IT WAS years ago when I first came across a book called The Press, written by A.J. Liebling, who for years was a columnist for New Yorker magazine.
The book is a group of essays critiquing the press of Liebling's heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. I remember in one passage Liebling characterized one person as "captious and niggling."
The word niggling made me snicker, then cackle. Niggling soon had me giggling. I had the feeling the word had nothing to do with another word that first entered my mind, hence the fit of laughter. I dashed to the nearest dictionary and then found I was right:
Niggling: adj. 1. Petty, especially in a nagging or annoying way; trifling. 2. Overly concerned with details; exacting and fussy.
Interesting word, I figured. So I scrolled up the page. Niggle, I learned, was a verb meaning "to be preoccupied with trifles or petty details" and "to find fault constantly and trivially."
I continued scrolling up. I came to the always-controversial N-word, of course, and then stopped when I reached niggardly.
Whoa! What did that one mean?
It turns out it meant "grudging and petty in giving or spending" or "meanly small; scanty and meager." Further perusal revealed that a niggard was a "stingy, grasping person; a miser" and "stingy or miserly."
All these words would in the future, I predicted, make for lots of fun. Three years ago one of them did.
David Howard, who made the mistake of being white, male and wanting to work for District of Columbia government, used the word niggardly in his post as director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Unfortunately for Howard, he used the word in front of two blacks who, apparently, had spent much of their lives turning tail and running whenever a dictionary was brought into their presence.
Rumor soon had it that Howard had used the dreaded N-word. He handed in his resignation. Washington Mayor Anthony Williams accepted it. A short time later, after the media started hinting that the district's government may be run by chuckleheads, Williams dredged up the guts to give Howard his job back.
Such can be expected of a town where Williams, the incumbent mayor, had to run for re-election this year as a write-in candidate. Local pols in D.C. are often a laughingstock, so there was merriment aplenty when the "niggardly" controversy erupted.
But Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School in New Hanover County, N.C., probably doesn't see the humor in the controversy at all. Bell was leading a class discussion about literary characters Aug. 20. One of the pupils described a character in one story as stingy.
Bell regularly gives her students a new vocabulary word for the day. Big mistake. As a public school teacher, did she really think actual learning was supposed to occur? She looked up synonyms for stingy and found niggardly. That became the word for the day.
Akwana Walker, a black parent with a child in Bell's class, took umbrage and demanded Bell's job. Walker went on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes show shortly thereafter to defend her position.
"The conclusion that I got from Miss Bell," Walker said without the slightest hint of embarrassment, "is that she did have a little bit of prejudice in her. ... Someone that didn't have prejudice in them would not have chosen that word. I don't feel like it's appropriate for a fourth-grade teacher to put it in people's heads. ... That's an offensive word. She only added a suffix to the ending of it."
You've probably guessed the rest of this tale.
Bell is white, was forced to apologize, received a formal reprimand and must take "sensitivity training." Meanwhile, Walker remains free to terrorize other teachers into purging the English language of "offensive" words both real and perceived.
This latest pathetic episode in political correctness inspires yet another vocabulary lesson. We won't use a traditional dictionary, since that's what got Bell and Howard in trouble. We'll use Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. The word is idiot.
"Idiot: A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but 'pervades and regulates the whole.' He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions of opinion and taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line."
Does that sound like the definition of a certain parent of a certain student in North Carolina?