David Howard was head of the Office of Public Advocate on the Washington City Council.
He was young, popular, liberal, and a good friend of the Mayor.
But he lost his job over a single word.
It wasn’t a rude word, or an insulting word, and it wasn’t used incorrectly.
It was a word he used in a reply to an enquiry about allocation of funds for public works.
Here’s what he said, see if you can spot the word:
“I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.”
Yes, that’s right, it was the word niggardly.
A black journalist in the press conference took exception to it and walked out.
David Howard was distraught, he apologised and resigned.
In a statement, he said “Although the word does not have any racial connotations, I realise that staff members present were offended by the word.”
The Mayor, who was also black, and who David Howard had campaigned for, accepted his resignation.
Because that is not a word you’re allowed to use.
Or, to be correct, it sounds similar to word you’re not allowed to use.
And that similarity was enough to cost David Howard his job.
Webster’s Dictionary defines niggardly as “Grudgingly mean about spending or granting”.
It says it’s derivation is 16th century Scandinavian.
The OED traces it back to Chaucer who used it in 1347, when niggard meant miser.
I remember we were taught that word at school.
But we never used it because it just seemed a pompous way of saying tight or stingy.
We never thought it was racist, just pretentious language.
But not all black Americans were offended.
Julian Bond, head of the NAACP, said “You hate to think that you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.”
And black gay activists thought David Howard was being victimised.
Howard, who was openly gay himself, had sought their support in getting the Mayor elected in the first place.
The mayor however was unsympathetic.
He said “I think what David did was get caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion, and a lot of people fanned the flames.”
In other words, Washington has a large black population who weren’t happy with the Mayor having “a pushy white boy” in that job.
They were happy to misunderstand and misinterpret what he said in order to get him out of the job.
They were waiting to take a quote out of context for the purpose of being outraged.
And that is the main learning here, the word ‘context’.
Used in another context, the word is just the sort of pretentious language politicians use.
Using a complicated word where a simple one will do.
There wouldn’t been a problem if David Howard had used a simpler word: “I will have to be grudging/miserly/tight/stingy with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.”
But that wouldn’t have sounded as statesmanlike as he wanted.
So he did what politicians do, he chose a pretentious word that made him sound educated.
He thought about what he wanted instead of thinking about his audience.
They hadn’t been taught the word niggardly at school.
But they did know another word that sounded very similar, and that was their default setting.
Which is why, in communication, it’s not enough to speak or write correctly, we must make sure we’re heard correctly.