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September 12th, 2002

  Niggling Doubts


The issue of the word "niggardly" has raised its head once again. Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina, has been reprimanded for using that word in a classroom discussion about literary characters. A parent, one Akwana Walker, declared herself offended by the usage. Ms. Bell has been hustled off to "sensitivity training," Ms. Walker's daughter has been transferred to another class, and the rest of us are left pondering what modern civility demands of us in cases like this.

The beginnings of this little controversy were, to the best of my knowledge, back in 1995. In June of that year, The Economist, discussing the impact of computers on the productivity of office workers, said the following thing: "During the 1980s, when service industries consumed about 85 percent of the $1 trillion invested in I.T. in the United States, productivity growth averaged a niggardly 0.8 percent a year." In a subsequent issue, the editors of the magazine noted with amusement that this harmless statement of an econo-factlet had drawn a letter of protest from a reader in Boston who thought the word "niggardly" inappropriate in a respectable publication. The editors yoked this together with another letter, this one from New York, which objected to their saying, in a piece about second-generation Hispanic Americans, that: "spicing their language with a little Spanish is the easiest way of being cool." Unfortunately the compositorial software had split the word "spicing" with a hyphen to make a line break. Sighed The Economist in mock exasperation: "Why do we get such letters only from America?" (Though widely read here, The Economist is a British magazine.)

A great deal of political correctness has flowed under the bridge since 1995, of course. Yesterday's joke is today's outrage, and probably tomorrow's lawsuit. In 1999 the mayor of Washington, D.C., fired (but later rehired) an aide who used "niggardly" in conversation. Shortly afterwards, a student at the University of Wisconsin called for the banning of the word on campus after a professor used it in a discussion of Chaucer. ("So parfite joye may no negarde have." — Troylus and Cryseyde.) There have probably been some other sightings I don't know about.

On a topic like this, of course, the sarcasm comes thick and fast. When will the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith take on "juice" and "jewelry"? When will the legions of G.L.A.A.D. assemble to stamp out "query," "faggot" (the kind that burns, but not with homoerotic passion), and "dike" (like the one the little Dutch boy stuck his finger in)? How do Puerto Ricans feel about it when we say "spick and span"? Should we still be serving crackers with our cheese? And so on, ad infinitum. I do think that there is actually a serious issue here, though — at any rate, there is if you take manners seriously, as I do, and as I think conservatives, above all people, should.

In the first place, black people are a special case, and "nigger" is a special word. I have commented before in this space that there are only two races in the U.S.A.: blacks, and nonblacks. All attempts to make parallels between the black experience in America and that of (say) Chinese laborers, or (say) homosexuals, ring hollow, it seems to me. Whatever worthy things these latter people have to say, however sound the case they want to make, their ancestors were not chattel slaves, bought and sold by the boatload like so much pig iron. I have heard it said that when these other groups try to draw such parallels, black people get angry. I can certainly understand that; I think I'd be angry, too. This consideration, supposing I am right, effectively kills all the jokes about "juice" and "cracker."

Let me say, as a digression before proceeding further, that I do not cringe at the word "nigger." I am not in awe of it. I grew up with it, actually. Not the way low-class white Southerners used to grow up with it, as a term of bitter contempt for people believed to be inferior; nor even as educated white Northerners used to grow up with it, as a signifier of the supposed stupidity, backwardness and cruelty of Southern whites; but as an ordinary noun free of any emotional content. As a child, I used to pick teams for street games by chanting: "Eeeny meeny miny mo, catch a nigger by his toe." The school uniform for the girls-only secondary school in my provincial English town came in two prescribed colors, spelt out in a booklet handed out to parents of new students at least as late as the early 1960s: "sky blue and nigger brown."

This is just a British-American difference in sensibility. I believe the word "nigger" was always considered unpleasant by educated Americans, certainly in the 20th century. A common fixture on English bookshelves fifty years ago was Agatha Christie's great 1939 thriller Ten Little Niggers. When an American publisher brought out the book over here in 1940, though, they changed the title to And Then There Were None, considering that the original simply would not do. (They kept the story's locale as "Nigger Island," though.) A brisk search of the Web shows Christie's masterpiece being produced in England as a play, with the original title, as late as 1962. It was only in the mid-1960s, I think, that it began to dawn on English people that the N-word might give offense, and that "Nigger" stopped being used routinely — as routinely as "Prince" or "Fido" — as a name for any dog that happened to be black. (There is one in the 1954 British movie The Dam Busters. The last words spoken in that movie are, in fact: "Nigger's dead.")

I therefore came at the whole issue of "niggardly," in the first place, with a certain un-American insouciance, rather like The Economist. What's all the fuss about? Then, thinking about it more, I got angry. Who are these censors, these Dr. Bowdlers, these Mrs. Grundys, tampering with the English language in the name of their precious, much-displayed "sensitivity"? "Niggard," "niggardly" — these are fine old English words in good standing for centuries, used not only by Chaucer but by Shakespeare ("Aye, to a niggardly host, and more sparing guest" — COE 3.i), Milton ("A penurious niggard of his wealth" — Comus), Gibbon ("It is the niggard praise of Zosimus himself" — DFRE, Ch. 27), and Johnson ("dreaded the appellation of a niggardly fellow" — Adventurer, No. 34). The etymology is obscure, probably Scandinavian, but at any rate nothing to do with blackness.

I am also temperamentally hostile, as I think most conservatives are, to the exaggerated "sensitivity" being trotted out by these word-killers. "The word causes pain," someone said to me, in all seriousness, in a discussion about this. Pain? Has this person ever suffered an impacted wisdom tooth? Pain? What a crock! In that hilarious send-up of 1840s American attitudes in Chapter 21 of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain speaks of the essays read out by young ladies at a small-town school recital: "A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy …" Not much has changed in 160 years, only that now, too busy to be bothered with melancholy, we have a nursed and petted "sensitivity" to every imagined slight, however trivial. This grates on me. If you are not willing to suffer occasional bruises and abrasions in encounters with people whose "sensitivities" are different from yours, better go and live in Tierra del Fuego. Or, as I once overheard someone say in a similar context: "If your skin is really as thin as that, I wonder your insides don't drop out."

It was in conversation with friends (all nonblack: I regret to say I have no black friends) that I saw some of the other side of the issue. One friend, who has serious credentials as a conservative thinker, said this: "John, you are a gentleman, and I know you would not knowingly give unnecessary offense. I am sure, therefore, that you would in fact avoid the word 'niggardly' in a group that included not-very-well-educated black fellow-citizens." I had to admit that he was right: I would. Later that evening, watching TV, I caught a very good biographical program about the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Now I am a huge fan of Ella, who was of course black. At the same time, the program confirmed a thing I had suspected from similar material: she had little education, and in fact was probably not very bright. So: here is a black person who I admire tremendously, and in whose presence (which I never was) I would be awestruck; yet for whose intellect (other than musical) I have no very high regard. Would I have used "niggardly" in conversation with Ella? No, of course I wouldn't.

So it really is a matter of civility. It is, furthermore, a matter of a small minority of folk bowing to the desires of the majority over something not very consequential — another thing I am, on the whole, and with numerous qualifications, in favor of. In a civilized society, majorities should respect the rights of minorities; but minorities also owe a certain deference to the feelings of the majority. (One reason why I am hostile to the louder propagandists of the homosexualist movement.)

The minority I am speaking of in this case is the minority, the very tiny minority, of people who love and cherish words. We — yes, I am a member of that minority — are the only people really affected by this matter. Let's face it, the great majority of Americans would never use the word "niggardly" at all, with intent either innocent or malign. It is simply too quaint and old-fashioned for everyday speech. The only people actually inconvenienced by a proscription against it are those like me, who take pleasure in keeping obscure old words alive, and in seasoning their speech with occasional oddities, curiosities, and antiquities. The founder of National Review is another such: I once heard him deploy the word "usufruct" in the ordinary flow of talk. For the overwhelming majority of people, though, who believe that the purpose of speech is just to get your point across, this isn't really an issue.

It is possible, of course — I am trying to look on the bright side here — that by protesting the word, the Grundys are doing more to keep it alive than anything that I or Bill Buckley could ever accomplish. As a result of these news stories, millions of people must have become aware of "niggardly," who otherwise would never have heard it, let alone thought to use it. If this is right, and the word has a new currency, it is probably not the currency I would wish for. The word's new lease of life is probably among manufacturers and retailers of sophomoric humor. I bet that even as I write, some adolescent boys, in the stairwell of some high school somewhere in America, are accusing each other of being niggardly, and sniggering at their own outrageous wit. I bet … Wait a minute. Sniggering? Oh, my God …