Saturday, August 21, 2010

D.C. Government: July, Yes -- Niggardly, No

Back in 1991 I was fired after I complained to my employer that a coworker's use of the word "July" had anti-Semitic overtones; I explained that the word could also mean "Jew Lie."  The employer had me certified insane and potentially violent for believing that the word July might also be interpreted to mean "Jew Lie."  The D.C. Court of Appeals said, yes, indeed, an employer can have an employee certified insane and potentially violent if a psychiatrist affirms that an employee perceives animus in a co-workers' ambiguous statements and behaviors.

So, for the past 19 years -- lazy and shiftless person that I am -- I have just been sitting back and collecting my disability income from the U.S. Social Security Administration.  Yes, I have turned the act of interpreting ambiguity into a career!

Acting Like a Niggard

By Jeff Jacoby
Jewish World Review, 4/13/00

David Howard lost his job last week, compelled to resign as director of the District of Columbia's Office of Public Advocate for using a venerable English word correctly.

The word was "niggardly," which for 600 years has meant stingy or grudging. Its lineage reaches back to hnoggr, an Old Norse word for miserly. In one form or another, Shakespeare uses `niggard' at least a dozen times, as for example when Brutus tells Cassius in "Julius Caesar" that it is late and time to get some sleep:

The deep of night is crept upon our talk, And nature must obey necessity; Which we will niggard with a little rest.

Charles Dickens describes Bentley Drummle, a doomed character in "Great Expectations," as "idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious." In 1965, dissenting from the Supreme Court's ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, Justice Hugo Black argued that to treat the First Amendment "as though it protects nothing but ‘privacy' . . . is to give it a niggardly interpretation, not the kind of liberal readin"' the Bill of Rights deserves. And in II Corinthians 9:6 (Revised Standard Version), the apostle Paul writes:

"But do not forget that he who sows with a niggardly hand will also reap a niggardly crop, and that he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."

It was in precisely this sense that Howard used "niggardly" on Jan. 15. 2000 when he reviewed the constituent services budget with two of his aides, Marshall Brown and John Fanning. "I will have to be niggardly with this fund," he said, "because it's not going to be a lot of money."

Apparently somebody had been niggardly with Brown's and Fanning's education, for they were offended by what they heard. Brown -- who reportedly wanted Howard's job -- stormed out of the office. At once the ugly rumors started. Howard was flooded with phone calls from outraged residents. The story making the rounds was that he had said, "I'm tired of all these niggers coming to me with their problems." Ten days later he was out of work.

" Niggardly" has about as much to do with the N-word as "Day-Glo" does with the anti-Italian slur "dago."  Washington's new mayor, Anthony Williams, acknowledged as much.

But Williams is anxious to appease the city's pernicious racial extremists, who have been hounding him for not being "black enough." So rather than defend a white aide who had done nothing wrong, he pronounced Howard's resignation "appropriate." After all, said the mayor, "we're trying to bring our city together" and officials must "exercise the utmost judgment, discretion, and caution" in their choice of words.

So this is what our national racial hypersensitivity has come to: Other people's ignorance of English can cost you your job. Don't say the room looks "spick and span" if Latinos are listening. Don't call for a "jigger" of whiskey or refer to the Niger River if lacks are within earshot. DJs, beware: Announce that you're going to play some "doo-wop," and you may be kicked off the air. And just to be on the safe side, let's deep-six "homo sapiens" -- no telling who might be offended.

You think I exaggerate? Think again: Two days after Howard was thrown to the wolves, Mayor Williams told the Washington Times that decent people must avoid words that could sound offensive to someone who didn't know better. "Chink in the armor," he mused. "I wouldn't say that now."

It is not news that languages evolve or that words can take on meanings far from those they used to have. "Gay," for example, meant one thing in the 1940s, something very different today. But that useful and innocuous words should be censored because people with meager vocabularies might mistake them for something else? This is a wholly modern idiocy, and it didn't start with "niggardly."

A friend of mine, an editorial designer for a major New York publisher, once worked on a children's book that included a scene of students drawing in an art class. Her editors refused to allow the phrase ‘colored markers."

Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, leaned out of his window and yelled, "Shut up, you water buffalo!" at a group of women partying very noisily late at night. For uttering that epithet -- "water buffalo" -- the university prosecuted him on charges of racial harassment.

At Emory and Henry College in Virginia, minority students demanded that the name of the athletic teams -- the Wasps -- be changed. It upset them to think that someone might imagine that the school was celebrating white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

I wrote a column once on the motor voter law, illustrating its porousness by describing how easy it had been to register Jemima, the Jacoby family cat, as a voter in three different states. Angry readers called and wrote to denounce me as a racist -- because the cat is named Jemima.

David Howard is described by one of his black friends as "the most gentle, purest guy you'd ever want to meet" The victims of mindless racial resentment so often are. People everywhere are laughing about this incident. But at the heart of it is the trashing of a decent man, and there's nothing funny about his pain.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

Two days after Howard was thrown to the wolves, Mayor Williams told the Washington Times that decent people must avoid words that could sound offensive to someone who didn't know better. "Chink in the armor," he mused. "I wouldn't say that now."

Seventh-month telephone bill is the politically correct phrase instead of "July telephone bill."