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2 February 1999

Smile-a-while: Endorsing n-word lite

Synopsis: The press corps seemed to think as one in responding to n-word lite.

Niggling over Niggardly
Editors, The Weekly Standard, 2/8/99

Ad Homonym
Editors, The New Republic, 2/15/99

Commentary by George Will
This Week, ABC, 1/31/99

Let no one right his ‘epithet’?
Mona Charen, The Washington Times, 2/1/99

Not-So-Funny Business
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 2/1/99

The Other N Word
Jack. E. White, Time, 2/8/99

Some Words Just Taste Unpleasant On the Tongue
Courtland Milloy, The Washington Post, 1/31/99

We often grimace and roll our eyes at the sameness of thought in this celebrity press corps--at the way the seers can sound the same in discussing the most basic issues.

But rarely have lemmings ever marched in such lockstep as in the recent flap over n-word lite--the discussion about David Howard’s resignation from the D.C. city government.

Thank god for a handful of free-thinking pundits who managed to publish contrarian views. Everywhere, we heard the same comments, endured the same jokes, as CelebCorps proved that it isn’t just blacks who can be sensitive to perceived racial slights.

Let’s start our punishment with the Weekly Standard’s “Niggling over Niggardly” (heh-heh):

THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Howard, who happens to be white, told two members of his staff that, given the lack of funds, he was going to have be to “niggardly” (which means stingy, miserly). His staff, ignorant of the word’s meaning or just sensing an opportunity to make trouble, mistook it for a racial slur and began spreading rumors...

Many commentators noted the staff members’ “ignorance” in not knowing what “niggardly” meant. We couldn’t help noticing that, at the very same time, most of these journals defined the term, apparently helping out their own laggard readers. The New Republic fleshed out the tone of the jibe, after an opening paragraph on the word’s ancient origins:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: We present this information as a public service to the residents of Washington, D.C.

There! It really felt good to say something like that--although we too were ignorant of the word’s ancient roots when the David Howard flap began, and after reading about those ancient roots, we explained them to an NPR host. And he hadn’t known them either.

But at least the journals skipped the jokes that appeared in so many comments. By the time This Week’s panel sat on Sunday last, the sallies were sounding rehearsed. Sam Donaldson argued for a little sensitivity. In reply, a practiced quip:

GEORGE WILL: The chink in the armor of your argument, if I may use a provocative phrase--

Sam had heard it all before:

DONALDSON: Right. And there’s a little nip in the air and all that.

Of course, any time stale ideas need retyping, Mona Charen is there in a flash:

CHAREN: One certainly hopes that the District of Columbia has no problems with raccoons...There can no longer be a nip in the air, and neither cars nor geese can be said to honk.

Phew! We really were having fun now! And William Raspberry had us howling:

RASPBERRY: Would Christmas carolers be charged with homophobia for singing “Don we now our gay apparel”? Can our kitchens no longer be spic and span?

How about Time’s Jack E. White:

WHITE: You could have an explosion the next time somebody says there’s a “nip in the air” or a “chink in your armor.” We’ve got to inject some common sense into this STUPID fuss.

Our sentiment exactly. Washington Times readers joined the wry badinage:

TIMES LETTERS: Is it true that Burger King will have to discontinue the use of “Whoppers” for fear of offending Italian-Americans?

We roared every time that we heard it. But another reader made all too clear where the “ignorance” concept was lurking:

TIMES LETTERS: Here is a possible solution...Buy the city employees a dictionary and tell them to look up the word. Obviously, they never considered using their heads for anything other than a hatrack.

Probably one of those blue woven hats, the kind they pull over the heads.

On This Week, Will and Bill Kristol lamented the way the “indignation industry” was running the show. But, as pundits and talk hosts rattled on, asserting their right to use favorite terms, we couldn’t help thinking that a bit of high dudgeon was coming from their quarter too.

Say what? Courtland Milloy, in the Post:

MILLOY: My first thought was: Isn’t it amazing how white people respond when one of their own gets shafted, especially by a black?...The fact that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Rep. Robert Barr (R-Ga.) have ties to a group that is an outgrowth of the Ku Klux Klan barely draws a yawn. But this one hits a nerve.