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Controversies about the word "niggardly"

There have been several controversies about the word "niggardly", an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly", in the United States due to the phonetic similarity to the racial slur "nigger". The two words are, however, completely unrelated.

Word origins

"Niggardly" (noun: "niggard") is an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly", related to the Norwegian verb nigle. It is cognate with "niggling", meaning "petty" or "unimportant", as in "the niggling details".

"Nigger" derives from the Spanish/Portuguese word negro, meaning "black", and probably also the French nègre, which is likewise a racist insult derived from negro (the ordinary French word for "black" being noir). Both negro and noir (and therefore also nègre and nigger) ultimately come from nigrum, the accusative declension of the Latin word niger, meaning "black".

David Howard incident

On January 15 1999, David Howard, a white aide to Anthony A. Williams, the black mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word in reference to a budget. This apparently upset one of his black colleagues (identified by Howard as Marshall Brown), who incorrectly interpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result, on January 25 Howard tendered his resignation, and Williams accepted it.

However, after pressure from the gay community (of which Howard was a member) an internal review into the matter was brought about, and the mayor offered Howard the chance to return to his position as Office of the Public Advocate on February 4. Howard refused but accepted another position with the mayor instead, insisting that he did not feel victimized by the incident. On the contrary, Howard felt that he had learned from the situation. "I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind. That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day. An African American does."

It has been speculated that this incident inspired Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain.

Public response

The Howard incident led to a national debate in the U.S., in the context of racial sensitivity and political correctness, on whether use of the word niggardly should be avoided. Some observers noted however that the "national debate" was made up almost entirely of commentators defending use of the word. As James Poniewozik wrote in Salon, the controversy was "an issue that opinion-makers right, left and center could universally agree on." He wrote that "the defenders of the dictionary" were "legion, and still queued up six abreast."

Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, deplored the offense that had been taken at Howard's use of the word. "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding", he said. "David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back — and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.

Bond also said, "Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue. [...] We have a hair-trigger sensibility, and I think that is particularly true of racial minorities.

University of Wisconsin incident

Shortly after the Washington incident, another controversy erupted over the use of the word at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At a February meeting of the Faculty Senate, a junior English major and vice chairwoman of the Black Student Union told the group how a professor teaching Chaucer had used the word niggardly. The student later said she was unaware of the related Washington, D.C. controversy that came to light just the week before. She said the professor continued to use the word even after she told him that she was offended. "I was in tears, shaking," she told the faculty. "It's not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid."

The student's plea, offered as evidence in support of the school's speech code, instead struck an unintended chord helping to destroy it. "Many 'abolitionists', as they now were called, believe that [the student's] speech, widely reported, was the turning point," according to an article in Reason magazine. An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal addressed the student who complained, saying: "Thank you [...] for clarifying precisely why the UW-Madison does not need an academic speech code. [...] Speech codes have a chilling effect on academic freedom and they reinforce defensiveness among students who ought to be more open to learning."

Wilmington, North Carolina incident

In late January or early February 2002, a white fourth-grade teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina was formally reprimanded for teaching the word and told to attend sensitivity training.

The teacher, Stephanie Bell, said she used "niggardly" during a discussion about literary characters. But parent Akwana Walker, who is black, protested the use of the word, saying it offended her because it sounds similar to a racial slur, the Wilmington Star-News reported.

Bell's union, the North Carolina Association of Educators, told her not to speak about the situation, so her son, Tar Bell, spoke to the newspaper. Tar Bell said his mother received a letter from the school principal stating that the teacher used poor judgment and instructing her to send an apology to the parents of her students, which was done. In the principal's letter, she also criticized the teacher for lacking sensitivity.

The daughter of the complaining parent was moved to another classroom. Norm Shearin, the deputy superintendent of schools for the district, said the teacher made a bad decision by teaching the word because it was inappropriate for that grade level.

Bell defended the appropriateness of her teaching the word. "If these children read it," she said, "they are going to need to know what they are reading. ... What word do we take out next?"

Other complaints

Economist magazine, 1995

In 1995, years before the incidents in Washington, Wilmington and Madison, The Economist magazine used the word "niggardly" in an article about the impact of computers and productivity: "During the 1980s, when service industries consumed about 85% of the $1 trillion invested in I.T. in the United States, productivity growth averaged a niggardly 0.8% a year." The magazine later pointed out with amusement that it received a letter from a reader in Boston who thought the word "niggardly" was inappropriate. "Why do we get such letters only from America?" the British magazine commented.

Dallas Morning News

At some point before the Washington, D.C., incident (of early 1999), The Dallas Morning News had banned the use of the word after its use in a restaurant review had raised complaints.

Old complaint

An article in McClure's magazine in March 1924 prints this exchange (although it may have been from a short story, making it a fictional complaint and a (humorous?) observation by the author of the potential for confusion):

Publicity and new racially tinged use of the word

The public controversies caused some commentators to speculate that "niggardly" would be used more often, both in its correct sense and as fodder for childish humor, as a racist code word or both.

"The word's new lease of life is probably among manufacturers and retailers of sophomoric humor", wrote John Derbyshire, a conservative commentator, in 2002. "I bet that even as I write, some adolescent boys, in the stairwell of some high school somewhere in America, are accusing each other of being niggardly, and sniggering at their own outrageous wit. I bet ... Wait a minute. 'Sniggering'? Oh, my God...."

Derbyshire wrote that although he loved to use words that are sometimes considered obscure, he wouldn't use the word in mixed company, especially among less-educated African Americans, out of politeness and not wanting to make someone feel uncomfortable, regardless of any non-racial meanings he would intend.

Shortly after the Washington, D.C., incident, James Poniewozik wrote in his column at Slate online magazine that some were already using "niggardly" in a way that made their motives ambiguous. He quoted a posting by "chill10d" at a reader forum at the New York Times Web site "who just happened to use 'niggardly' — linguistically correctly" in commenting on two witnesses to a Congressional investigation:

B. Curry [sic] got a pc pass because her testimony like that of all Clintonistas was niggardly with the truth. It is predictable that V. Jordan will have his opportunity to be equally niggardly in this regard. Witnesses? A woman (child), a negro, and a jew — very pc indeed!

"You can't say chill10d -- white, black or Klingon for all I know -- had racist motives. And you can't exactly not say it", Poniewozik wrote. He expected a number of "pinheads" to be asking "black waitresses not to be 'niggardly' with the coffee."

But there would be a different reaction in polite company, especially in racially mixed company, so the word would probably be thought of only when people think of racial epithets. "In theory, you, I and the columnist next door will defend to the death our right to say 'niggardly'. But in practice, will we use it?"

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