Words, Words, Words

by Stanley Meisler

February 9, 1999

In Washington a few weeks ago, David Howard, a white gay man serving as the city's ombudsman, bemoaned the paucity of his budget. "I will have to be niggardly with this fund," he told coworkers, "because it's not going to be a lot of money." One of his listeners was shocked by the sound of the word and spread the news quickly that Howard had used an expression rooted in the hated epithet nigger. Blacks, who make up a majority of the capital's population, expressed their alarm and dismay. Howard resigned for the good of the city and race relations, and the new mayor, Anthony A. Williams, a black often criticized by his opponents for acting and thinking like a white, accepted the resignation with dispatch. Mayor Williams said that Howard, by using the word niggardly, was like someone "caught smoking in a refinery that resulted in an explosion."

The mayor and Howard's critics, however, had confused their etymology. The word niggardly derives from the Middle English nig, a word rooted in Old Norse that means a stingy person. It has nothing to do with nigger, an offensive slang expression coming from nègre, a French noun that means a black person. Noting all this, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond castigated Mayor Williams for being "niggardly in his judgment on this issue." "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding," said Bond.

Niggardly is a word that I have always liked. English boasts a prodigious number of words, far more than most other languages, creating endless delights in its variations, and there are times when niggardly has struck me as a more apt word to use than its synonym miserly. There is a slight difference of nuance. Miserly, I think, evokes images of a loathsome hoarder of ill-gotten gains refusing to part with any, while niggardly is a drier word, denoting a penny-pinching bureaucrat or foreman doling out meager shares bit by bit.

The distinction may be too talmudic and not worth saving. In the old days as kids in the Bronx, we used to sit in the playground and argue about the exact difference between a prick, a putz and a schmuck. I think I still understand the delicate gradations, but I am not sure that anyone else does or whether it matters. I find that, almost instinctively, I now stop myself from saying the word niggardly whenever one of my interlocutors is black. After a slight hesitation, the word miserly pops out instead. Niggardly sounds too much like calling someone as cheap as a nigger. We may lose the word pretty soon.

We lost gay a long time ago. I certainly lost it in the 1950s in New Orleans when I worked for the Associated Press there. New Orleans was the most tolerant city in the South toward homosexuals in those days, and many gravitated there. Bosses hired them, police did not bother them, and some bars even tried to flaunt them. It was no accident that Tennessee Williams chose to work there. At a party one night, I made the mistake of announcing that I was in the mood for a gay evening. I had a few hours of sunny lightheartedness and joy in mind. A number of male ears perked up at my remark, and I found myself surrounded for the rest of the evening by attentive, young blades. The incident caused me some consternation and them some disappointment. They dismissed me as a cruel tease, and I never used the word in that context again.

I have always accepted the fact that words naturally change their meanings over time, but I have tried hard to resist changes powered by mindlessness or political activism. As a Los Angeles Times correspondent in Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I often received mail from readers protesting my use of the words tribe and tribalism. The protesters would insist on a phrase like ethnic group instead. I understood the problem. The word tribalism conjures up images of naked savages driving spears into the innards of other naked savages, images that reinforce all the hoary cliches about darkest Africa.

I soon began to realize, however, that my critics were far less interested in the honesty of vocabulary than in the denial of a problem. Naked savages were not driving spears into the innards of other naked savages, but university-educated men in European suits were fuming with murderous hatred at other university-educated men in European suits even in the same government office. That was the depressing reality of Africa. The protesters were trying to pretend that the divisions in Africa were no greater than a New York divided into Italian-American, Jewish-American, Irish-American, African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Africans themselves knew that tribalism ruled their lives and had no hesitation using the term. I dropped my own hesitation soon enough. I could not have explained the Nigerian Civil War without analyzing the relentless force of tribalism.

Although I have never stopped using the word tribe, most reporters and copy editors have succumbed to the pressure and now use ethnic group instead. You read about the Yoruba and Ibo and Hausa ethnic groups in Nigeria all the time. Unfortunately for the protectors of the image of Africa, however, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo - as well as the massacres by the Hutus and Tutsis of each other in Rwanda and Burundi - have given the phrase ethnic group an image just as cruel and murderous as that of the word tribe.

A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times released a long list of diversity guidelines admonishing reporters not to use expressions that various peoples might find offensive. The condemned expressions included Dutch treat, welsh on a bet, and paddy wagon. News of the rules spread quickly throughout the country, and Times editor Shelby Coffey III, who released the guidelines to his staff with some fanfare, soon became a laughing stock of American journalism.

Editors need common sense far more than diversity guidelines. In August, the Times published a front-page story by Sam Fulwood III about confusion in the little Quaker town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The town wanted to erect a monument to a deceased native son, Herb Pennock, a Hall of Famer who pitched for the New York Yankees and served as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in a long baseball career. But evidence was mounting that Pennock tried to block Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball in 1947, telling Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that he "just can't bring the nigger here (Philadelphia) with the rest of your team." A fastidious editor, however, decided to wield a blue pencil just before the story reached the front page. The quote was changed to "just can't bring the n----- here with the rest of your team." Since the whole story hinged on this word, the excision was stupid. Sam, a black reporter, was devastated. I did not help matters when I remarked to him that I didn't understand the story. "Why is everyone upset just because Herb Pennock called Jackie Robinson a ninny?" I asked.

The Los Angeles Times guidelines warned reporters not to use the word jew as a verb. I have heard the word used that way twice. The first came in the 1940s at James Monroe High School in the Bronx when a biology teacher told us that if we did well on the statewide Regents examination in Biology, he would match that score with the same overall grade for the course. "I will not jew down your score," he said. Since most in the class were Jewish, the remark set off a good deal of buzzing afterwards. Some of the teacher's defenders contended that we had misheard him; they said he had simply promised not to chew down our score. Others chalked him up as an anti-Semite and a prize ass. In the end, he did not keep his promise. I scored 99 on the Regents examination, but he chewed down my overall grade to 92.

My second encounter came in Honduras in the 1970s. I was interviewing the Roman Catholic Bishop of Honduras, who was an American, when he asked me about my religion. I told him I was Jewish. "You know that Christ was a Jew?" the Bishop asked. "Yes," I replied. "That's why we always say about him: One of our boys made good." The Bishop laughed uproariously. "That's very, very good," he said. "I can't wait until I tell the nuns." After these ecumenical moments, the Bishop sent a friar, also an American, to help me find a taxi back to the center of Tegucigalpa. The brother told me to wait for a taxi by the road in front of the bishop's house. "They will ask you for two dollars," he counseled. "But you can jew them down to one."

I suppose the Times meant well by including its admonition about jew in its guidelines, but it has always struck me that any journalist who used the word as a verb did not belong on the paper.

Washington D.C.
February 9, 1999

Author's Note: Smarting under the national embarrassment, Mayor Williams reversed course on February 3, acknowledged that he now believed "I acted too hastily," and offered Howard his job back. Howard agreed to return to the administration but asked for a different job. The mayor promised to find one for him.

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