An Official's Vocabulary Lesson
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A01 (excerpted)

Niggardly. Say it fast. Like many words, it means different things to different people. Especially when said out loud.

To those aware of its ancient origin, niggardly means stingy and has absolutely no documentable racial overtones.

To those who don't know the word, niggardly conjures dark images of mean-spiritedness and racism.

To David Howard, who resigned {...} as the head of the District's Office of Public Advocate, niggardly could mean an abrupt end to a public service career.

There may be more to Howard's resignation than meets the eye, or the ear. The new mayor, Anthony A. Williams, who's under fire from some quarters for "not being black enough," said {...} that he would reevaluate the situation. But if one believes Howard's public statement, that he used the word innocently and in its correct context and that he "would never think of making a racist remark," then the fact that he lost his job over a misheard word is truly remarkable.

The episode began, Howard said, after a {...} meeting with the mayor, when he reported to aides Marshall Brown and John Fanning that there would not be much money available for the constituent services office.

Howard said: "I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be a lot of money."

Both Brown, a black veteran government worker, and Fanning, who is white and also has worked for District government, looked stunned at Howard's words. Howard, who is white, said he immediately knew that the two men were unfamiliar with the word, which he learned while studying for his SAT as a high school junior. Brown stormed out of the office as Howard tried to explain and offer an apology. Two days later, Brown called Howard at home and asked him to apologize, but Howard said "he didn't want to hear what I had to say" about the word.

Of "niggardly," Mike Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World Dictionary, said, "I would not hesitate to use it, but I'm in an office with 15 other people working on a dictionary." He does, however, avoid using words -- like "forte" -- that might confuse his listener. "Everybody wants to be understood whether he be a speaker or a writer."

And what if we lose this word for all time because of the confluence of political correctness and miscomprehension? "We lose words every day," Agnes said. "Language is always in process, always in flux, always changing, particularly from generation to generation. We lose words, we lose dialects, we lose entire languages."

He added, "Because of its multiplicity of influences, its wealth of synonyms and its accumulated literature, people hold up the English language as one of the great achievements of civilization, of mankind."

"Niggardly" and the noun "niggard" have been traced to the 1300s and the words nig and nigon, meaning miser, in Middle English. It may have earlier roots in older languages.

There have been other incidents involving this word. A food reviewer for the Dallas Morning News, for example, caused a similar controversy last year by reporting that a certain restaurant had bland food because of "a niggardly hand with seasonings." The chef, as it turned out, was black. The paper ran a clarification immediately, apologizing to any readers who misunderstood the word. Because of the incident, however, the newspaper has decided to avoid using the word, said Sue Smith, an editor.

The word also shows up occasionally in Supreme Court decisions. "It is time we stopped being niggardly in construing civil rights legislation," wrote Justice William O. Douglas in a 1970 opinion.

--Excerpts from material © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Nig"gard (?), n. [Icel. hnoggr niggardly, stingy + -ard; cf. Sw. njugg, AS. hne�xa0;w.]

A person meanly close and covetous; one who spends grudgingly; a stingy, parsimonous fellow; a miser.

Chaucer.

A penurious niggard of his wealth. Milton.

Be niggards of advice on no pretense. Pope.

 

© Webster 1913.


Nig"gard, a.

Like a niggard; meanly covetous or parsimonious; niggardly; miserly; stingy.

 

© Webster 1913.


Nig"gard, v. t. & i.

To act the niggard toward; to be niggardly.

[R.]

Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.

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