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Q From Robyn Hodges: I wonder if you could help me find the origin of the word niggardly?

A Despite the similarity in spelling, this word has no connection with nigger, the one word which these days it is almost impossible for white Americans to say or write publicly.

At the beginning of 1999, David Howard (the head of the Office of Public Advocate in Washington, DC) used it during a discussion with a black colleague in describing a budget allocation which he considered to be inadequate. He was reported as saying: “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money”. In large part the uproar came about because the word is not especially common: even Mr Howard said that he had learned it while studying, rather than by hearing it used. Misunderstandings and misapprehensions are much more likely under such circumstances.

The adverb form niggardly, miserly or stingily, was formed in the sixteenth century from niggard, a miser or stingy person. In the Wycliffe Bible of 1384 it was spelled nygard; earlier still it can be found as nigon, and another form nig also existed. We are pretty sure this was borrowed from a Scandinavian source, because there are related words in several Germanic languages, for example, the Old Norse hnøgger, meaning “stingy”. So it has nothing to do with nigger, which comes via French nègre from Spanish negro, ultimately from Latin niger, meaning “black”.

Huge sensitivities over a word that could just conceivably be intended as a racial slur led to a controversy that raged for weeks. It disproved the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. In reality, a number of black Americans found the word to be demeaning. Though newspapers and language writers (including this one) explained the true facts repeatedly, they did little to assuage the feeling of hurt. In such matters, perception is everything and etymology nowhere.

As a more recent discovery shows, the misunderstanding between the two words isn’t new. This exchange appeared in McClure’s Magazine in March 1924: “‘A niggardly and disgusting habit,’ I commented. ... ‘Just lay off that “nigger” stuff after this,’ warned Pete.”

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Page created 26 Sep 1998; Last updated 27 May 2006