I wrote these two posts in August 2014, days after we arrived in Stuttgart, Germany from Texas. I was tired, irritable, and not in the mood to argue. These posts are the end result of an argument I had on Facebook with yet another former Epinionator (explained in today’s previous post). And since these are related and I don’t want to do two reposts today, I’m combining them for those with a lot of time on their hands.
Bear in mind, both of these posts are about six years old and haven’t been edited to reflect today’s new information or current controversies. I still think getting upset over an innocuous word that just happens to sound like a racial slur is counterproductive, but I am also not in the habit of using the word “niggardly”, for precisely the reason that most people can’t properly define it and could get offended. I just think if people do use it properly, they shouldn’t automatically be branded as racist.
Yesterday, I read the very sad story of Tim Torkildson, a social media specialist at an English language learning center in Provo, Utah. Mr. Torkildson had a blog and wrote a post about homophones, a staple of every young American child’s early language instruction. Homophones are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Meet and meat are homophones; so are so, sow, and sew. Actually, when I learned about homophones, they were called homonyms. But then I moved to another school and encountered the other term.
One would think homophones would be a completely innocuous thing to blog about, especially if one is teaching English to non-native English speakers. Homophones can be pretty tricky for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, Mr. Torkildson’s blog post didn’t sit well with his boss, Clarke Woodger, owner of the Nomen Global Language Center. Mr. Woodger allegedly fired Mr. Torkildson because he fears the blog post will associate his school with “the gay agenda”.
That’s right. A man who owns a language center tasked with teaching English as a foreign language is afraid to teach students about homophones… apparently, because he is afraid his potential students will think his school teaches about homosexuals. Woodger explained to the Salt Lake Tribune that his students come from 58 countries and many have only a basic understanding of English. If that’s true, would they even necessarily know what the word “homosexual” or the shortened euphemism “homo” means?
I posted about this on Facebook and remarked that it reminded me of the whole “niggardly” debate. In 1999, David Howard, who was then working as an aide for Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word “niggardly” to describe how he would have to manage a fund’s tight budget. The word “niggardly” means miserly or parsimonious. It sounds a little like the infamous n-bomb, but is actually spelled differently and has absolutely no etymological relation to the word “nigger”. Mr. Howard used the word properly and not in a racist way at all. However, a couple of people he was working with were not familiar with the word, which has understandably fallen out of fashion. Within ten days of using that word, David Howard was handing in his resignation to Mayor Williams, who hastily accepted it.
I remember being pretty disgusted when I heard about this situation, even though I know the word “niggardly” is not exactly a word one hears every day anymore. I learned the word in a vocabulary lesson when I was in the 9th grade. Moreover, even if I hadn’t, it seemed to me that a simple conversation about intent and a quick consultation with a dictionary would have cleared up the issue before it ever made the news. Of course that didn’t happen, and it was a national case… a very embarrassing national case, especially since the people involved were D.C. government officials who should have known better or at least conducted themselves in a more professional manner.
I understand that David Howard’s choice to use the word “niggardly” instead of miserly, stingy, or parsimoniously was probably a mistake. However, I think the bigger mistake was made by the people who ignorantly took him to task for saying something he didn’t actually say.
A very liberal and, I think, terminally guilty Facebook friend of mine took me to task for defending Howard. He wrote:
“The word “niggardly”, which is archaic, doesn’t mean anything “miserly” doesn’t, so anyone doubling down on the use of it is actually trying to be an asshole. “Homophone” is the only word that means what it means – AND, it doesn’t resemble any offensive word, anyway.”
Not knowing David Howard personally, I have a hard time discerning if he actually intended “to be an asshole” or just decided he wanted to use a 50 cent word to express himself. I told my Facebook friend that it was his opinion that using that word makes someone an asshole.
He came back trying to school me with a Wikipedia article about the controversies surrounding the word “niggardly”… It was an article I had already read, along with an excellent book by Randall Kennedy about the word “nigger”. The incident regarding David Howard and the DC government was discussed at length in his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy, by the way, is a black, left leaning Harvard law professor (or at least he was a professor when the book was published in 2002). While I don’t use the n-word or even the word “niggardly” myself, I have to admit it was interesting to read about the history of the word. I would recommend Kennedy’s book to anyone who wants an interesting language lesson.
In any case, while I respect my Facebook friend’s position about not offending people by using words they might not know or that may upset others, I also believe that people have a responsibility to educate themselves about their own language. They also have a responsibility to stop and think before they react. Anyone who reads this blog may already know that I am not a fan of “burying language”. Offensive words that become taboo eventually get replaced by other words that end up needing to be made taboo. Moreover, changing the language doesn’t necessarily change a painful condition.
I am a big fan of looking at intent, too. You may hear someone use language that, taken at surface level, sounds offensive. But I think it makes sense to think about what the communicator was trying to communicate before you react with offense. As an English major in college, I read a lot of books by black writers. The so-called n-word was rife in most of those books. Should I have been offended? I don’t think so… because that word served a legitimate purpose in what I was reading. Do I think it’s smart to go around casually using controversial words that may offend people? Generally not, though there are always exceptions to that rule. An intelligent person looks at the situation objectively, though. They don’t pressure a person to resign from a job over misunderstanding a word like “niggardly” and they don’t fire someone over teaching about homophones because they fear people might think they are promoting “the gay agenda” (not that I think that’s necessarily a bad thing to promote).
Of course I understand why people like my Facebook friend think it’s better to just not go there with words like “niggardly”. It’s very easy to bury taboo words or symbols (or even words that sound like taboo words or symbols) and dismiss them as “offensive”. It’s a lot more challenging to use your brain and determine the communicator’s intent and whether or not it’s worthwhile to be offended by their message. I think it’s sad that more people aren’t more willing to use their brains instead of their emotions when they are expressing themselves.
And here is the follow up post from a couple of days later in which I told the guy to “leave me alone”.
“Leave me alone…”
That’s what I ended up telling my Facebook friend yesterday, after our day long debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to use the word “niggardly”. This guy, I’ll call him “B”, probably ought to be dropped from my friends list because, to be quite frank, I don’t really like him that much.
My disdain for B started many months before this latest incident. I have never actually met him in person, but have had a number of online run ins with him. We don’t tend to agree on a whole lot of issues. He is much more liberal than I am. That’s not the reason I don’t like him, though. The reason I don’t like him is that he seems to think I’m stupid and treats me with condescension.
When I first “met” B on Epinions.com, we didn’t have that many issues. Every once in awhile, he’d read one of my book or music reviews and leave a comment. I remember he commented on a review I wrote about a book about military brats. I was one and now I am married to a retired soldier, so I have also been a military wife. For some reason, this guy seemed to think that was reason to pity me. I remember the comment he made referenced how many times kids in military families have to move. My experience as an Air Force brat didn’t include a lot of moving because my father retired when I was very young. Moreover, when I was a kid, there were times I wished we would move.
Years after that, I started writing on a blog that he also writes on. I noticed he would leave comments that on the surface seemed innocuous, but had a weird undercurrent of criticism to them. It almost felt like he was upset that I was writing on the blog too. I had been asked by the man who owns the blog to contribute to it, as obviously he was, too. We have different tastes in music and different writing styles. But I noticed at first, he would criticize my subject matter or make some comment about how I had written something. I usually kept my few comments on his articles positive, though if I had wanted to, I probably could have been equally critical. One time, he criticized me for writing about how to sing better online and the types of equipment you should use. Then, many months later, he actually asked me for more information on the equipment I use when I make recordings. Go figure.
I also noticed that a lot of times, I’d post an article and he’d post one too, within hours of my post. He might not have written for weeks, but by God, he’d pick one of the two days when I almost always post and put new content ahead of mine. I guess he figures that will mean more people will read his work, but based on what I’ve seen on Statcounter, it’s my articles that get more readings by people who aren’t personal friends or family members.
Because we were writing on that blog, we became Facebook friends. And every once in awhile, I might post on a topic that he feels inclined to opine about. That’s fine. I want my friends to interact with me. I don’t mind it when we disagree, either. I just don’t like to be treated with disrespect, and that’s kinda how I felt like he was treating me. Yesterday, he seemed bound and determined to school me on why my way of thinking is wrong. It’s not that I didn’t understand him; I just plain disagreed with him.
He kept explaining why the word “niggardly” is rude and ought to be banned. I kept explaining that “niggardly”, despite sounding like a racial slur, is a totally innocent word. It honestly has absolutely no relation to the n-bomb. It is spelled differently. It has different etymological origins. It’s actually a much older word that has been used a lot in literature. And it just plain hasn’t a damn thing to do with the word “nigger”. It just doesn’t!
Oddly enough, B kept writing that no one has been fired for using the word “niggardly”. He was referring to my original comment that the post about the Utah homophone debacle reminded me of the “ridiculous niggardly debate” and that I wished people would check a dictionary before they resort to firing people for using words they don’t know. Now, in B’s defense, I didn’t clearly specify that I was referring to the Utah homophone guy being fired and not David Howard, the D.C. mayor’s aide who was basically forced to resign over his use of the word in 1999. But it was late; I was jet lagged; and frankly, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I mean, obviously the guy teaching about homophones should not have been fired and it didn’t occur to me that someone on my friends list hated the word “niggardly” so much.
David Howard, unfortunate utterer of the word “niggardly”, also should not have lost his job, whether through firing or forced resignation (and he did eventually go back to work in a different mayoral office). My position is that it’s hard to know how many people have been fired for using that word. B’s is that there are apparently a bunch of right wing pundits out there who make it their business to write about such incidents. But really, David Howard is hardly a right wing poster child. He’s gay and worked for the D.C. government, a constituency that is over half black and consistently votes blue.
B also brought up other examples of people who used the word “niggardly” and had offended people. Several examples came from schools and universities. I’m guessing he meant to sway me with those examples, but one of his examples included former University of Wisconsin English major Amelia Rideau, who became upset when her English professor used the word while discussing Chaucer. She said it sounded too much like the racial slur. The professor then explained the meaning and origin of the word. B claimed the professor was doing his job “badly” because he offended his student. He also brought up the fact that the professor was being paid for his work. Ms. Rideau went so far as to try to get that word banned from the school, a measure that I find chilling in an academic environment, especially at a public university like the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you can’t have a free exchange of ideas without language restrictions in a university environment, where can you have one?
My position is that Ms. Rideau was paying for an education and should have been open to actually being educated. She does not get to dictate what words her teacher uses, so long as he’s not using abusive or derogatory language. The word “niggardly”, despite sounding like a slur, simply isn’t a slur. It’s neither abusive nor derogatory. She needed to grow up and get over herself. Moreover, as an English major, she should have realized that many works of literature include what may be construed as objectionable language. Read anything by Mark Twain. Read a slave narrative. Read any book that tackles racism and you’ll run into truly derogatory language that actually serves a purpose. Where would the study of literature be if every English major got upset over every encounter with hurtful or racist words?
The fact is, language changes all the time. Most people don’t use the word “niggardly” casually anymore. But hell, if you’re in an English class, particularly if it’s college level, where you might be reading literature that includes outdated words, I think you need to be grown up enough to accept that.
Finally, toward the end of the day, B wrote:
We agree about the “homophone” teacher, firmly — I’ve said so three times. Now four. I’ve explained, as carefully as I could, why the situations are very different. Read it in a few days when you’re not jet-lagged. I’m bored with this too.
I was pretty exasperated by this point and found his final comment a bit insulting to my intelligence. He basically implied that jet lag was clouding my sense of reason when actually, I just didn’t agree with him and his arguments weren’t swaying my opinion. I also never saw any indication that he respected my right to disagree with him, while I took pains to explain that my opinions are my own and not represented as facts. So here is my response:
Good. I’m glad you’re bored with this topic. I don’t think we have a miscommunication; I think we just disagree. Please quit commenting and leave me alone.
I’m sorry it had to end this way. I really don’t like getting annoyed with people; but I also don’t like being browbeaten by self-righteous twits who refuse to acknowledge or respect a difference of opinion. I don’t think I was unreasonable, nor am I fighting for the right to use the word “niggardly” in my own day to day conversations. I just think people need to be more sensible and quit taking offense at every little quirk of the English language. That’s why I don’t participate in campaigns to ban the “r word” or the “n word” or any other word. Context and actual intent, people! Let’s just focus on that instead of trying to eradicate words that may or may not hurt feelings.
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