“niggard (n.) – A mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; a person who only grudgingly parts with, spends, or uses up anything. Also in extended use with reference to emotion, etc.”
—Oxford English Dictionary
“—a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always…”
—from “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner
“Words are things. The words he is in possession of he cannot be deprived of. Their authority transcends his ignorance of their meaning.”
—from Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
I was queer as a kid, an oblique, off-center
boy who preferred books to baseball. By high school
I was merely odd, and these days, in old age,
I’m trending strange to weird, though without, alas,
the power to control fate. If poetry has taught me
anything, it’s the alchemical nature of words.
And yet, I feel a certain melancholy, er, I mean
sadness, that a word I loved as a child for the sound
of its voiced velar plosive, is reviled for its homo-
phonic disposition. I first heard it in my head
as I sat reading in the synchronous shade of a California
black oak and a loblolly pine in Yoknapatawpha County.
Years later, I learned that no explanation of its origin—
likely Scandinavian, though uncertain before the late
14th century—will mollify a room full of people
inflamed by the sound of a word whose meaning
they’re ignorant of. Nor can its meaning appease them.
It’s just too close to the N-word. And I get it. After all,
it was Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead.
It’s not even past.” So where niggard might be desired,
or rhythmically required, parsimonious will have to suffice.
As for the N-word, I appreciate the verbal
jujitsu by which a target group turns a taunt back
at the oppressor. To my grandmother I was a “gay boy,”
the word’s current usage only beginning to unfold
as slang, unless you look back further, which I don’t
recommend. What if my granny had read Chaucer?
But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay,
And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose;
That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
He koude wynne agayn my love anon.
Etymology glosses every word with its past, and often,
that past is dark. Even here I’m self-conscious.
I mean, I don’t mean to say the wrong thing, to be
insensitive or mean, but words tend to turn from sheer
sound and to take on weight, to mean so meanly.
And as we’ve seen, sound, too, can be a problem.
As with niggard, a missing letter here, the slip
of a phoneme there, can create hatred. Consider
the word poem: from Latin poema, and on back
to the Greek, poēma, literally, a thing made or created.
Leave a hump off that m and you’ve got poena,
Latin for punishment, penalty, retribution. A few
centuries later it will become the word pain. Poema/
poena. No doubt this explains some things. I mean
if poetry has taught me anything, it’s precision.
Know the nature of a thing. Sound it. And don’t leave
words lying around when you finish playing with them.
Thankfully, context counts. Otherwise, one couldn’t
enjoy some cool shade on a summer day; for there is
no word for darkness that has not been weaponized.
As for Abner Snopes, let us hope his stingy blazes
fade like sparks blown down the wind. S’plood, man,
the word-horde is vast; there are always alternatives!
I’m just saying that it hurts to be discriminating.