It’s been a while since my last English rant. Thought I’d exorcised all of my English language pet peeves, did you? Hah! It’ll never happen.
Many years ago, I used the word niggardly in the classroom in which I worked. My cooperating teacher blanched, and spluttered something about would I please not use words like that in her classroom. I blushed, but headed straight for the dictionary. I KNEW there has never been an association between black-skinned people and stinginess, and I was determined to prove it.
I was right, of course. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a niggard is “a mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; one who grudgingly parts with or expends nothing.” The OED says the origins of this word are obscure, but suspects French. (When in doubt about an English word, French is usually safe.) The Merriam Webster New International (Second Edition) is a little more decisive about this word’s origins. It points to Middle English, in which nig is probably of Scandinavian origin, as in the Norwegian dialect where gnikka or gnigga mean “to be stingy.”
A lesson: Just because a word has an offensive sound does not mean it should be shunned as offensive. Postpone panic-stricken looks and self-censorship until you’ve looked it up in a dictionary. It’s what they’re for.