Is the use of the word “niggardly” acceptable and politically correct?

By: | Post date: 2016-08-25 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

There’s several perspectives one can take on the whole sorry-ass saga of niggardly, on which as always see Controversies about the word “niggardly”.

There’s the perspective of the linguist, the language-lover, the activist, and the anti-American.

The Anti-American first, so I can get it off my chest:

Christ, I’m glad I don’t live in your country.

Australia has a bad history with its Indigenous people, with the Melanesians it colonised, and now with the Somali refugees who are the latest marauding evil criminal youth gangs (it was the Vietnamese 20 years ago). But…

Christ, I’m glad I don’t live in your country.

More on that later.

The linguist:

If a critical mass of people within a language community think the word is unacceptable, well, then it’s unacceptable. Enough people here and in related threads have indicated that it is.

It doesn’t mean they’re etymologically right; but etymology is only one factor in how words work. There’s any number of connotations words acquire without being informed by etymology: language is a synchronic system, and connotations works synchronically.

Of course, my fellow personas Anti-American and Language-Lover don’t particularly feel they’re in the same language community as the people who object to niggardly, or even the same planet. But that’s not how it works. The word’s become a trigger for a critical mass of people, and is resulting in people reporting comments on Quora: Why would one of my comments be reported because I used the word niggardly?

Back to the Anti-American:

FFS, I don’t live in your God-forsaken country; do I have to put up with your “Is X random ethnicity white” and “niggardly is a bad word” bizarre racial obsessions here too?

The linguist:

Yes. Yes you do.

Well, not the former one. But yes, because you’re still part of the same language community.

The language-lover:

Niggardly is a useful word. And it’s useful because of its added connotations: it says things that miserly doesn’t. In particular, it (probably) comes from the same Scandinavian word as niggling does, and it has the connotations of niggling that miserly does not: pedantic, fussing over details, penny-pinching.

The linguist:

Yeah. But connotations work both ways. And now it has the added connotations of “that word that that guy in DC got fired over”, and “that word that sounds like nigger”. Because connotations work synchronically and not just etymologically.

The Anti-American:

In fricking America it does. And not to all Americans either, just a vocal minority of whingers.

The linguist:

And you’re still stuck in the same language community as them.

Note also that the negative connotations have taken over, because niggardly was not a common word to begin with.

The activist:

The Anti-American:

Nick, pull the other one mate. You’re not an activist.

The observer of activism:

I note with interest the initial reaction of the late Julian Bond, head of the NAACP at the time, to the Ground Zero incident in 1999, where the guy was fired: (Controversies about the word “niggardly”)

Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, deplored the offense that had been taken at Howard’s use of the word. “You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding”, he said. “David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back—and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.”

Bond also said, “Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on the issue” and that as a nation the US has a “hair-trigger sensibility” on race that can be tripped by both real and false grievances.

Now I like what Bond said for a couple of reasons. One, because I’m a libertarian in matters of free speech—more so than is usual in contemporary Australia. In fact, you might even say…

The Anti-American:

Don’t! Don’t do it! Don’t say anything good about America EVERRRR!

The observer of activism:

Two, because politically, I don’t think you win the battle of ideas by censorship, or by being seen as hypersensitive (“false grievances”): you win the battle of ideas by argument, not by distractions.

The language-lover:

Three, because Bond liked dictionaries. In fact, he thought all staff should have them.

The Anti-American:

Yeah. Sounds like Bond was a great American, and displayed many of the virtues some people grudgingly admire about Seppoland. (Not me of course.)

The linguist:

Australian English Seppoland < Seppo < Septic tank < Rhyming slang for Yank < Yankee < Dutch Janke < Jan < Latin Ioannes < Hebrew Yohanan.

The language-lover:

Language. It’s a beautiful thing.

The Anti-American:

Christ, I’m glad I don’t live in your country.

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