Word Costs City Official His Job
Word Costs City Official His Job
Jan. 28, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ David Howard could have used the word ``miserly'' to describe how he administered a Washington, D.C., government fund. Instead, he chose ``niggardly,'' and it cost him his job.
``Niggardly'' means Scrooge-like. But it sounds a lot like a racial slur, and a few of Howard's colleagues took offense.
Mayor Anthony Williams, who is black, accepted the resignation of Howard, who is white, saying initially that his aide showed poor judgment even though he ``didn't say anything that was in itself racist.''
The major backpedalled a bit on Wednesday, the day after Howard resigned. The mayor said an investigation was under way and Howard might return to the staff _ in a different job _ if he's ultimately judged to have done nothing wrong.
Sentiment on the street is split.
Some residents say Howard, a former Williams campaign worker who handled citizen complaints for the mayor's office, is guilty only of poor word choice. Others say he should have realized ahead of time how the word might be wrongly received.
``There's quite a bit of hubbub, quite a bit of buzz about it,'' said Kojo Nnamdi, black host of a public interest talk show. ``It's indicative of the state of race relations in Washington. A simple explanation should have sufficed. When it comes to race in Washington, apparently a simple explanation doesn't get it.''
Jim Deely, a 49-year-old white advertising manager who grew up in Washington, says it was only a misunderstanding. ``Howard resigned too soon and Williams accepted it too fast,'' he says.
Godfrey Clarke, 54, a professional painter who was born in Trinadad and moved to Washington 31 years ago, says Howard shouldn't have resigned at all.
``People make a big deal,'' he says. ``It's just politics. You make a little mistake and you're in hot water.''
But Marcus Marshall, 22, a black employee in a sporting goods store, said Howard did the right thing in stepping down. ``I don't agree with him saying that kind of word. He should be punished because it's so close to ... a degrading word.''
Dictionaries and other language references define ``niggardly'' as miserly or stingy, trace it to Scandinavia and attribute no offensive connotations to it. It is not even in the Forbidden American English, a dictionary of 1,400 ``highly offensive and often inflammatory'' words and phrases.
But the possibility of confusion is raised in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a new reference published by Oxford University Press. The word has no connection to the racial slur, the book says. ``Even so, some speakers and writers have come to shun it just to avoid misunderstandings.''
Author Bryan A. Garner, who is white, said modern sensibilities should be taken into account when using legitimate but problematic language. He recalled an incident at the University of Texas when a professor called a Supreme Court ruling ``niggardly'' in class and black students asked later whether he had insulted them.
Robin Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says ``niggardly'' might be going the way of other descriptive phrases that the language is setting aside.
``People are avoiding the metaphorical sense of black and white,'' she said by way of example, noting that using white to signify good and black to signify bad will offend some people.