Vocabulary Lessonson March 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm
Once upon a time, when I was in fifth grade, I made a conscious decision to dumb down my vocabulary. I was a voracious reader and well ahead of the curve so my vocabulary was, and still is, quite extensive. The problem was that I was making my friends and classmates uncomfortable. There was a general feeling that I was showing off or trying to make them feel stupid. I wasn’t. I honestly didn’t understand why they didn’t know the meaning of the words I was using. I was something of an introvert and did not always relate well to others. To this end I chose not to make the people around me feel like I was looking down at them. What was the point? OK, maybe they weren’t as smart. Big deal, they weren’t as tall as me either. Why rub their noses in it?
By the time I was in high school, I had more or less abandoned pretending I wasn’t smart. I slept in physics, got the highest grade in the class (or close to it, it was over 20 years ago) and was completely unapologetic for it. I monopolized my 11th grade English class by engaging my teacher in debates over whatever book we were reading for the entire period. He personally called me to let me know I had scored a 98 on the regents; the highest in the school. I almost fainted when he called because he had said he would only be calling the students that failed. On the other hand, I am a complete dumbass when it comes to calculus and other higher mathematics. But, still, I held back on my vocabulary. It had become a habit. To this day, my spoken vocabulary lags far behind my actual vocabulary. There are words I can spell without a second thought that I can’t pronounce if my life depended on it. I am so unaccustomed to saying them out loud that it takes a great deal of effort to do so. I find it extremely annoying and wish I had not made that choice when I was a kid. I wasn’t ashamed of being smart by any means but I was overly concerned about how I appeared to others when I shouldn’t have been.
Which brings us to the word of the day: “Niggardly”
There’s been a few…heated discussions on Facebook about it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a word. Yes, it’s a word that I come across in print more often than is conversation but it’s still a perfectly legitimate word. It’s phonetically similar to a racial slur but that’s it. There is no etymology shared between them or a historical misuse of niggardly in the way that “spade” has been misused. I think it’s unfair to penalize anyone for using a word in its proper context because of a superficial similarity. Hispanics caused a fuss over the cleaning product “Spic n Span” at the turn of the millennium because the word “Spic” is a racial slur against Latinos, particularly Puerto Ricans like myself. But you know what? The product had been around for over fifty years and was based off a phrase in the English language that dates back to the 1500s. I never took offense to it and I never will. And I’ve been called a spic (and a kyke, a dirty Jew, cracker, etc.)
Look, people are going to take offense to almost anything under the right circumstances. That’s their right as Americans. That doesn’t mean that we have to accede to every demand to strip the English language of all words that might be construed as offensive. Sometimes the appropriate response is, “Sorry, that word’s been around for centuries and has nothing to do with you. Nothing to see here. Move along.”
Adding: Just in case you missed my original post about it, when the conservative politician or pundit (still can’t remember who) used “niggardly” a year or so ago, I defended him too. He used it properly, in context and not all as a dog whistle for the racist base. Last year’s usage of “tar baby” was different since that phrase does has a history of being used as a slur. I don’t believe it was being used that way at all but the history is unavoidable. “Niggardly” is free of such baggage.