Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I HAD just finished reading The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', that strange sea yarn by Conrad, when what should I come across in the post but a nautical usage of nig, in connection with the origins of niggard (Mind your language, 13 February). 'Nig-nag-nig does very well,' writes Mr Colin Forbes from Cambridge, `for the sound we might call today tap-taptapping of a small hammer as the cooper drives down a hoop to tighten it on a cask.' Such a repeated, niggling annoyance, he suggests, might go to make up the mean nature of a niggard.

The passage that Mr Forbes quotes is so good that I reproduce it as it appears in Above and Under Hatches, the naval recollections of Commander James Anthony Gardner (from 1836), edited by Christopher Lloyd in 1955: Our first lieutenant, old Constable, was a devil of a tyrant. When first I asked him for leave to go on shore for a few hours, he said he would see me in hell first: and on my thanking him for his kindness, he swore if I did so again he would try me by a court martial for my politeness. I was once starting [beating] the jolly-boat boys for being slack in getting into the boat, when old Constable, observing what I was about, `Damn my eyes,' says he, `that's not the way; you should take a handspike and knock their brains out. …

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