N is For Niggardly

Niggardly – miserly, stingy, cheap.

The company was particularly niggardly with salaries; serving out the rations with a niggardly hand.

Niggard is thought to be related to the Old Norse verb nigla = “to fuss about small matters”. It is cognate with “niggling”, meaning “petty” or “unimportant”, as in “the niggling details”.

In the United States, there have been several controversies concerning the word niggardly due to its similarity to the racial slur nigger. Etymologically the two words are unrelated. On January 15, 1999, David Howard, a white aide to the black mayor of Washington D.C. used the word in reference to a budget, offending one of his black colleagues who took it as a racial slur. Howard resigned.

The incident led to a national debate in the U.S., in the context of racial sensitivity and political correctness, on whether the use of niggardly should be avoided. 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.”

I remember the incident well, and applauded Julian Bond’s take on it. But then when I was researching the word for this blog, I came across David Howard’s reaction when the mayor offered him his job back. He 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 naïve, especially for a white person, because a white person can afford to be colorblind. They don’t have to think about race every day.  An African American does.”

I was struck by Howard’s words. As a white South African, I grew up witnessing the pain and injustice of apartheid and as a result have a hypersensitivity to prejudice of any kind, but I didn’t and I don’t have to think about race every day. I can see how just the first three letters of the word niggardly can hit the emotional body and reason can fly out the door.

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10 thoughts on “N is For Niggardly

  1. in the best of all possible worlds, people would see a word, an idea, etc., for what it is and not be prejudiced by erroneous associations. Not that I’m a purist . . . Particularly timely that I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, in which an invitation to appear in South Africa was rescinded (with reluctance) because of the furor re: ‘The Satanic Verses.’

  2. Great post. I love the stories behind language, and this is certainly a modern one. I agree that dictionaries should have been bought and passed around, and that people’s ignorance often exacerbates already-difficult situations. Personally, I don’t use the word niggardly because its sound strikes to close to the racial slur. Believe me, once you’ve been on the receiving end of that, you’re never too keen on hearing it.

  3. Wow, you made me aware of a word I didn’t know existed and I consider myself well versed in words other people don’t use often. I agree that it is too close to the racial slur and should be avoided – simply because if I was ignorant to the word, the general population probably is as well.

  4. There a sort of confusion here. I think other races should know.

    African-Americans and Black Americans aren’t the same.

    You can be an African American but not be a Black American, but you are automatically an African American if you are a Black American.

    Example: Obama is an “African-American” but he’s not a Black American.

    Being Black American doesn’t mean one is ghetto, impoverished, or uneducated.

    An African from any country, either 1st generation or 2nd, hasn’t had the assimilation of American Europification quite yet and is different by physical attributes and communal/family/social life from Black Americans.

    Example: Look at the general physique of a white South African decent vs a general white American physique.

    I’ve even seen Blacks and AAs fight against each other because they see a noticeable difference.

    I feel the first step to fixing this race issue is from the inside out.. Understanding the heritage of your particular race and embrace that. Then, learn about other races and embrace it even more. Start out by learning how to “greet” others properly.

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