Controversies about the word "niggardly"

Look up niggardly or niggard in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

In the United States, there have been several controversies concerning the word "niggardly", an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly", because of its phonetic similarity to the racial slur "nigger". Etymologically the two words are unrelated.

Word origins

"Niggardly" (noun: "niggard") is an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly". It can be traced back at least to the Middle English word nigon, which has the same meaning, and is perhaps related to the Old Norse verb nigla, which means "to fuss about small matters".[1]

"Nigger", a racist insult in English, derives from the Spanish/Portuguese word negro, meaning "black", and the French word nègre. Both negro and noir (and therefore also nègre and nigger) ultimately come from nigrum, the accusative case singular masculine and neuter form of the Latin masculine adjective niger, meaning "black" or "dark".[2]

David Howard incident

On January 15, 1999, David Howard, an aide to Anthony A. Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C., used "niggardly" in reference to a budget.[3] This apparently upset one of his black colleagues (Howard is white), identified by Howard as Marshall Brown, who misinterpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result, on January 25, Howard tendered his resignation, and Williams accepted it.[4] However, after public pressure, 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 naïve, 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."[4]

It had been speculated that this incident inspired Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain,[5] though Roth has stated that his source was an incident in the career of Melvin Tumin.[6]

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 niggardly should be avoided. 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."[7] 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."[8]

Bond also said, "Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue" and that as a nation the US has a "hair-trigger sensibility" on race that can be tripped by both real and false grievances.[9]

University of Wisconsin–Madison incident

Shortly after the Washington incident, another controversy erupted over the use of the word at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At a February 1999 meeting of the Faculty Senate, Amelia Rideau, 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. She 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."[10]

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."[10]

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.[11] The teacher, Stephanie Bell, said she used "niggardly" during a discussion about literary characters. Parent Akwana Walker, who is black, protested the use of the word, saying it offended her because it sounds similar to a racial slur.[11]

Bell's teacher's association, the North Carolina Association of Educators, told her not to speak about the situation, so her son, Tarl Bell, spoke to the newspaper. Tarl 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. The principal's letter also criticized the teacher for lacking sensitivity.[11] 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.[11]

Mendocino County, California incident

Dennis Boaz, a history teacher, sued the administrators of the Mendocino County Office of Education for defamation.[12] Boaz, who was bargaining for Ukiah schoolteachers, wrote a letter saying that the "tenor of the negotiation tactics of the district office has become increasingly negative and niggardly." The response was a memo from one defendant of the lawsuit that implied that Boaz was racist, and a letter cosigned by the other defendant and nine other individuals in the Mendocino County school system stating that Boaz's comments were "racially charged and show a complete lack of respect and integrity toward Dr. Nash, Ukiah Unified District Superintendent," who is black.

Other complaints

Short story, 1924

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 an observation by the author of the potential for confusion):[13]

'A niggardly and disgusting habit,' I commented. ... 'Just lay off that "nigger" stuff after this,' warned Pete.

Letter to The 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 Economist 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.[14]

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.[7][15]

Acampo, California

On March 31, 2010, a billboard appeared along the frontage of California State Route 99 in Acampo, California, that referred to Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, as "niggardly". A smaller sign that read "Buck Ofama" (a spoonerism of "Fuck Obama") appeared under it.[16] The sign was placed among several billboards advertising a local coffee shop that was going out of business that week. The restaurant's owner stated that they were unaware of the Obama signs until contacted by a local news station. The sign was removed shortly after news reports about it appeared on local television stations.[17]

Broward County, Florida

In November 2011, a Broward County drug counsellor was fired and another suspended for an incident in which the word "niggardly" was used. A substance-abuse client filed a complaint saying a counsellor called him "niggardly dumb" in a June meeting with two workers at a county rehab center. In an investigative report, the county's professional standards office found the workers, who are both white, engaged in "unprofessional, unethical and discriminatory" behavior.[18]

Publicity and racial use

The public controversies caused some commentators to speculate that "niggardly" would be used more often, both in its correct sense and as fodder for 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. ..."[14] Derbyshire wrote that although he loved to use words that are sometimes considered obscure, he would not use the word among black people, especially among less-educated black people, out of politeness and to avoid causing someone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of any non-racial meanings he would intend.[14]

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 website "who just happened to use 'niggardly'—linguistically correctly" in commenting on two witnesses to a Congressional investigation:[7]

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."[7] But there would be a different reaction in polite company, especially in racially diverse 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?"[7]

See also


  1. Bryan A. Garner (31 March 2009). "Words, Words, Words—and Race". Garner on Language and Writing. American Bar Association. pp. 236–238. ISBN 978-1-61632-679-1. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  2. "Nigger Usage Note". Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  3. Dowd, Maureen (31 January 1999). "Liberties; Niggardly City". The New York Times. p. 17.
  4. 1 2 "D.C. Mayor Acted 'Hastily,' Will Rehire Aide". Washington Post. February 4, 1999. Retrieved 2009-10-25.
  5. Brooks, Xan (March 2004), Sight & Sound – The Human Stain (2003), British Film Institute, archived from the original on 2009-04-01, retrieved 2014-02-03
  6. Roth, Philip (March 22, 2016). "An Open Letter to Wikipedia". The New Yorker.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Poniewozik, James (February 2, 1999). "The little N-word". Retrieved March 20, 2014.
  8. Demarco, Donald, "Acting Niggardly", article reprinted at the Catholic Education Resource Center Web site, which states the article originally appeared in Social Justice Review 91, no. 3–4 (March–April, 2000): 45–48; the article cites The Washington Post, January 29, 1999, page A24, Web page accessed March 15, 2007
  9. "NAACP official calls word flap overreaction". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Associated Press. January 29, 1999. Retrieved July 15, 2011.
  10. 1 2 Alan Charles Kors (July 1999). "Cracking the speech code". Reason. Retrieved 2009-10-25.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "Teacher reprimanded for word choice". Wilmington Star-News. September 4, 2002. Retrieved 2009-10-25.
  12. "Uproar over word choice results in lawsuit by Ukiah teacher". Ukiah Daily Journal. October 14, 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-25.
  13. Quinion, Michael (26 September 1998). "Niggardly". Retrieved July 15, 2011. It is unclear from the context of the Web page cited whether the McClure's article was a short story or nonfiction, and the quote, using the first name "Pete" may be from a work of fiction
  14. 1 2 3 Derbyshire, John (September 17, 2002). "Niggling doubts". National Review Online. Retrieved 2009-10-25.
  15. "Even before the Washington incident, the Dallas Morning News had ixnayed the word after its use in a restaurant review raised ire."
  16. Keys, Matthew (March 31, 2010). "'Niggardly Obama' Billboard Generates Outrage In Acampo". Retrieved July 15, 2011.
  17. Scullary, James (March 31, 2010). "Acampo anti-Obama sign taken down". Retrieved July 15, 2011.
  18. Mayo, Michael (November 11, 2011). "Is using this N-word (niggardly) a firing offense?". Retrieved November 11, 2011.
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