A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is "niggardly" a racist word?

January 3, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I was recently involved in a discussion, a rather heated one at that, over the word niggardly.  While I am familiar with the dictionary definition of the word, my premise was that it likely derives from the same source as the infamous N-word. I attributed no racist motives to the speaker, but I suspect that the origins of the word were not so benign. When did it enter the English language and from which other language? While I am no proponent of political correctness, I have tended to look on this word with the same disdain as I have for terms such as Indian giver, Jewing someone down, and welshing on a bet. Am I being overly sensitive?

You might look in a better fargin' dictionary. Sure, the origin of "niggard" is unclear, but not its timeline, which predates the N-word in the English language by a couple hundred years at least. "Niggard" comes up as early as Chaucer, late 14th century. The most commonly speculated origin is Scandanavian nig/Old Norse hnoggr, meaning miserly. Don't know how much faith you want to put in Indo-European roots, but one meaning of the root ken- is conjectured to relate a family of words with a connotation implying closing, tightening, or pinching (the family of related words is hypothesized to include such n-words as nap, nibble, nod, nosh, neap, nip). The racial slur "nigger," on the other hand, doesn't enter the lexicon until the 1500's, first as "neger" or "neeger," obviously from the same root as the French negre and Spanish negro, words for the color black, which are derived from the Latin niger.

Likely, your conversation on the word occurred about the same time as much of the country's, when poor David Howard made the national news for use of this term. Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who described his own administration of a particular fund as "niggardly" in the presence of two of his staff members. He has since been quoted as saying he "immediately apologized" for making what might be misinterpreted as a "racist remark," but the damage had been done. Rumors circulated that he had in fact used a racial epithet (one attribution claimed he said, "I'm tired of all these niggers calling me with their problems"), and he eventually resigned. Eventually the mayor, after determining the facts, asked him to rescind his resignation, and he rejoined the administration, albeit in another position. The D.C. mayor's web page lists him as the mayor's scheduler.

The moral of the story is, this is what happens when people insist on relying on folk etymology and speculation. Howard was pressured to resign by people who, as columnist Tony Snow put it, "actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance." There are hundreds of words in English, or any language, that sound similar--or even identical--to others, but have completely unrelated origins and definition. Sure, you don't want to offend anyone deliberately, but there's a fine line between not being a jerk and examining every word you speak for nuances that might be misinterpreted by people who don't understand them. If there's one thing the Straight Dope has taught me, political correctness should always take a back seat to actual correctness.

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