No, ‘Niggardly’ Isn’t the N-Word

A black Brit on his way to the U.S. wants to know if his use of the word will be offensive—and whether he should care.

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Is it not acceptable for a well-intentioned, educated black person to use the word because he or she likes its cadence, let alone because it happens to be le mot juste that expresses the precise meaning he or she wishes to convey? After all, was language not given to mankind to enable us to articulate our thoughts?

Moreover, how will a black person using the word “niggardly” be perceived in a room of white liberals? Or white conservatives? Or black liberals? Or black conservatives? Such is the thorny yet fascinating cultural crucible where language, race and auditory misnomers meet that makes such speculation endlessly intriguing.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a society where someone can be sacked for using the word “niggardly.” By all means, sack someone for using the n-bomb, but not for using a wholly different word that may sound like the n-word. For me, not only is that ludicrous, but it’s also the start of a very slippery slope. Should we also then ban the word “count” because it might sound like the offensive Middle English word for the female pudenda?

While it goes without saying that we must vociferously campaign against inequality, racism and prejudice in all its guises—and I am fully aware that the U.S. has a terrible history of racism, hence the need to be incredibly sensitive with one’s language—we also need to be wary of the insidious culture of taking offense when none is intended.

In England, we are increasingly becoming so sensitive that we actively look to take offense, irrespective of the context. The author Mark Twain is said to have once remarked: “To a man with a hammer, the whole world is a nail.” I am now as offended by this culture of gratuitously taking offense as I am by genuinely offensive words. Sadly today, there are still so many real, racially motivated travesties that we should be taking legitimate offense at and eradicating, instead of getting upset at spurious things.

“Don’t be so stingy!” It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? For me, the choice is now clear: If in doubt, just use the word “parsimonious” instead. Risk offending no one, but feel like an abject linguistic coward. Or throw caution to the wind, risk the consternation, wrath and opprobrium of the uneducated masses and say it loud: “I’m niggardly and proud!” Then duly watch all hell break loose. Your call.

Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.

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