“Niggardly” means excessively parsimonious, miserly, or stingy; a “niggard” is a skinflint.

It is derived from the Middle English word nigard, which is probably derived from Old Norse nigla, meaning “to be poor,” which itself is most likely derived from hnøggr (“stingy”). The word “niggle,” which in modern usage means to give excessive attention to minor details, probably shares an etymology with niggardly.

“Nigger,” a racial epithet in English, derives from the Spanish/Portuguese word negro, meaning “black,” and the French word nègre. Both negro and noir (and therefore also nègre and nigger) ultimately come from nigrum, the Latin masculine adjective niger, meaning “black” or “dark.” The first derogatory use of “nigger” dates to 1775.

However, people who don’t know the source or history of the word “niggardly” often assume it’s a form of “nigger.” On January 15, 1999, David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington, DC, Anthony A. Williams, used “niggardly” in reference to a budget. This apparently upset one of his black colleagues, who misinterpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. 

As a result, on January 25, Howard tendered his resignation, and Williams accepted it. However, after public pressure, an internal review into the matter was brought about, and the mayor offered Howard the chance to return to his position as Office of the Public Advocate on February 4. Howard refused but accepted another position with the mayor instead, insisting that he did not feel victimized by the incident.

John Derbyshire, a conservative commentator, wrote in 2002 that although he loved to use words that are sometimes considered obscure, he would not use the word “niggardly” among black people, especially among less-educated black people, out of politeness and to avoid causing someone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of any non-racial meanings he would intend.

“In theory, you, I and the columnist next door will defend to the death our right to say ‘niggardly.’ But in practice, will we use it?”

That’s a difficult question to answer. 

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  One thought on “niggardly

  1. Wendy
    March 6, 2022 at 10:04 am

    Excellent explanation of the word. I certainly do not use it among my friends who are educated and white, “Woke” you might say.
    Very brave of you to tackle the word.
    Thank you


    • March 6, 2022 at 10:07 am

      Thank you! I strongly object to any bastardization of the language, “woke” or not.
      Pretending that “niggardly” is a slur is just ridiculous.


  2. Wendy
    March 6, 2022 at 10:09 am

    An afterthought: i actually avoid the word ” denigrate”. I misprounced it once to my sister’s hilarity. I added an E between the G and R. Complete misunderstanding on my part of the derivation. You do a great service, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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