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February 2, 1999, Tuesday
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Racist Language, Real and Imagined

By Steven Pinker

Last week David Howard, an aide to the Mayor of Washington, resigned after a staff meeting in which he called his budget ''niggardly.'' A colleague thought he had used a racial epithet, though in fact ''niggard'' is a Middle English word meaning ''miser.'' It has nothing to do with the racial slur based on Spanish for ''black,'' which came into English centuries later.

This is not the first time the inaccurate parsing of an innocent remark has led to confusion. Remember, in ''Annie Hall,'' how Woody Allen thinks he has been the target of an anti-Semitic slur from two people on a New York street? One person had asked, ''Dj'ou eat yet?'' and his companion had replied, ''No, dj'ou?''

Last week's misunderstanding was of a different sort. ''Niggardly'' may be unexceptionable on etymological grounds, but given what we know about how the mind deals with language, the word was a disaster waiting to happen.

Most words and parts of words have many meanings, and when we listen to someone speak, our brains have to find the right ones. Some recent laboratory experiments indicate that this is a two-stage process.

First, all the meanings of a word, including inappropriate ones, light up willy-nilly in the brain. When we hear about ''spiders, roaches and bugs,'' the thought of surveillance devices flashes through our minds for a few hundredths of a second -- until that misinterpretation is repressed by our analysis of the context.

Thus it is impossible for anyone to hear ''niggardly'' without thinking, if only for a moment, of the ethnic slur.

Worse, the context is of little help in squelching the wrong meaning. Everyone is an amateur linguist, and we all strive for a logical -- though sometimes incorrect -- parsing of what we hear. This is why folk etymologies are rampant in dialects, like ''sparrowgrass'' (asparagus) and ''very-close'' (varicose) veins.

Many phrases have become standard English, like chaise lounge (from the French chaise longue or ''long chair''), cockroach (from the Spanish cucaracha) and bridegroom (originally bridgome, Middle English for ''bride man'').

''Niggardly'' is easy to mis-parse. English grammar allows a ''d'' or ''ed'' to be stuck on a noun to form an adjective (as in ''hook-nosed'' and ''left-handed''), and it allows ''ly'' to be put on an adjective to form an adverb.

Thus we get ''absent-mindedly,'' ''good-humoredly,'' ''half-heartedly,'' ''markedly,'' ''otherworldly,'' ''pointedly,'' ''shame-facedly'' and ''single-handedly.''

The ''a'' is not much help, because ''ar'' often substitutes for ''er'' -- as in ''beggar,'' ''burglar,'' ''hangar'' and ''scholar.''

Worst of all, the deducible meaning makes all-too-good linguistic sense. Terms for stinginess and duplicitousness are among the most common examples of racist language: ''to gyp'' (probably from gypsy), ''to welsh'' (perhaps from Welsh), ''Dutch treat,'' ''Indian giver.''

Does this mean a perfectly innocent word is doomed? It would not be the first time. Words are often sacrificed when they take on secondary, emotionally charged meanings. ''Queer,'' for example is now problematic, and many animals (like donkeys) are losing their fine old Anglo-Saxon names.

If you find yourself vaguely offended thinking of the other words I could have included here, you should have some sympathy for David Howard's audience.

Still, Mr. Howard should get his job back. Though ''niggardly'' begs to be misunderstood, the misunderstanding can be overruled. After the various associates of a word light up in the mental dictionary, the rest of the brain can squelch the unintended ones, thanks to the activity that psycholinguists call ''post-lexical-access processing'' and that other people call ''common sense.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Blacks; English Language

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