Hi, it’s me. ‘Niggardly’. I just wanted to talk about the way you use me. Got a sec?

I ‘ve always been honest with myself about my uncanny resemblance to the word ‘nigger’, even though we have no common etymological ancestors or definitions. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it – it’s a weird linguistic fluke and nothing more.

I’m not exactly an everyday word. I’m no ‘pants’ or ‘food’ or ‘door’ or ‘hand’.  When people need to describe the state of being ‘ungenerous or stingy’ most of them just use ‘cheap’. ‘Cheap’ gets a lot of action, cuz it’s short and sweet. And once the word ‘nigger’ became more or less universally reviled, I figured my usage would drop off even more. When gangsta rap came along I hoped maybe people would start using me as slang. Like, ‘Yo, my nigga, that’s a muthafuckin’ niggadly tip you left the waiter.’ But that didn’t really catch on. Them’s the breaks in the world of words, though, There’s lots of words that don’t get used often because they sound like other words; just ask ‘coccyx’ and ‘angina’.  You roll with it. Overall, the people who do use me fall into one of three categories:

1. Highly-educated William F. Buckley-types who know exactly what I mean and deftly integrate me into an already bon mot-riddled argument. (NOTE: I was once actually used by William F. Buckley, and I still tingle at the memory. That man had a glottal stop that just wouldn’t quit.)

2. Overt racists who use me because I sound like the word ‘nigger’ and they think that’s just great.

3. Everyone else.

Fig. 1: People who use the word 'niggardly'.

Fig. 1: People who use the word ‘niggardly’.


The first two groups are gonna use me no matter what. And God love ‘em. But I’m really suspicious of that third group. I don’t think they’re good people.

Take the example of a fourth-grade teacher in California who used me in a classroom discussion with students to describe characters in a book they were reading. This is a truly suspicious instance of my usage because, firstly, I rank far, far above a fourth-grade level and, secondly, even the most niggardly of thesauri will provide the user with multiple synonyms suitable for my replacement: ‘chintzy’, ‘closefisted’, ‘illiberal’, ‘mean’, ‘mingy’, ‘miserly’, ‘narrow’,  ‘parsimonious’, ‘penny-pinching’, ‘penurious’, ‘skimpy’, ‘skinflint’, ‘tight-fisted’, ‘ungenerous’. Pick one. They’re all good. You’re talking to fourth graders here, not defending your fucking thesis in advanced linguistics.

Then there’s the time a politician used me to describe a budget plan. Yes, it was a correct usage, and the budget plan was exceptionally niggardly. But, again, I’m suspicious of the motives behind his using me. Did no other word truly fit? Was this man such an artful verbal craftsperson that he deemed me and only me worthy of communicating his point?

Maybe. But I doubt it.

What I think is going on here is people are using me because they’re dickheads who want to prove a stubborn, stupid point. They think they’re smarter than everyone else, and find no greater pleasure in feigning surprise and indignation when their use of a word that closely resembles one of the most hateful and hurtful in the English language causes people to become hateful and hurt. They believe the lesson taught by their perceived linguistic mastery is worth the controversy they cause (the lesson being, I guess, the definition of a word) and that they’ve done us a service in exposing the depths of ignorance to which society has sunk when said society attempts to judge language subjectively.

They may have a point. But I don’t want a part of it.

I want to be used because I’m the perfect word to use, not because you think I’m a suitable weapon in your fucked up misanthropic agenda. I want you to use me because my usage will do what language used well is supposed to do: make things clear, relevant and impactful.

If that’s not why you’re using me, then fuck off.