u.s.a
    i am am also reading this book. my grandpa told me it was a type of tree. so far i ve been searching for the word to and have had no luck.


    Senior Member
    skater64 said:
    i am am also reading this book. my grandpa told me it was a type of tree. so far i ve been searching for the word to and have had no luck.
    Bonjour skater64! :)

    Try to search under the latin name:

    Plant species
    Carex secta

    Common names
    Purei, Makura, Niggerhead

    General growth characteristics:
    1-1.5m tall. Droppinh harsh tussocks...

    And the tree - Here.


    New Member
    New Zealand, English
    I just finished reading account where a pioneer in New Zealand C.1880 used 'niggerheads' to smoke bacon after his wife cured it.


    New Member
    Canadian English

    I came across this site in search of politically correct terminology for nigger-head (flats) but so far have found nothing suitable. Anyway I am a Yukoner and spent my pre-school years living in the vicinity where Jack London had his cabin while in the Yukon. He lived on Henderson Creek, we lived on Barker Creek.

    There is no simple or brief way to describe a nigger-head flat but I will attempt trying. There are kilometre after kilometre of these flats in some areas of central Yukon. Individual nigger-heads vary from approximately 15-25 cm in diameter and 25-40 cm in height. They are tussocks of grass that continue to grow annually of their self; though their core and base are frozen even throughout summer. They are for the most part dead grass brownish yellow in color but the under layers contain live very pale grasses. Picture the back view of a human head with thick straight clinging shoulder-length hair of the colors above.

    A flat of nigger-heads are relatively level on top; it is the frozen muck beneath that may be uneven. There is little space between them.

    I have never read “To Build A Fire” but assume it was about winter travel other wise I believe the author would have put more into describing crossing the “flats”. It is a very trying experience for child or adult, in summer and sometimes even in winter, especially if one is carrying a heavy pack as most would be, in earlier years.

    It is impossible to walk on top stepping from one to another as the tops though firm, are flexible and slippery. There is normally several cm of mud and water between them. If you sit down on one to rest your butt will be wet. You need to carefully step between them as nearly each step means your ankle will turn so your boot is on edge, or is wedged toe or heal down; and sometime it is difficult to pull out. One finds their self down on their knees or backside more than once.

    In winter if the snow isn’t packed you will still go down every half dozen steps. If it is winter and there is 20 cm or so of snow, and you have snowshoes crossing is much easier. My snowshoes are 145 cm L by 26 cm W; crossing with them would be a breeze.

    It would be great if someone comes up with new appropriate politically correct terminology that would be recognizable to locals.

    Although you likely have learned this already, -50 F = -45.5 C and -75 F = -59.5 C.

    I liked you quip on closing!!!


    New Member
    For obvious reasons, the term is no longer used to refer to the flower commonly known as "black-eyed Susan". I became curious about the term when encountering it in John Steinbeck's "East of Eden", Chapter 15, sub-chapter [2]: "The wild oat roots stood up like nigger-heads where the winds blew the earth away."

    The Latin name for the flower is Rudbeckia hirta. It is the State Flower of Maryland.


    New Member
    Canadian English

    With your reference to "black-eyed Susan" and other related threads I have seen here it is apparent the term was used at different time, in various locations, to describe a variety of vegetation occurrences nevertheless no more appropriate.


    Senior Member
    français - France
    Les "niggerheads " sont peut-être des "touradons": des touffes végétales dans les tourbières. Voir photo: ça ressemble vraiment à des têtes chevelues.
    Last edited:
    < Previous | Next >