Niggardly attitude to word costs man job

An official on the Washington City Council has lost his $58,148 job because he is "a victim of a sophisticated vocabulary"

An official on the Washington City Council has lost his $58,148 job because he is "a victim of a sophisticated vocabulary". That is one way of putting it.

The Mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, said that what the official had done was like getting "caught smoking in a refinery that resulted in an explosion."

So what did David Howard do which forced his resignation as Head of the Office of Public Advocate, the place where citizens of Washington can bring their gripes about potholes and the like?

At a meeting two weeks ago he used the word "niggardly". He was explaining that the budget was small for some services, so "I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be a lot of money."

The two men listening to Howard, one black and one white, seemed shocked, so he realised that they had not understood the meaning of "niggardly". The other "N-word" is now unacceptable in most circles but above all in Washington.

Here race is a very touchy issue for the majority African-American population, which often feels white politicians have too much say in its affairs.

Howard, who is white, tried to apologise to his black colleague, who stormed out of the meeting. Then garbled accounts circulated that Howard had used the unacceptable word "nigger".

Howard has now resigned after issuing a statement saying that he meant no harm when he used the word "niggardly". He went on: "Although the word . . . does not have any racial connotations, I realise that staff members present were offended by the word. I immediately apologised."

As the story broke in the newspapers this week, various dictionaries were consulted to show that Howard had not committed a racial slur and that "niggardly" has no connection at all with the offensive term "nigger".

Webster's Tenth Edition Dictionary defines niggardly as "grudgingly mean about spending or granting". Webster says it derives from a Scandinavian word in the late 16th century.

And the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest use of "niggard" to Chaucer in 1374, meaning "miser".

The Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology says that the origin could be in the Middle English words "nig" and "nigor" for a miser. The offensive "nigger" comes from "negro", which derives from "niger", the Latin word for black. Clearly one can use "niggardly" without imputing a racial slur, but in Washington local politics you would be advised to avoid the risk of confusion.

The mayor, who is a light-skinned African-American for whose election campaign Howard had worked hard, did not try to prevent his resignation but has indicated that he could be offered another post after an official inquiry. The mayor acknowledged that Howard had not used the banned N-word but chided him for not being more careful.

"I think what David did was [get] caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion," Williams said. He also suspected that some people had been "fanning the flames" following the incident, and that was "indefensible".

The mayor pointed out that the race issue is so touchy that some people believe that he himself "is not black enough". The city has "a racial climate that needs a lot of work" so that means his staff had to "exercise the utmost judgment, discretion and caution" in the use of words.

To make the story more complicated, black gay activists are protesting at the way Howard, who is openly gay, has been the victim of a linguistic misunderstanding. Howard had helped enlist the city's strong gay lobby to back the mayor's election.

Critics of the mayor ask why he did not react when his legal counsel was publicly called a "pushy white boy".

For some observers Niggardlygate, as it is being called, is political correctness gone mad. Prof Alan Kors, at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written a book on the effect of PC on American campuses, says: "This must be the first time in history that someone's ignorance of the English language cost another person his job."

The highly respected Julian Bond, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), has said that Mayor Williams was wrong to accept the resignation of Howard. "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding," Bond said.

In an editorial, the Washington Post said that the mayor should bring Howard back and "order dictionaries issued to all his staff who need them."

But Washington is not the only city where "niggardly" has caused problems. A food critic for the Dallas Morning News wrote last year about the bland food in one restaurant because of "a niggardly hand with the seasonings."

Unfortunately, the chef was black. The newspaper apologised to any readers who had misunderstood the word and then banned its future use.

Back in 1970, Justice William Douglas of the US Supreme Court wrote in an opinion: "It is time we stopped being niggardly in construing civil rights legislation."

Howard (45), a former wine steward, says he is not bitter about the incident and tends to blame himself for what happened. He also defends the mayor, whom he greatly admires. As the Post wrote in an interview with Howard, "he was not niggardly with praise for his former boss."