Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

VERONICA made a sort of aerosol of a mouthful of Sunny Delight, a fruity concoction she insists on drinking, though it does nothing for me. This rude display indicated laughter.

She was laughing at the story of Mr David Howard, who was forced from office in the government service in Washington for using the word niggardly. He knew it had no connection with the word nigger, but some other people apparently did not know.

Poor Mr Howard. Shakespeare uses niggard (in Hamlet, 'Niggard of question, but of our demands Most free in his reply'), but that's not good enough for Washington. The high-minded Matthew Arnold opined that `the Israelites were perpetually slack or niggardly in their service of Jehovah'. St Thomas More, whose life in the fine biography by Peter Ackroyd Mr Clinton is said to be studying, uses niggardly in his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.

The meaning since the days of Chaucer has ever been mean. The etymology is not clear. There is a word nig, 'mean', from which niggard, 'a mean person' would come, as braggard from brag or drunkard from drunk. But nig is very rare, and though there is a Swedish word njugg with the same meaning, there seems to be no connection. …

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