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Issue 26

January 31, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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It seems that words and their etymologies are in the news again. Last week, it was whether the use of  grubstake proved a document to be a forgery. [See also Letters to the Editors, this issue.] Now, David Howard, aide to the mayor of Washington D.C., has lost his job over the use of the word niggardly in a conversation.

Niggardly, of course, means "miserly" or "stingy". The first written record we hWalt Disney's Miser Duckave of its use is from 1530 but the noun niggard, "miser", has been around much longer, having been used by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1374. Middle English also used nig for a miser or stingy person. All these words have their venerable, if unpronounceable, origin in the Old Norse hnøggr, "stingy", "niggardly" although there was a related Old English word hneaw, "stingy".

So, why all the fuss? Did the open-handed bureaucrats on the Washington city council really resent being called stingy that much? Well, no. The problem is that many of them, being unfamiliar with the term, thought it sounded uncomfortably similar to the word nigger. Word got out that Mr. Howard, a white man, had used a racial slur.

In any other city it may have been possible for the mayor to make a public announcement explaining matters, but not in Washington D.C. Not just now. The city is 65% African-American and its mayor was, for many years, the popular but occasionally embarrassing Marion Barry. He was recently replaced by Anthony Williams who, though he is African-American, has been criticized for not being "black enough". What savvy politician in these circumstances would tell his indignant constituents that their complaints were groundless and based in ignorance? It is far easier to throw the white boy to the wolves.

A word is not, in itself, racist. Much depends on the social context and time-frame. Take black, for example. Until the notion of "black pride" took hold in the 1960s, black was considered a highly pejorative term. Almost overnight it went from being a term of abuse to a badge of pride and became the preferred appellation for most African-Americans. Before then, the "polite" word was negro; since then it has been replaced first by Afro-American, then by African-American.

Even the word nigger is not necessarily abusive. Of course, it is considered extremely offensive in most contexts but is frequently used among African-Americans without any derogatory connotations. Sometimes it can stand as a symbol for all of society's ignored and disadvantaged as in this quotation from Ron Dellums: "It's time for somebody to lead all of America's niggers... all the people who feel left out of the political process".  In more innocent times it could also be used to mean simply "a black person" as in the title of Joseph Conrad's novel The Nigger of the Narcissus.

If we were to select an equivalently offensive racist word from Britain it would have to be wog. This term is generally applied to any dark-complected foreigner, but it is most often used against Indian and Pakistani immigrants. One story declares that the word was first used to describe the native Egyptian laborers involved in the building of the Suez Canal: as all fellahin looked alike to their colonial overlords, those employed by the British were issued armbands bearing the letters W O G S, standing for "working on government service". It's an ingenious story but untrue. (Over the years, we have come to suspect any etymology which relies on an acronym as being false.) Another, more overtly racist version has the letters stand for "wily oriental gentleman". (Note that "oriental" here meant Egyptian.) The truth is that wog is an abbreviation of gollywog. A gollywog was a rag doll which became popular in Britain around 1890. In form it is a highly stylised caricature of a nigger minstrel, these black-face entertainers being all the rage at the time. Gollywog, the word, is an alteration of pollywog, a dialect word for a tadpole and was used because of the somewhat surprised expression (i.e. as if saying "Golly!") on the doll's face.

Somewhat surprisingly, nigger minstrels were not necessarily African-American; most were white men in black-face presenting their versions (often travesties) of black humor and black music. During the same period coon songs enjoyed a great vogue in vaudeville and music-hall on both sides of the Atlantic. These were performed exclusively by white men in black-face who portrayed the African-American as an ignorant, sentimental buffoon to audiences who accepted this stereotype uncritically. The genre was typified by such songs as "I's Jes' a Alambamy Coon". Al Jolson represented the last survival of this genre.

Etymologically nigger is a doublet with negro as they both ultimately derive from niger, the Latin word for "black". Note that it does not necessarily mean "a black person", just "black" the color. On the other hand, Africa's Niger river and the country of Nigeria were given those names because of the color of the people there. Nigger entered Middle English as neger, a form of the Old French negre, itself borrowed from the Spanish negro, "black". Never in its history has it ever been connected with the word niggardly. Well, not until now, that is.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Sackbutt:

While having a cup of coffee at a roadside Waffle House, I began to wonder why waffle was also used to mean "indecisiveness", i.e., "waffling on the issues", and then I wondered what either use had to do with the German LuftWAFFE, or the WAFFEn SS, and so on.  'Tis a curious turn of a word, isn't it?  Any ideas?

Interestingly, most etymologists agree that the two words waffle come from different sources.  The "indecisive" Waffles and waffle iron -- click for link word arose in the 19th century as a derivative of waff (17th century) "the sound a dog makes".  Like woof, it is onomatopoeaic.  Apparently the notion here is that a waffler's words have as much meaning as a dog barking.

Waffle the food and/or pattern, along with wafer, comes from wafel, whose Proto-Germanic base is *wab-/*web- (source also of English weave).  German wabe "honeycomb" is of the same origin.  Funnily enough, English got wafer from Anglo French wafre, which itself came from Middle Low German gaufreWaffle was borrowed by American speakers straight from Dutch wafel.

The German word waffe means "weapon; arms" and is not related to waffle and its relatives.  The German form of waffle is waffel and is used for both "waffles" and "wafers".


From Hal Dunn:

Can you please explain the origin of the word radical?

Believe it or not, this word comes ultimately from Latin radix "root", which is also the source of radish (Old English), among others.  Radical dates from the 14th century with an obvious "of or having to do with roots" meaning. It was not until the 18th century that the political meaning arose, with the metaphoric idea of "going back to the roots" of a particular idea or issue.

The use of the word radical to describe the mathematical symbol which denotes a square root should be obvious.  The chemical term radical may be explained by its association with root: a radical is a group of atoms acting as a single unit, i.e., rooted together.


From: Elizabeth

I'm searching for the origins of the word uppity.  My parents never allowed me to use the word because it had racist connotations.  The dictionary says it was developed in the 1880s and I am curious to know if it was developed in relation to the rights of black Americans.

Interestingly, Eric Partridge points to Claiborne (1976) as noting that the term is used "especially of Illustration from first edition.  Click image to follow link. Negroes", with a cite to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The date noted for the word here is 1884.

Another source gives a date of 1880 and suggests that the word comes from uppish, which dates from 1678 with the meaning "lavish", and acquired the meaning "conceited; arrogant" by 1734.  Uppish was formed simply from up + -ish.  Yet another source cites dates of 1875-1880 for uppity.

The story gets stranger.  We did a full-text search of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and we could not find uppity there in any shape or form other than uppish.  If uppity derives from uppish, there is a good chance that it did not (and does not) have racial connotations.


From Nolan S. Myers:

I recently visited your web site on etymologies of words.  I am fascinated by this subject and am especially interested in how languages shape and reflect a person's thinking.  I was recently reading a book which said that the word boredom didn't come into existence until the 1800s.  For a concept that seems like such an everyday occurrence in our world, it seems hard to believe that people before this time didn't feel bored (or at least didn't express it).  I was hoping you could give me some more information as to the validity of this claim and also any other information that you think important.

The book you were reading is indeed correct.  Boredom derives from bore "be tiresome", and bore dates from the 18th century.  In fact, it appeared rather suddenly, about 1760 (with the meaning "a fit of boredom") and no one seems to know whence it came.  Most etymologists are not convinced that it is related to bore "make a hole" (Old English), though that is one explanation which exists!  That word bore goes back to the Indo-European root *bhor-, giving Latin forare "bore; make a hole" (English foramen is related), Greek pharynx and Proto-Germanic *boron (Modern German bohran), which is the source of English bore

As for the concept of boredom, certainly other words were used to express that meaning prior to the word's debut in English.


From John B. Braswell:

Can you please give the background to the word teetotaler?  We all know this refers to total abstinence from drinking, but does the tee part simply emphasize the total aspect of the basic meaning - to not drink alcoholic beverages?

You're right.  This word has something in common with D-day in that the tee of teetotal is actually the initial t of total. Apart from that, there are two separate explanations and you may choose either. One is that it comes from an 1827 New York temperance society which would place a T after a member's name to signify "total abstinence". The other explanation is that one Richard Turner, an English temperance campaigner of Preston, Lancashire insisted in a speech of 1833 that temperance could not be partial. According to him it had to be T-total or nothing. It is not certain which of these two gave rise to the word teetotal.


From Mike Wakefield:

I remember hearing more than once in my youth that the phrase out of sorts originated with printers being frustrated with running out of type (sorts).  I have not been able to find any reference to confirm this.  What say you?

Many years ago, Mike was a proof-reader at a print-shop.  According to him, sorts is what printers call "assorted type". That is, non-alphabetic characters such as asterisks, ampersands, percent signs and so on. These characters were not cast as frequently as numbers and letters and it was not uncommon for a type-setter to run out of them. He would then request more type from the type foundry and put his feet up for a while as he was out of sorts. This, however, is not the whole story. The phrase was already current when printers gave it this new meaning in the early 19th century. Its use can be dated to 1620 but its origin is unclear.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.


This week's Spotlight reminded us that in the United States terms of racial abuse, such as nigger*, are often called racial epithets. In our opinion, this is a misuse of the word epithet.

Let's do a little grammar. In the phrase "a furry coat" the word "furry" is clearly an adjective but, in the phrase "a fur coat", is the word "fur" an adjective or a noun?  Usually we consider "fur" to be a noun but here it functions as an adjective. Grammarians call such words epithets.   In a less restrictive context epithet can also mean simply "adjective".

To euphemize racial abuse with grandiose terminology like racial epithet not only helps to disguise the hatred in the original words but, we believe, is technically incorrect. If someone is called a nigger, that word is, grammatically, a noun. Technically, if a racist were to say "The wogs were driving their nigger car" then the word nigger really is a racial epithet as it is a noun functioning as an adjective. Wogs is a racially offensive word but it is simply a noun, not an epithet.

Unfortunately, such niceties of grammar are lost on the general public. It is now widely understood that the newspaper code "He used a racial epithet" translates to "He said nigger"; therefore it is assumed that epithet means "insult". Eheu, o tempora, o mores!

*We are absolutely opposed to the use of racially offensive terms and are using them herein for illustrative/academic purposes only.


Sez You...

From Jim Martin:

Here's an update [on the Death Valley treasure chest story].

Thanks.  Jim sent us the entire story, but we'll simply offer you a link to the story, which is entitled "Park Service Declares Forty-Niners' Treasure Chest a Fake; Some of the Contents Date from After 1850".  He sent us the story as a follow-up to last week's issue of Take Our Word For It.  See also how Death Valley got its name.


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