Manufactured Offenses

by admin on April 25, 2012

In the “Miserly Hosts Make Guests Miserable” post last week,I used the very appropriate word, “niggardly”, to describe the miserably miserly actions of the hosts in the story towards their guests.    Several readers took issue with the use of the word:

Sorry I didnt know where else to put this but I have to object to admin’s use of the term niggardly in response to the story listed above about the terrible hosts. Its an awful word and there are plenty of others that could convey the same sentiment. Thanks

Niggardly? Really? It’s archaic. Like me claiming asking the gyno to take a look at my itchy c**t is fine, because c**t is a good honest Shakespearian word. (edited by the Admin to bleep out the actual word)

At least in the US, the word niggardly would be considered as insulting as to jew someone down on a price, or be an Indian giver. No need to publish this comment, but you may want to reconsider your choice of word in your response to this story.

I suppose it is to be expected that someone will take issue with a word they clearly associate as being racist due to its phonetic similarity to a reprehensible racial slur. The problem is that “niggardly” and “n****r” have completely different etymologies.   From Wikipedia:   “The word niggardly (miserly) is etymologically unrelated to nigger, derived from the Old Norse word nig (stingy) and the Middle English word nigon.”    The Straight Dope web site has a good post on this very subject here.    The visual image I get when using niggardly is Scrooge.  You know, Dickens’ Scrooge.  An old, rich, white miser.  (Oh, heavens, will my use of DICKens cause some apoplexy from the sexually squeamish?)     Niggardly is no more related to a racial epithet than shitzuh, shittum and Shitake is about excrement.

I even received negative comments about the title of another recent post on the wedding etiquette blog, Hell’s Bells, titled “Coloured Guests”, which those writing to me claimed was racist. (The blog post was about guests wearing inappropriate colors to a wedding.) The reasoning being that I had tricked them into thinking the blog post was about black wedding guests. That manufactured offense said more about those commenting that it did about my use of a perfectly good word in the proper context.

These are good examples of how etiquette does not require that we be doormats to every Tom, Dick, and Mary demanding we alter our behavior that is not meant to be offensive or apologize for their ignorance.   We should not be bullied into dropping perfectly good words from our vocabulary merely because someone has a heightened sense of offense founded either on their ignorance of word origins or from a willful desire to be offended at every opportunity.

Just because you are offended does not equate to you having a right to be offended.

{ 228 comments… read them below or add one }

babs April 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Admin, if you ever choose to use the word “cracker” in a sentence, I promise I won’t accuse you of attacking my Georgia/Alabama roots. And if you should use the word “trash,” I won’t suspect that you’re secretly muttering “white” under your breath. The thing is, anyone who has been around eHell for any length of time knows that the Admin is not bigoted, has never written that way, is very careful and sensitive with certain subjects. So, it’s a matter of trusting the person who is writing, and maybe doing a bit of research before posting. We are on the internet, after all. If I had never heard that word, I’m quite sure I would be taken back, but then I would be Googling it to see if it meant what I thought it meant. Then, I would sigh, and relax. Words come from different origins. Sometimes in English, and more often in some other languages, one letter or syllable will turn a perfectly respectful word into an embarrassing swear word.

Maybe it’s a regional/generational thing, but I grew up in the deep south in the 50′s & 60′s and was very familiar with the word niggardly. It would not occur to me that was being used in any way other than it was intended. We can’t just strike common words out of use because they sound like another word that offends us.

Many years ago, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was just coming into his own, his name came up on a game show I was watching. I remember the answer flashing up big as life on the screen, and the wide-eyed contestant saying “Can I say that word?” Perfect example. This post reminded me of that.

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DiveDiva April 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Striving For Sense – I had a very similar experience in a business writing course this year, in college. My teacher, I think would be the kind of person who would get all up in arms about the use of ‘niggardly’ and similar words.

Near the start of the semester, one of our assignments was an inquiry letter, and my partner and I used the following sentence “We would like some information pertaining to your travel packages”. We got docked marks for ‘unclear language’. Apparently, ‘pertaining to’ is no longer considered clear language. Though is the same teacher that told me ‘unfortunately’ is too negative a word to use in a ‘bad news message’, and that “The only way to learn how to write properly is sitting at a desk with a monitor in front of you and a keyboard at your fingertips.”

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SS April 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm

This also reminds me of a story that a woman wrote, telling about her time as a teacher in an inner city school with a class of tough kids (gang-type kids). She was teaching them poetry, and deliberately changed the line of the Emily Dickinson poem “There is no frigate like a book” to “There is no steamship like a book” in order to avoid confusions and hub-bub in the classroom about the word.

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Mary April 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm

“Get over thinking that college makes an educated person and that a lack of a college degree makes an uneducated person. It’s just not true.”

To me the implication was that anyone not familiar with the word niggardly was ignorant.

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Vanessa April 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm

I have often found that the people who complain about those who use ‘fancy’ or ‘archaic’ or ‘fifty-cent’ words are quite often compensating for the inadequacy of their own vocabularies. I usually feel like imitating Dogbert & waving my paw & saying ‘Bah!’ If they can’t be bothered to stretch themselves and increase the size of their vocabularies, I can’t be bothered to ‘dumb down’ my vocabulary to make them feel less ignorant.

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Yarnspinner April 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm

@SS Ah! “Up the Down Staircase”! I remember that bit about “there is no steamship like a book” well.

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Erin April 27, 2012 at 7:50 am

My grandma got mad at me once for having a bigger vocabulary than she thought a kid should have. It was the strangest thing I ever got yelled at for.

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Calliope April 27, 2012 at 9:49 am

Vanessa, I do hope you’re not implying that my vocabulary is inadequate. I’m a writer and a voracious reader with more than a passing interest in etymology. I simply believe that in most cases, clear, concise language wins out over flowery language. I won’t say any more on this topic, but I hope you can understand that people who disagree with you are not necessarily ignorant.

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Gloria Shiner April 27, 2012 at 9:51 am

Then there was the business law class I took as a first-year MBA student. One of the other students complained to the professor that “we” couldn’t be expected to answer his questions correctly if the professor continued to use big words that “we” didn’t understand. The word? “Litigation”

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travestine April 27, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Here’s a phrase that became very popular during the last presidential election and struck me as truly racist (as proposed to a perfectly acceptable word either misconstrued or misunderstood): “off the reservation” to describe someone not “following the accepted script”. This phrase derives from a First Nations person leaving the land designated by a government for the use of their band or tribe.

I don’t think 99% of people have ever parsed this phrase to determine its origin, but it is a throwback to a time when First Nations people were deprived of their rightful homes and required to remain where they were “assigned”. It is commonly thrown about on television and in offices (among other places) without thought for its implications, at a time when any suggestion of a word that might offend persons of colour (acceptable?) is met with apoplexy. Somehow, it’s the aboriginal people who are forgotten in the argument about language and race.

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Bint April 28, 2012 at 10:30 am

“Bint, ‘knickers’ is the English (UK) word for (US) panties – and tends to be used in the UK as a very mild ‘swear’ word. (also the sort of thing children say when they want to ‘swear’ but don’t know any ‘proper’ swear words.”

Margo – I’m English! I’ve *never* heard knickers used like this. Sugar, yes. Knickers, no.

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flowerpower April 29, 2012 at 7:20 am

I have to say I find the responses given to Mary quite out of proportion to her original comment! I just looked back to find it, having expected something horrendously ignorant based on what people said to her, and what I found was ‘some people with a large vocabulary still might not know that word’. She didn’t claim to be an authority on anything or that she was the last word in education because she had a degree. I think it’s a shame that such an innocent comment provoked hurtful responses.

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NicoleK April 29, 2012 at 7:34 am

I disagree. They have the right to be offended if they want.

It’s totally pointless, but they have the right to do so!

They’re wrong of course, but they have the right to be wrong. :)

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MellowedOne April 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

I read through all 200+ replies without posting–what a response! My take on it:

-Admin’s right to use word niggardly – without question
-Readers’ right to be offended by a word that is phoenetically similar to a highly provocative insult – also without question

Words often fall into misuse–the English language is constantly evolving, for better or worse, and there are many words we have stopped using (or rarely use). How many times have you heard..or used.. “woolfell”, “alienism”, or “wittol”? It is therefore not unusual for many not to know the word ‘niggardly’. And many, knowing the term, prefer not to use it because it is rarely used.

The size of one’s vocabulary varies from person to person. I have friends/family with whom I am comfortable speaking in my natural manner, others with whom I use a more basic set of terms. I do so not to dumb down, but out of respect for others who may feel uncomfortable because of the use of words with which they are not familiar. They may feel embarrassed not knowing the word used!

Thus, I believe the admin’s proper use of the word was actually a testament to the readership that it was assumed we would know the term and not be offended by it. :)

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Yertle Turtle April 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

I’m proud to be an eloquent person and make no objection to the use of words like ‘niggardly’ – but I’m really surprised and disappointed at the number of self-congratulatory comments on this post, especially those which make unfounded and unkind assumptions about others.
Going off half-cocked about the admin’s use of ‘niggardly’ does not make a person lazy, uneducated or anything else. It just shows that they behaved in an ill-advised manner on one occasion.
You may know a range of words. You may know how to look words up. What good is any of that to you if you don’t use your words kindly?

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Mary April 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Flowerpower, thank you. You managed to say what I was trying to communicate. I was not claiming to educated in all areas, but yes, I do believe I have a fairly large vocabulary (or at least if I don’t use certain words, I usually recognize them). That being said, I had never come across the word niggardly. I did, however, look up the word before assuming the worst.

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Enna April 30, 2012 at 4:11 am

People may have the right to be offended at what they like but over something like this they could look very silly. I don’t see Nigeria or Niger changing their name anytime soon – no one objects to those names.

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Mander April 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm

@Badkitty

I am of course aware of how you intended the word “poor” based on the context of what you said. A language less on was not required, at least not for me.

I must admit I have little patience for hyperbole of any kind.

As a general statement, I am not personally interested in removing words from vocabulary due to simple ignorance. On the other hand, anyone who makes a living or a hobby as a writer does need to consider their audience and take that into consideration. It certainly can be argued that in some cases, the use of seldom-heard words frequently subject to misunderstandings can be counter-productive. You may not agree with it, and you may even be correct, but the argument is not unsound.

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itwasadarkandstormynight May 5, 2012 at 7:32 am

Once in an English class, we were discussing a book, and (I don’t remember the exact details), the class was talking about how something was a catalyst for a particular event. After several comments to this effect, a student raised her hand and began with, “First of all, I really wish people would stop using the word “catalyst” because I don’t know what the h*** that means.” I couldn’t believe it. I find it incredibly arrogant for a person to expect everyone around them to stop using a word just because he or she doesn’t know it. If you don’t know the meaning of the word “catalyst,” look it up. If you don’t know the meaning of the word “niggardy,” look it up. It’s as simple as that. But don’t expect the rest of the world to limit its vocabulary to accommodate your ignorance. Being exposed to words you’re unfamiliar with is what allows you to build you vocabulary. Why not take advantage of that opportunity instead of complaining about it?

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Imjustsaying May 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm

The objection to the word “Niggardly” come from a sad but sometimes unavoidable act of connecting an offensive sounding word that happens to have a negative definittion with the actually offensive word that is a negative because it perpetuates a false racist image.
This train of thought is ridiculous and unfortunate.
Here’s what happens in an offended person’s mind when the word Niggardly is uttered
niggardly=cheap=black people are cheap=the original speaker is equating cheap with black people= the original speaker MUST be racist!
Sadly this type of thinking keeps the “Post-racial” world we keep talking about in the far far future. When people stop crying racism where there is none the true offenders will be brought to light and we’ll all stop walking on eggshells trying not to offend each other. Trying not to offend due to a strereotype or prejudice only reinforces the stereotype and prejudice.

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Cady May 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm

As soon as I read “niggardly” I knew you were going to get complaints!

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Joe June 26, 2012 at 12:52 am

*shiitake

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Molly Python January 4, 2013 at 5:10 am

@ferretrick You’re thinking of “The Franklin’s Tale.” I just finished a graduate course on Chaucer in which we read 1-3 of the Tales each week (in Middle English…fun!) and you’re right. It really is a funny one when you get down to it.

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