My father, alev ha-shalom, had forgotten more about English — his third language — than most people will ever know. In addition to reading novels and non-fiction for pleasure, he would amuse himself reading dictionaries, grammar books, and stories about the English language. (In that last genre, my favorite was one called Word Origins and Their Amazing Stories, a book that, sadly, is no longer in print.)
One of my father’s pet peeves, going back to the 1970s, was the way the word niggardly had been banished from most vocabularies, because people assumed that it had the same root as a vulgar and disrespectful word for black people. In fact, niggardly, which means miserly, or stingy, has an honest Anglo-Saxon etymology:
1325–75; Middle English nyggard, equivalent to nig niggard (< Scandinavian; compare dialectal Swedish nygg; akin to Old English hnēaw stingy)
This honestly rooted English word even shows up in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:
We all desiren, if it mighte be,
To han husbandes hardy, wise, and free,
And secret, and no niggard, ne no fool,
Ne him that is aghast of every tool,
Ne none avaunter, by that God above!
Having now proven the word’s bona fides, let me step down from the soap box. Given the two words’ auditory and spelling similarity, despite one being an Olde English word calling someone stingy, and the other a rude bastardization of a Latin word for the color “black,” I’m more forgiving than my father was when people express discomfort upon hearing the word niggardly. It just looks and sounds wrong.
The question remains, though, how far a culture should go to challenge honorable traditions that coincidentally run afoul of modern sensitivities. In Sweden, for example, modern sensibilities are chipping away at the traditional Santa Lucia celebration, which has seen children, since forever, parade around dressed up as stars, gnomes, Santa Lucia, or gingerbread men. The politically correct brigade is now worried about those gingerbread men. You and I think of them as tasty, spicy cookies that all sensible people love; the PC crowd knows that they have a darker symbolism (pun intended):
Schoolchildren in Sweden have been banned from dressing up as gingerbread men for a Christmas parade because their teachers fear the costumes could be considered racist.
[H]eartbroken 10-year-old Mio Simiv was told he could not wear his gingerbread man costume to the celebration because it might be seen as ‘offensive’.
Angry mum Jenny Simic told local media: ‘I thought he had to have got it wrong so I called the school and they said people might find a brown gingerbread character offensive.
Mrs. Simic also went on to make a larger point, which is that the other costumes, when taken out of context, can be forced into equally ugly interpretations. You see, those gnome costumes really don’t stand up to close scrutiny ….
‘I said, well then my son won’t participate. He won’t support some Ku Klux Klan procession – because that’s what the little Lucias look like when they all come in with white hoods and white dresses.’
Also, I’ve heard that gnomes are vertically challenged, so it won’t be long before the Little People start voicing their objections. (I feel I have a say in this one, as I just learned that my statuesque 5 feet tall is a mere two inches above official Little People status. Funnily enough, I’ve never felt short, and most people who know my are surprised to learn what my actual height is. As one man told me, to my great delight, “You have the most beautiful posture I’ve ever seen. You carry yourself like a queen.” But back to my post….)
The Swedish school tried to backtrack by claiming the absence of gingerbread came down to student allergies, but I’ve yet to hear of someone being allergic to a gingerbread man costume:
In my experience, one of the best ways to get past differences between people is to stop focusing on them so obsessively — or at the very least, to stop focusing on the marginal things that irritate petty people, so that you have energy and credibility to deal with the things that really matter. Aesop knew that crying wolf is counterproductive. After decades of backing down in the face of the Leftist war cry of “racist,” more and more people are looking in their hearts, recognizing that they’re not racists, and fighting back. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is that, in this swirling sea of “racist” caterwauls, the real racists will suddenly find themselves able to blend in with the crowd so that they can spread their poison.