Once again, someone is getting in trouble for using the word “niggardly”.
On Thursday, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) used the word in response to a question about spending for veterans. He said, in part:
“Of course we’re falling short,” he said. “There are people, as you know Matt, in this Congress who will always send a blank check when it comes to spending money on defense or war, but are a little more niggardly, if you will, on spending money on the actual veterans when they come home. And that means we don’t greet them well enough in terms of getting them the right testing when they’re back in Coshocton, Cleveland or Lima, Ohio.”
What is that word? What does it mean? Where does it come from?
nig·gard·ly [nig-erd-lee] (adjective)
1. reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly.
2. meanly or ungenerously small or scanty: a niggardly tip to a waiter.
So, did someone invent this word because they thought black people were tight-fisted? No. It has absolutely nothing to do with race.
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in Middle English.
There have been people who have gotten into trouble for using the word, assailed by people who did not know better. In 1999, David Howard, an aid to Mayor Anthony Williams in Washington, DC resigned after coming under fire for using the word. His resignation was accepted. The mayor was later shown the meaning and etymology of the word and realized he had been misinformed by a bunch of offended sophomores. He rehired Howard and apologized.
In 2002, A fourth-grade teacher in North Carolina was formally reprimanded by the school when an African-American parent was offended by her use of the word in class. A formal letter was placed in the teachers file, accusing her of not being sensitive to the diverse school population and directing her to not use the word again. The student was moved to another class. The teacher was forced to apologize to the parent for teaching her students a perfectly innocent English word with no racial connotations. Hundreds of people around the country wrote in to her defense.
Let’s contrast this word with another. What about the slang term “gyp”? As in “to gyp someone out of money”. This term actually does come from the word “gypsy” and would be understandably offensive for a teacher, government worker or U.S. Senator from Ohio to use. “Niggardly” may be an old-sounding word. But, it is not remotely racist.