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A War of Words

Wesley T. Chan

Every day our nation's capital is becoming more of a linguistic battlefield. One can only stare in amazement at this crazy war. Daily television images of Republicans asserting that the President has "murdered" the English language by allegedly perjuring himself reinforces this observation.

The latest battle of words in Washington took place not in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol but inside City Hall. Newly elected D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams recently accepted the resignation of his aide David Howard after Howard said in a meeting last month, "I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be a lot of money." An African-American colleague of Howard stormed out of the room after mistaking the word "niggardly" for a racial epithet.

Howard apologized to his colleague and attempted to explain that the word, which has Scandanavian origins, really means "stingy" or "miserly." She allegedly refused to listen and was shocked that someone could be so insensitive to use such an egregious word. Howard offered to resign after his office began receiving numerous calls from the community accusing him of being racist. Mayor Williams accepted, claiming that Howard used poor judgement in his choice of words.

Since the incident, there has been a media frenzy. The Washington Post criticized the mayor by saying that he should have handed the staff member a dictionary and ripped up Howard's resignation. Words with benign meanings are increasingly becoming taboo. For instance, The New York Times reports that people are avoiding the use of words such as chicanery, meaning "to trick," since some may mistake it for the more derogatory word Chicano, sometimes used to describe Latinos.

This is simply outrageous. Sad as it may be, the issue at hand is our hypersensitivity of words. It's a disgrace to our country. Nevertheless, some argue that Howard should have used a more recognizable word at his meeting. As a Washington Post columnist pointed out, he'd never use the word "fagot," which, unlike the slur against homosexuals with two g's, means a bundle of twigs, sticks or branches. People, after all, could easily get offended.

But shall we also chastise Supreme Court justices when they use "niggardly" in their decisions? Shall we also ban the works of Shakespeare, which also contains the word, from schools in hopes that it won't upset some of our more sensitive students? How much more should we lower our standards to appease the ignorance of those who quickly scream "Foul!"

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not advocating the use of words intended to demean others. Such behavior is clearly unacceptable. But it is equally unacceptable to accuse someone who uses a perfectly legitimate word with no derogatory connotations as racist. We've got to stop this nonsense. It's time to realize that some of us have become hypocrites in the true sense of the word. We insist on tolerance; yet, at the moment when we think we have been offended, we fail to show any tolerance at all. We are quick to send out the troops when we think we've been attacked, but we are slow to listen and understand, passing guilty verdicts on the innocent instead.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Mayor Williams, after an "investigation," asserted that Howard did nothing wrong. He admitted to reacting too quickly and offered Howard another post in his administration.

But the damage has been done. We find ourselves one step closer to completely lynching our vocabulary. Words become censored, not because they intentionally demean and offend, but because people are ignorant of their meanings. It's a sad world indeed when it has to come to this.