Is “Niggardly” a Racial Slur?

Recently I was at a pastors conference during which a guest speaker used the word “niggardly.”  This upset several people and the tension in the room shot up several degrees as the denomination I belong to is one that prides itself on being sensitive to minorities of any stripe.

It’s unfortunate really since the word “niggardly” has bears no relationship (other than an unfortunate phonetic similarity) to the infamous, “N-word”.  

First, for the meaning: niggardly means to be selfish in a mean way, or stingy.

Now for the history:  The origins of the word are unclear.  It is thought by many to be derived from the old norse word “nigla” which means to fuss over small matters (make mountains out of mole-hills).  It’s similar to the word “niggling” which means petty or small (e.g. “the niggling details”).

While the exact origins of the word are unclear, it predates the pejorative reference to people of African heritage by a few hundred years.  I could be wrong but I think its first English appearance is in Chaucer’s work.

Rather than discontinue the use of a word because people think it means something (or has a history) it doesn’t, my opinion is that we should graciously explain the lack of relationship between the two words.  Let’s not hobble the English language because of a misconception.

2 thoughts on “Is “Niggardly” a Racial Slur?

  1. If we are going to use the English language, even if it’s just the American dialect, there’s no excuse for politicizing valid words over something so silly and shallow.

  2. It’s not racial, but it’s so close and racial reconciliation is such a significant issue with deep wounding all around, that I’m willing to choose other words. The goal of communication is to get the point across, which doesn’t happen if all people remember is the controversy over word choice.

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