September 03, 2002
American Political Correctness & the word "Niggardly"

I've mentioned before that I like words. I like to learn new words, I like to explore etymology, I like to read words used in literature...

I've also been meaning to write something about American Political Over-correctness in my blog... Today I got the chance to combine the two ;-)

Local newspaper Wilmington Star raises the issue of a parent wanting a teacher fired for teaching a class an adverb with a so-called "racial slur":

Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School, taught the word "niggardly" to her class last week in an effort to improve her students' vocabularies.

Now, a parent wants her fired.

(via inappropriate response, via MT's Recently updated-list)

I don't know how common this word is - I only discovered it today, but according to the article, it's also used in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers".

According to dict.org, the word is defined like this:

Niggardly
\Nig"gard*ly\, a.
Meanly covetous or avarcious in dealing with others; stingy; niggard.

Where the owner of the house will be bountiful, it is not for the steward to be niggardly. --Bp. Hall.
Syn: Avarcious; covetous; parsimonious; sparing; miserly; penurios; sordid; stingy.


niggardly
adj : petty in giving or spending; "a niggardly tip" [syn: grudging, scrimy]

The Whilmington Star goes on:
This isn't the first time the word has stirred controversy. In 1999, for instance, an employee in the Washington, D.C., mayor's office resigned after being accused of using a racial slur. He had used the word "niggardly" during a conversation about funding.

Ms. Bell said she was sorry the word offended someone, but she wants people to understand that "niggardly" is an appropriate word.

"If these children read it, they are going to need to know what they are reading," she said. "My concern is that we are treading a fine line here. … What word do we take out next?"

No offense to our American readers, but pleeeae... Political correctness can go too far! Some digging on the above mentioned Washington DC case gave me this article from Salon magazine: The N-word:
David Howard, the white director of a Washington D.C. municipal agency [..] told his staff that, in light of budget cutbacks, he would have to be "niggardly" with funds. An uproar followed that resulted in Howard's resignation, which was accepted by Mayor Anthony Williams on the grounds that Howard had shown poor judgment.

Even some of the commentators who admitted that they knew that "niggardly" has no relation to "nigger" (the origins of the first word predate those of "nigger" by about 300 years) still condemned Howard. They were answered by the columnist Tony Snow, who wrote, "David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who

a) didn't know the meaning of the word 'niggardly'

b) didn't know how to use a dictionary to discover the word's meaning and

c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance."

Further digging on the etymology of the word reveals:
Despite the similarity in spelling - [...] - this word has no connection with nigger. The adverb form niggardly was formed in the sixteenth century from niggard, the name for a miser or stingy person. In the Wycliffe Bible of 1384 it was spelt nygard; earlier still it can be found as nigon, and another form nig also existed. We are pretty sure this was borrowed from a Scandinavian source, because there are related words in several Germanic languages, for example, the Old Norse hnøgger, meaning "stingy".

(Source: World Wide Words)

Firing people because they master the English language better than their critics? I totally understand that words or phrases that imply that a certain person is of lesser value due to his or her colour, gender or religion are sensitive, but just don't take it too far and start censoring words that do not have this meaning or intent!

I also understand that race is a sensitive issue in the States (like it also is (and increasingly becoming) in Europe), but still - what's the deal with camouflaging it as if differences in appearance are non-existing? It's the inside that counts, remember? What people think and believe, how they behave - what they say & what they do - not what colour their skin has!

Comedian George Calin has been quoted to have said or written the following on the "Black" vs "African American" vs "Coloured" issue:

First of all, I say "black." I say "black" because most black people prefer "black." I don't say "people of color." People of color sounds like something you see when you're on mushrooms. Besides, the use of people of color is dishonest. It means precisely the same as colored people. If you're not willing to say "colored people," you shouldn't be saying "people of color."

Besides, the whole idea of color is bullshit anyway. What should we call white people? "People of no color?" Isn't pink a color? In fact, white people are not really white at all, they're different shades of pink, olive, and beige. In other words, they're colored. And black people are rarely black. [...]

Read the rest of it here. Quite entertaining really... 'nuff said? :-)

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Comments

I hear what you're saying with political correctness gone too far; people shouldn't get fired because other people misconstrue the words they use. (I remember a teacher in my high school had an enraged parent phone him because he'd called the parent's child a "Homosapien".)

That said, I've always had a problem with the term "niggardly". It's always been my least favorite word in the English language. Yes, it's not technically a racial slang, but I do think that people with cultural sensitivity and taste avoid using the term.

Posted by: mike pugh on September 3, 2002 10:34 PM

Thanks for your comment, Mike. My point was not whether it's a beautiful word, but I appreciate and understand your feedback on this. Because of the similarity to the "n-word" (as Salon chose to label it) I can see that over in the States it is a politically sensitive word.

Still, though, I was just baffled to see which proportions such misunderstandings could take, and that's what motivated my investigations & my blogging about the topic and this word in particular...

As has become my habit, I chose to excerpt and link to the sources I came across - I consider this useful for myself for future reference (a la "I remember I read about some guy that got fired... now where did I read that?") and also potentially useful to spark some debate & awareness with other people.

Since the majority of webloggers are American, I like to add a European "twist" to what I write from time to time; and I like to occationally exaggurate to make points clear. :-)

Posted by: andersja on September 3, 2002 10:48 PM

I'm at loss, why should people with cultural sensitivity not use this word? By definition, it has no similarities what so ever with the racial slur. It's used to define someone as being somewhat stingy.
I do not understand our societies need to be offended at every freakin thing that someone speaks. We are not one nation, indivisible....we are a bunch of different special interest groups living within the same borders, being offended by all the other special interest groups.

Posted by: Adam on September 5, 2002 03:43 PM

Lets remove "mastication" too.

Posted by: Bryan on September 5, 2002 11:03 PM

And let's not forget Titillating. The feminists would tar and feather me for using that one. It obviously objectifies women.

Posted by: adam on September 6, 2002 03:59 PM

I live in Wilmington, and it's amazing how fast this story has spread around the globe. Makes us Americans look pretty stupid. Here we are again talking about something somebody said, and what we should be talking about is how ignorant people are. I'm not a racist, I grew up with black people, had friends that were black, and I beleive they'd all think this "niggardly" is stupid. There are just as many stupid white people as there are black, probably more. Stupiditiy is color blind... and another thing, why is it that black people are always reminding us they're black and at the very same time saying we should all be equal??? I don't get it...
My whole point is listed above, why should Ms. Bell apologize for this other womans ignorance, and the ignorance of her principal and the school board?

Posted by: Scott on September 8, 2002 06:45 AM

You know, I haven't heard anyone yet bring up the word reneged. I have noticed myself using a different way to convey my message when I am around black people.

It is usually pronounced 're-nigged', and according to Miriam Webster's online dictionary, 'ri-nig' is the very first way they describe it's pronunciation followed by three others, that I'm sure arose out of cultural sensitivity:
(notice the pronunciation, and at the very end, the noun 're-neg-er', which is pronounced re-niger)

One entry found for renege.

Main Entry: re·nege
Pronunciation: ri-'nig, -'neg, -'nEg, -'nAg
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): re·neged; re·neg·ing
Etymology: Medieval Latin renegare
Date: 1548
transitive senses : DENY, RENOUNCE
intransitive senses
1 obsolete : to make a denial
2 : REVOKE
3 : to go back on a promise or commitment
- re·neg·er noun

Now, I am always grieved when I use a different way of conveying my message instead of saying "they guy flat-out reneged on his contract." I'll say "the guy flat-out, broke terms of his contract." Which doesn't quite express exactly what happned as the term reneged does. But the thing that troubles me most, is the fact that I am feeling pressure to communicate differently toward certain people than I do toward others that may not have a heightened sensitivity to words that have no association to the word 'nigger' and actually predate the term of derision. So in essence, I am being pressured to discriminate so that someone doesn't get the false impression that I am discriminating against them.

Sure someone could say "Then why don't you just say 're-nagged'? or re-negg-er? instead of re-nig and 're-nigger'?" And to that I would say, the reason is simply the same as the reason I cited above. I am betraying the use of a legitimate word, and the proper pronounciation and using a 'consolation' version. Like the Carlin quote showed, it's either wrong to say it or it isn't. So if it is wrong to pronounce reneg the proper way, then it is dishones to simply disguise it (refer to Carlin's 'colored people' versus 'people of color', either they are both right or both wrong).

Just try it sometime, get around some black people and exclaim "I just got off the phone with the biggest reneger I've ever met." and see how many jaws hit the floor and how many dirty looks you get.

Believe me, I'm all about not offending people, like for example, I caught my mother using the term "see if you can Jew him down on the price." and I had to educate her as to how derrogatory and insulting that is. Then my wife picked up on it and began saying, in ignorance, "I chewed him down off his price." And I once again had to show her that 1. it is a 'work around' word.
2. For the same reason I do not use 'jerry-rigged' instead of 'nigger-rigged'. I also just found out today that Jerry was slang for Germans back in the day, so there is yet another reason not to use jerry-rigged.
3. No one can tell the difference between 'chewed' and 'jewed' when said quickly in a sentence.

So believe me, I don't want to use offending words. But it becomes ridiculous when we cannot even use legitimate words, because of people's ignorance.

If I were black and I found out that my white co-workers were afraid to use the word reneged around me, I would be insulted that they have all made conscious decisions to speak differently to me, than to white people for example. I would also be slightly offended that they did not think that I was smart enough to know what reneged meant. So it is a catch-22, one that I resent.

Posted by: George from CARM on September 9, 2002 06:35 PM

I would just like to thank andersja for presenting this case because I now intend upon using this idea over political-overcorrectness in an investigative essay for me English Composition class.

Posted by: Chris on November 5, 2002 03:42 AM

What about "Nigeria"?

Posted by: A. Bennet on February 1, 2003 09:06 PM

I know this all happened a while ago, but I am writing a research paper on the "n-word" for my history of english language class. I chose this because I know what niggard means but I also as an african-american know how it feels to hear the word. I truly cannot comprehend why it is so difficult for people to understand why blacks overracted. I know that just like a white person cannot know what it feels like to hear the word as a black person, i can't know what it feels like to be white. People are not using good discretion nowadays at all. The point is not whether a black person is too ignorant to know the true meaning of the word, the point is.. GOSH, can you IMAGINE how it feels to hear that?? To be a black person in this contradictory country? To face a form of racism everyday? Its not just the black thing either. I can not stand to hear these insensitive people of today using the word fag to mean stupid when they know that homosexuals, another people who experience much discriminiation, are negatively called fags. Whats so hard to understand? Also, the original meaning of the word nigger did not mean "black person" before slave time. But should we revert to using it in its original context as well?. People can't just stop their emotions from happening, they just happen. We should try caring and respecting. As soon as blacks are ALLOWED to feel somewhat equal, then maybe we can bring words like niggardly back into modern vocabulary, as it definitely has hardly been used in the passed centuries anyway. Its a Middle English word, used mostly in those times.

Posted by: Chandra on February 11, 2003 01:12 AM

A. BENNER...you don't want me to respond to your email? Every reply I send is sent back to me.

Posted by: chandra on February 11, 2003 06:41 AM

Disenchanted writes about exactly the same incident(s) in "Whazzup, mah nigger?":
http://www.disenchanted.com/humanity/wassup.html

Posted by: andersja on February 26, 2003 09:11 PM

Once more, we see the "benefits" of a public education in this country. I guarantee that stupid, uneducated, hick mother was the prize pupil in her class. Most government officials are no better, bowing and scraping to special interest groups. They have their heads so far up Jesse Jackson's and Al Sharpton's rear ends, they would have to drill holes to see daylight. Not to say that we should be insensitive to the REAL issues of our day. But whether or not we say or don't say a certain word takes attention away from the issues that matter most. LONG LIVE FREE SPEECH!! Hey, its the FIRST AMENDMENT! Remember- THE CONSTITUTION?!

Posted by: Dave on April 24, 2003 09:52 PM

When I heard the N-word I asked the white person for the defintion and I was still offended!!! Because white people use the defintion to describe black people. Blacks are still offended by the N-word because of what white people in America have made it to be. White's freedom of speech have cost blacks their life. White's are the ones that took it out of content and now whites are paying the price for their past.

Posted by: Linda on May 24, 2003 02:29 PM

Like Chris, I was wandering around the net looking for sources for a politically correct paper. Some of the articles really make me ill that I've run into. One was on how in effort to be more pc, textbooks were edited making them less historically accurate. This is particularly irksome to me because I love history. The Founding Fathers are now called "The Framers" so as not to be exclusive to women. The fact of the matter is none of them were women, so it isn't exclusive. The term Founding Fathers is used to pay honor to men who did great things for America and has nothing to do with male-dominance.

The drive to be increasingly politically correct hasn't done anything to noticably improve society. Conversely, its made half the world parinoid of being called racist, sexist, and a whole circus of other -ist's and the other half suspicious of every tiny comment and its possible bigoted connotations. In such a world, it's difficult to say anything in fear of what people might think we are saying.

The politically correct movement is not only proffoundly irrational, but counterproductive to its goal (and several others). By comming up with Euphemisms innumerable for everything from handicaps to religious convictions, we further define these surperficial groups that have nothing to do with the individuals that make up those groups.

Posted by: Will on December 4, 2003 04:57 PM

i'm writing a persuasive piece on the use of politically correctness, and i'd like to thank you for posting this issue. it's insane that we need to tiptoe around everyone nowadays, instead of being able to use our freedom of speech and say 'black' or 'blind' or anything else. what kind of society have we become?

Posted by: meg on February 20, 2004 08:57 PM

It is refreshing to see that someone, albeit not an American (meaning only that it would be nice if someone on this side of the pond took a leaf from your book), deals with these absurd brain-children of the PC movement with a cool head. It is deeply troubling that the school's agenda would have a word's distant acoustic resemblance to a racial slur preclude the teaching of that word (in recent years, similar courses of action have been taken to eliminate masticate, thespian, philately, fagot, query, and a whole slew of other words from our language). Moreover, this whole incident has hounded one of our precious few dedicated and informed teachers away from teaching. No wonder our public is so ignorant!

Posted by: Matthew on March 25, 2004 11:15 PM

After reading Chandra's post, I felt the desire to get something off my chest, and figured that an anonymous outlet was the best course of action, lest any person that knows me should stumble upon this. If you find this a little self-important, I apoligize in advance. It was originally intended for the writer, but I could not get Outlook to function properly.
I will respond to each of the post's constituent points (a chunk of her post, followed by my thoughts).

I know this all happened a while ago, but I am writing a research paper on the "n-word" for my history of english language class.


Fine by me, but why call it the "N-Word"? It is exactly that type of tiptoing around words that perpetrate these absurd acts.


I chose this because I know what niggard means but I also as an african-american know how it feels to hear the word. I truly cannot comprehend why it is so difficult for people to understand why blacks overracted. I know that just like a white person cannot know what it feels like to hear the word as a black person, i can't know what it feels like to be white.


It's the inside that counts, right? There is no fundamental biological difference between your brain and anyone else's by the merit of skin color. Of course, everyone possesses a unique mind, but these differences do not derive from skin color. This type of thinking deteriorates, rather than aids the process of tearing down racial barriers.


People are not using good discretion nowadays at all. The point is not whether a black person is too ignorant to know the true meaning of the word, the point is.. GOSH, can you IMAGINE how it feels to hear that??


Well, as a Jew, I hear the words screw, rue, as well as many other words that sound just like Jew and take no offense. Should these words be censored from our vocabularies? Moreover, should Huckleberry Finn and The Nigger and the Narcissus be removed from school curricula? Where does the madness stop?


To be a black person in this contradictory country? To face a form of racism everyday?

Of course, racial barriers still exist. However, we should seek to eliminate, not to conceal them.

Posted by: Matthew on March 26, 2004 07:08 AM

There is a significant difference between an intentionally derogatory term and its distant phonetic cousin.

We should. Efforts to conceal and repress any form of fluid discourse on the topic hinders that goal.


First and foremost, as pointed out by Anders, "niggardly" was used in The Two Towers, hardly a Middle English work (though Tolkein was a scholar of Middle English, which may have led to his choice of a slightly antiquated vocabulary). Second, the only way in which all groups will ever feel equal is if we return to our senses, stop tiptoing around the topic, and eliminate institutions such as affirmitive action, which foster the absurd notion that black people need a step-up to achieve anything.

Posted by: Matthew on March 26, 2004 07:16 AM

I started work at a store in Florida. I have lived my whole life in NJ and have worked in the construction field for years. My workers in Nj were mostly black as were all my neighbors and the kids who hung out at my house.
In a private conversation, out side on break I used the word niggar-rigged. I in no way ment to offend any one. This word was a common word where I came from used by blacks and whites to decribe a half done, shoddy, cheap job.
Needless to say my words resulted in a discrimination write up. I am truely sorry to have offended anyone but I was surprized at the over reaction. The men in this class cursed in the class room like truck drivers but yet nothing was said to them. OOps was the term like truck drivers discriminatory too????

Posted by: Anna Marie on November 8, 2004 02:00 PM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Obviously, Linda needs to come back to the 21st Century. The whole slavery thing raised its ugly head again. Keep in mind, that slavery was a bad, bad idea, and it has happened throughout human history. Let's not point fingers too much at whites when we bring up slavery...who do you think sold out black slaves to the whites? Other blacks. Get over slavery and become color-blind (like the EnVogue song) Linda also needs to capitalize African-American when she types it; owing respect to a name of a group of proper nouns. Linda and so many other people need to also not see a reason to "pay the price" for the past...If you can prove your ancestors were slaves, YOU BECOME A MILLIONAIRE...If we are to truly clean up our speech, we need to remember that this is the United States, full of different dialects and phrases of speech. Think twice before you open your mouth. I was using the word "perhaps" to a 16 year old back when I was 20...she thought that such an antiquated term made me sound like a fool...a few years later, a song by the band Cake had "Perhaps" as its title...I guess I was cool then! If you are any kind of educated person, understand also that unfamiliar terms like the word "niggardly" will definitely turn heads in an unpleasant manner...just the way humans think. We really listen not for new words in our vocabulary, but for familiar ones. Also, remember that we are all going to have to be sensitive, and those we work around need to know us (no matter what color you are) as non-racist...which takes time, trust, and friendship. Time, trust and friendship will also heal the scars of slavery. Everyone should really just calm down. Real racism is so rare nowadays, it's really a joke.

Posted by: gabriel on January 27, 2005 01:40 AM

The reason we shouldn't use this word is because it is archaic. It exists only as an esoteric literary trap to try and catch out those people who understandably have both never heard the word and think it sounds an awful lot like the word "nigger".

Posted by: Ben Spizzer on May 23, 2005 10:25 PM

"I know this all happened a while ago, but I am writing a research paper on the "n-word" for my history of english language class. I chose this because I know what niggard means but I also as an african-american know how it feels to hear the word. I truly cannot comprehend why it is so difficult for people to understand why blacks overracted. I know that just like a white person cannot know what it feels like to hear the word as a black person, i can't know what it feels like to be white. People are not using good discretion nowadays at all. The point is not whether a black person is too ignorant to know the true meaning of the word, the point is.. GOSH, can you IMAGINE how it feels to hear that?? To be a black person in this contradictory country? To face a form of racism everyday? Its not just the black thing either. I can not stand to hear these insensitive people of today using the word fag to mean stupid when they know that homosexuals, another people who experience much discriminiation, are negatively called fags. Whats so hard to understand? Also, the original meaning of the word nigger did not mean "black person" before slave time. But should we revert to using it in its original context as well?. People can't just stop their emotions from happening, they just happen. We should try caring and respecting. As soon as blacks are ALLOWED to feel somewhat equal, then maybe we can bring words like niggardly back into modern vocabulary, as it definitely has hardly been used in the passed centuries anyway. Its a Middle English word, used mostly in those times."

Chandra,

It's uppity niggers like you that set the black cause so far back. When people hear idiots (like you) defend idiotic policies, that does nothing to improve the plight of blacks in this country. You fuckers already get into college easier just cuz of your skin. I am so fucking sick of you whiny ass motherfuckers!

Posted by: andy on June 20, 2005 06:58 PM

"The reason we shouldn't use this word is because it is archaic. It exists only as an esoteric literary trap to try and catch out those people who understandably have both never heard the word and think it sounds an awful lot like the word "nigger"."
ROFL, yes, I'm sure that was their plan back in the 16th century..."Hey, let's come up with a word that means cheap, but let's make it rhyme with a word that doesn't even exist yet that will eventually become a derogatory term for black people."

Good call. The whole concept of asking the entire planet to stop using a perfectly valid word (regardless of how old it may be), just because it SOUNDS like another word is both ridiculous and very pretentious. Jesus, this PC movement has to be stopped. It's WAY out of hand.

Posted by: Gary on August 12, 2005 06:39 PM

"The reason we shouldn't use this word is because it is archaic. It exists only as an esoteric literary trap to try and catch out those people who understandably have both never heard the word and think it sounds an awful lot like the word "nigger"."
ROFL, yes, I'm sure that was their plan back in the 16th century..."Hey, let's come up with a word that means cheap, but let's make it rhyme with a word that doesn't even exist yet that will eventually become a derogatory term for black people in about 400 years."

Good call. The whole concept of asking the entire planet to stop using a perfectly valid word (regardless of how old it may be), just because it SOUNDS like another word is both ridiculous and very pretentious. Jesus, this PC movement has to be stopped. It's WAY out of hand.

Posted by: Gary on August 12, 2005 06:41 PM

This discussion is interesting, because I lived near DC (Northern Virginia, thank you) during that incident and if it wasn't so stupidly tragic, it would have been funny.

I mean, we have a former Mayor crackhead who looted the city treasury, and the new Mayor is going to fix things by putting witty sayings on the license plates and firing people for saying words that SOUND SIMILAR to a racial slur.

The Washington Post reported at the time that in the DC School system, an adminsitrator was almost fired after she complimented a co-worker for having "discriminating taste".

Apparently, the co-worker thought that "discriminating" could only be used in the context of racial discrimination and that the compliment (a very high one, indeed!) was a racial slur.

We are through the looking glass here.

Maybe she should have translated it into Ebonics first.

Oh, wait, I didn't say that!

;)

Posted by: Robert Bell on August 25, 2005 04:30 AM

People these days are not using fair discretion. The point is not whether a black person is too ignorant to know the true meaning of the word, the point is.. GOSH, can you IMAGINE how it feels to hear that??

Posted by: sheehan on September 10, 2005 02:58 PM

The word "Fag" means to toil, work hard, or exhaust oneself in labor. Other definitions refer to cigarrettes.
Yet this word is now edited out of television programs.
If you say this word among homosexuals, their jaws will drop.
What should we do about this word, or "queer"?

Posted by: Jerome on November 30, 2005 04:44 PM
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