Yesterday’s post about the word “plantation” reminded me of what was one of the most famous examples of good words gone wrong. While plantation was a victim of contrary definitions, however, niggardly was a victim of the American public’s limited vocabulary.
The incident is now famous: in 1999, Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams accepted the resignation of one of his top aides, David Howard, a white man, because he said in a meeting, “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.” Apparently his staff did not score very well on their SATs, because one lodged a complaint leading to Howard tending his resignation. Howard was eventually offered his job back, but only after much public debate about political correctness.
According to the New York Times, where I reminded myself of the details of this case, Jesse Jackson advocated for Howard getting his job back, but asked the word to be avoided. ”You’ve got to be pretty heavy to get into the Scandinavian roots of a word from two centuries ago,” he said. There it is — a request that our politicians speak less intelligently so that America can follow along. Worse than anything else, to me, Howard felt the need to publicly apologize for using the word.
This issue aside, it is worth wondering if there is any real need for this word in the English language. It seems to carry no connotation not offered by the words miserly or stingy. In fact, most of the places where I looked it up seemed to have only a one or two word definition. If a word does not have a unique definition, either literal or semantic, then it should, in theory, naturally die off. Maybe the semantic difference is that it separates people who know its origins, and those who think it is a racist slur.