“Niggardly.” Go on, I dare you. Say it. Savor those syllables. Let your tongue caress those consonants. If you’re black and reading this, you may well have just laughed, smiled knowingly, been confused or even taken offense, depending on the size of your vocabulary. If you’re white and reading this, you will probably have just experienced a mild frisson of linguistic danger, as you are either fully aware of the ramifications that your verbalizing the word might have if misconstrued, or dumb enough to think that you’re being genuinely offensive.
When, exactly, is it acceptable to use the word “niggardly”? I speak as someone who loves language, but also as someone who loves people. I’m an ardent humanist and would never seek to offend another’s feelings gratuitously.
I speak, too, as a black Briton about to move to New York to pursue his career in the U.S., but also as a proud heir to the ornate vocabulary of some of our greatest English writers, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Gibbon and Dickens, all of whom have used the word in their respective works.
Let us be very clear at the outset. “Niggardly” means parsimonious or stingy and is derived from the Old Norse language. “Niggardly,” as you will thankfully already know or will doubtless be relieved to hear, is not related to the Latin word for black—“niger”—and thus is in no way etymologically connected to the deeply pernicious, pejorative racial epithet known in common parlance as the n-word.
Ignorance of this particular homophone has led to some unfortunate reactions from people who hear the word. Most famously, in Washington, D.C., in 1999, a white mayoral aide was asked to resign (but then later had his resignation rescinded) for using the word in front of a mixed audience.
“Niggardly” and its usage throw up many fascinating linguistic, social and racial questions. In today’s highly racialized landscape, is it ever appropriate for a white person to use the word, given the obnoxious history of the racial epithet it unfortunately sounds like?
And what about a black person using it? Should we choose to steer clear of the word altogether, for fear of offending any of our etymologically less well-informed brothers and sisters, or should we use it and be damned, sticking up for the power of language, nonchalantly dismissing raised eyebrows or quizzical expressions?
I also speak as someone who for the last 10 years has been a volunteer mentor to black teenagers in Peckham, a deprived, inner-city London neighborhood. We start off every week with a vocabulary slot where we learn new words, because I fundamentally believe that language is power.
My rationale is very simple: The more words young people have in their mental arsenals, the better they will be able to articulate their thoughts. Moreover, the wider their vocabularies, the more seriously they will be taken by others, especially those with the power to offer them college places and jobs. We always teach the word “niggardly” so that, informed of its correct meaning and provenance, these young people will not react foolishly on hearing it in conversation.
As a respectful visitor to your shores, I am curious about the socio-linguistic etiquette of using the word “niggardly.” On coming to America, should I employ the word liberally, as I do here in London; banish it from my daily lexicon, for fear of being misunderstood; or preface it each time with an erudite, long-winded and what might be construed as pompous etymological explanation? To use or not to use the word “niggardly”: That is the question.
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.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.