The term “niggardly” is used to describe someone who is stingy with money. Due to its unfortunate similarity to a racial epithet, however, this innocuous word has been surrounded with controversy among English speakers for much of the 20th century. As early as 1924, people were confusing “niggardly” with a racial epithet, and in the socially conscious 1990s, several controversies erupted when public officials used the word. Though their use was entirely appropriate for the circumstances, as in the instance of an official who said that he would “need to be niggardly with finances” to cope with budget cuts, the public uproar highlighted the confusion over this word.
The roots of “niggardly” lie in an Indo-European stem, ken-, which means “closed” or “tight.” A variety of other words are also related to this word, including neap, nibble, and nip. One of the earliest documented uses of the word comes from works of Chaucer, suggesting that the word was in common use by the 14th century. Spelling was not standardized in this period, so “niggardly” appeared in a variety of colorful variations, but the meaning of the word was clear.
The racial slur with which this word is confused appears to have developed in the 15th century. It is derived from the Spanish word for “black,” negro. Clearly, the racial slur is meant to reference skin color, although it was probably originally used purely as a descriptive word, much like “blonde.” As attitudes towards black people changed, the word began to acquire more sinister racist connotations, and in the modern era, it is considered highly offensive.
Confusions between niggardly and a word of entirely different origins illustrate one of the interesting problems with the English language. Because English is taken from an amalgamation of languages, it is not uncommon to encounter words which sound similar, but have very different meanings. Because the racial epithet has become such a charged word to use, many people jump on “niggardly” when they hear it, assuming that the speaker is being racist.
While is it linguistically appropriate to describe someone who is miserly or tight-fisted as niggardly, it may not be advisable. Sorting out the confusion between the innocent word and the racial epithet requires a brief lesson in etymology, something which many people are not willing to sit still for in the heat of a discussion about racially-charged words. Because many people are reluctant to use “niggardly” in polite conversation for fear of causing offense, it is possible that the word could potentially vanish from the English language due to a lack of common usage.