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A Niggardly Column on Words

There was an op-ed piece in this morning’s Chicago Tribune about words. The columnist was all atwitter about her choice of words regarding a real estate salesman. She was afraid she had given some offense or committed some PC faux pas. She had used the term “shyster” to refer to the salesman and was concerned that Jews might be offended. Oddly enough, she felt that the fact she was a minority herself should have given her some special insight into the incautious use of words. Aside from the racist attitude she displayed by that suggestion, she wrote an interesting, albeit misguided, column.

In addition to “shyster,” she was concerned with “niggardly” and “renege.” To give her credit, she did some linguistic research, and discovered, mirabile dictu, that these words are bereft of any negative racial or ethnic connotations. Shyster coming from the German “scheiss,” or shit; “niggardly” is an adjective meaning “stingy” or “miserly”, perhaps related to the Old Norse verb nigla, “to fuss about small matters”.  It is cognate with “niggling,” meaning “petty” or “unimportant,” as in “the niggling details.” Renege, of course, comes from Medieval Latin renegre, to deny. It is also the root for the word “renegade.” In all that research, she failed to realize that “shyster” is actually a slur directed at lawyers. Being a lawyer myself, I feel compelled to guard our slurs avariciously.

Having sussed all this out, she then goes on to suggest that we should, perhaps, refrain from using these words anyway. This to prevent giving unintended offense to those among us who are ignorant of the language.  I believe it was the historian Arthur Schlesinger who suggested that anytime someone wrote a public piece, they should make it a goal to send their readers to the dictionary at least once. After the controversies with the word niggardly, and now apparently renege and shyster, I am tempted to agree.  I refuse to kowtow to the homnymically fearful.

Isn’t it our responsibility, as professional users of the language, to educate those who are ignorant? It is also a corporal work of mercy to educate the ignorant. If we give in to fear mongers, and debase our language to assuage imaginary slights, then we will have lost a linguistic heritage that is the envy of the world.

None of which is to suggest that we go around looking for opportunities to offend; that would be simply wrong. But English is a versatile language, capable of scalpel-like precision or sledgehammer brutality. Let us not remove tools from our toolkit simply because of some hypersensitive race-baiters.

P.S. Will someone please point out my blog to Dennis Byrne at the Tribune? He’s been a day or two late on occasion.

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