Q: An African-American colleague was grievously offended when someone used the word “niggardly” in a meeting. The ensuing brouhaha escalated to a formal complaint of racism and was only defused when another African-American colleague explained to the complainant that there’s nothing racist about the word “niggardly.” Any thoughts?
A: The word “niggardly,” meaning miserly, comes from a Scandinavian root meaning stingy. It’s entirely unrelated to the word “Negro,” meaning black, which has its roots in Romance languages. As far as I know, “niggardly” has no etymological relationship to any racist terms for African-Americans.
The adjective or adverb “niggardly” has been used in English since at least the 16th century. The noun “niggard,” meaning a stingy person, has been around even longer. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference is in the first English translation of the New Testament, the Wycliffite Bible (1380).
Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the word in its traditional sense and make no mention of a racial association.
The MSN Encarta Dictionary agrees that “niggardly” is by no means a racist slur, but MSN Encarta says “the fact that the word sounds as if it might be one is reason to consider context very carefully before using it.”
I’m reluctant to avoid using a perfectly good word, but I think MSN Encarta’s advice makes sense. I’d be careful about using “niggardly,” especially in conversation, unless I’m sure of my audience (perhaps a group of linguists or lexicographers).
Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.