The little N-word

Media bigs have a field day when a D.C. public servant resigns after using the word 'niggardly.'

Published February 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Last week, locking up the illiterate and hard-of-hearing vote, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams accepted ombudsman David Howard's resignation for having used the word "niggardly" (correctly, to mean "miserly") in front of co-workers, who misinterpreted it as related to "nigger." Naturally, editorial wags pounced on this savory, using it to advance agendas in venues from the Washington Post (municipal government is out of control) to the Wall Street Journal (PC morons are destroying civilization) to Britain's Guardian (here's what happens when you franchise the language).

"It's like Ebonics," said New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich. "It's op-ed heaven." For his part, Rich made only passing reference to the scandal, in a Saturday column asking why Betty Currie, long assumed a non-negotiable GOP witness in the Senate trial of President Clinton, was passed over for Sidney Blumenthal, with uncharacteristically PC sensitivity on the part of a prosecutorial team including white-power motivational speaker Bob Barr. There was "no credible on-the-record explanation for this omission from the prosecutors," Rich wrote. "But the niggardly, not-for-attribution mutterings were clear enough: The 13 white men cowered at the prospect of throwing hardball questions at an African-American woman who might break into tears."

At least, that's what Rich's column in the dead-tree Times said. But visitors to the Times' Web site Saturday morning found this D.C.-friendly version of the second sentence above: "But the not-for-attribution mutterings ..."

Had "niggardly" been sanitized for the online readership -- on the same morning a Times editorial denounced Howard's ouster, yet? According to the Times, no. Rich says that, wanting to reference the D.C. controversy but constrained by a 700-word limit, he decided at the last minute to insert the hot potato as a shorthand. Rich phoned in the addition around 8:15 Friday night, but, said Rich Meislin, editor in chief of Times Electronic Media, the site apparently picked up the earlier draft.

In any case, Rich's allusion and the mix-up showed that the Times is no more immune than D.C. City Hall to the "niggardly" fallout. In the Times' online forum, one reader (who says he saw Rich's column in print) posted Saturday morning, "Did you use the word 'niggardly' to make a point? To make a joke? To reinforce today's vocabulary word? I hope it is not a point of honor to defend the brave use of a word so easily misconstrued."

By 1:10 p.m. Saturday, "niggardly" was silently restored to the Web site of record, mostly with the approbation of forum participants. Indeed, you could say D.C.'s phonics poster children handed the country a much-needed gift last week, an issue that opinion-makers right, left and center could universally agree on. But the defenders of the dictionary -- legion, and still queued up six abreast -- haven't acknowledged a couple of unpleasant, unspoken truths, the first and worst being that, losing the battle of public opinion, the "niggardly" bashers may already have won the war.

Like it or not, the word is now radioactive; having defended it, no one can now use it -- especially in racially mixed company -- without raising the question of motives, which, however, few will dare voice. So odds are we'll lump it in with the actual epithets and, in our grand tradition of racial denial, clam up about it. In theory, you, I and the columnist next door will defend to the death our right to say "niggardly." But in practice, will we use it? Or will the caution linger in the back of our minds -- you do the rhyme, you do the time? (Even before the Washington incident, the Dallas Morning News had ixnayed the word after its use in a restaurant review raised ire.)

Before we assure ourselves that we'll henceforth unflinchingly stand with this grand Norse word, we might note that, to describe niggardly's unfortunate sound-alike, "nigger," newspapers resorted to petticoat-lifting circumlocutions ("a racial epithet" in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "a slur" in the Detroit News, the "n-word" in the Los Angeles Times), needlessly giving the epithet tetragrammaton-like power rather than matter-of-factly using it as what it is -- an offensive word unfortunately central to this particular story. It's not a pleasant word to use; it shouldn't be. But in a situation like this whom do we serve by treating it like the name of God?

Sure, the op-eds have had a jolly time positing what ridiculous proscription might be next ("spic-'n'-span"? "a chink in the armor"?). But when's the last time you've referred, say, to a "faggot" of wood (itself an innocuous word corrupted relatively recently)? Or, more to the point, the more alike-sounding and equally defensible "niggard"? The newspaper and magazine database Proquest Direct turns up nine references to the word in the past three years. Five are from the last week. The other four are in the wildly populist glossies Technology and Culture (in a footnote referring to another paper), Criticism (quoting Shakespeare), Studies in Philology (quoting Goldsmith) and Reason (ah, that would be Shakespeare again). If we do use "niggardly," for the foreseeable future, we're likely to use it to prove a point, like Rich. At the least, we're now in a situation where, at best, an editorial foul-up at the Times ends up looking like a bowdlerization.

That sad fact is undergirded by another, which the near-unanimous stream of comment has passed over: There's an unfortunate grain of truth behind Howard's accusers' specious and probably politically motivated charges. That is, if "niggardly" wasn't a code word a week ago, they've at least partially made it one. Howard should never have resigned for using a word innocently and correctly. But what were the motivations of "chill10d," posting in the Times forum at 6:05 a.m. Saturday, who just happened to use "niggardly" -- linguistically correctly -- in connection with the two African-American principals in the Clinton investigation? You tell me:

B. Curry [sic] got a pc pass because her testimony like that of all Clintonistas was niggardly with the truth. It is predictable that V. Jordan will have his opportunity to be equally niggardly in this regard. Witnesses? A woman (child), a negro, and a jew - very pc indeed!

You can't say chill10d -- white, black or Klingon for all I know -- had racist motives. And you can't exactly not say it. (Maybe he or she adores the "Negroes.") The point is, God help you now if you so much as wonder. For every stupidity there is an equal and opposite stupidity. One: A man loses his job for having too large a vocabulary. Two: The idiots who oust him, ironically, give a few genuine racists cover to prove said idiots' point. You don't have to look long in newsgroups (from alt.politics.white-power: "Even O.J. conducts typical niggardly acts"), in chat rooms or around certain watercoolers to find people who would drop an obnoxious pun, just as Howard didn't -- all thanks to the city of Washington's grand celebration of ignorance. Any bets on how many newly vocab-enhanced pinheads somewhere in America asked black waitresses not to be "niggardly" with the coffee this week?

Issues of race and language are never as straightforward as our unanimous editorial reactions make them. (Interestingly, the editorials have generally failed to note that Howard himself has been easier on Williams, telling the Washington Post, "It was my decision to resign and any criticism should be voiced to me. The mayor is unduly taking heat for this.") We can editorialize until doomsday, but you, I, the paper of record and its enlightened readership are caught in the same insane mire.

Rich, meanwhile, says he won't hesitate to use the word again. Well, probably not. "It may become such a cliché to use that it's pointless," he said. "'Niggardly' may become the new 'At the end of the day,' making you want to run screaming from the room." Which might be a relief for all of us. Op-ed writers may salvage the situation yet by doing what they do best -- simplistically flogging an easy target until they exhaust the interest of readers of every race, color and creed.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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