The other ‘N’ word


nig·gard·ly, adj.

1. reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly.

2. meanly or ungenerously small or scanty: a niggardly tip to a waiter.

Tip? Here’s a tip: Don’t use this word; it’ll get you fired even though there’s nothing racist about the word, it just sounds too close to the “N-word” and the nation’s reading scores aren’t quite high enough to expect anything other than confusion when it’s used.

Just ask two drug counselors in Broward County, Florida, one of whom has been fired and the other suspended for using the word that isn’t the word that should automatically get them disciplined, according to SunSentinel.com.


“It’s Kafkaesque,” said Sam Fields, Suskind-Assidon’s attorney. “How is she supposed to report something that isn’t an offense?”

Tworetzky disputes the county report, but declined further comment.

Suskind-Assidon and Fields said that at an appeals hearing last week, county official Tom Hutka said “niggardly” was a word that could be misconstrued and he “wouldn’t use it.”

As a writer, I’d never use it either. Given its similarity to the combustible N-word, it could only lead to confusion and problems. But making it a firing offense seems over the top.

Suskind-Assidon said she called Tworetzky into the meeting with the substance-abuse client after she sensed the client was “holding back” in his recovery efforts.

According to Suskind-Assidon, Tworetzky told the client he was being “niggardly” about opening up. The client took offense. She said Tworetzky explained it and they later looked it up in the dictionary.

A few days later, the client filed a complaint. His identity was withheld by the county because of medical confidentiality laws.

The current situation in Florida sounds remarkably like the controversy that erupted in Washington DC in 1999 when an aide to the mayor was forced to resign after using it to describe budget funding. He was rehired after city officials acknowledged their lack knowledge of etymology, which — for the record — is not the same as entomology.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Once again, it’s all about context.

    Is the complainant black?

    If so, at best a really dumb word choice by Tworetzky.

    But firing doesn’t fit the crime unless there’s a pattern of inappropriate behavior.

    The penalty for just being dumb should be having to live in Florida and work in human services.

  • Mark Gisleson

    I’ve been horrified by this story each time it comes up, and it’s been coming up for at least 50 years now. Yes, it’s an incredibly stupid thing but the furor that surrounds this word is pretty easy to understand: millions of African-Americans have been exposed to it in the classroom and because their immature classmates reacted to it as if it was the n-word, for many people there’s a very strong connection between the two words even though they’re etymologically unrelated.

    It’s not a right or wrong thing, it’s just a it-just-happened-this-way thing. Niggardly is not that essential a word, and I don’t think it harms us as a society to shelve it even if it is for the wrong reasons. Wrong reasons, right reasons, the fact that a white guy can’t use this word loudly in a working class African American bar tells you all you need to know. It’s not worth fighting over, the word should just be dropped from the language as a courtesy, no further discussion necessary.

  • Bob Collins

    I think it’s a pretty safe bet that some people use the word correctly, but do so knowing it will be misconstrued while they’re able to maintain deniability.

  • Joe Busch

    \\The penalty for just being dumb should be having to live in Florida and work in human services.

    It is endlessly interesting to me that we live in a society where a person who uses edge-case vocabulary correctly, but is misunderstood by a knee-jerk majority, is considered to be “dumb”.

    With that said, Bob is almost certainly correct in this:

    \\I think it’s a pretty safe bet that some people use the word correctly, but do so knowing it will be misconstrued while they’re able to maintain deniability.

    This point is equally interesting.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Joe – OK, so for whatever reason, you take issue with “dumb”.

    How do you feel about “indisreet”?

  • Jim Shapiro

    Talk about dumb. Of course I meant “indiscreet”.