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It's not a slur, but it sounds too much like one, therefore it's not an appropriate word to be taught in school.
September 5, 2002 1:27 PM   Subscribe

It's not a slur, but it sounds too much like one, therefore it's not an appropriate word to be taught in school. The job of Stephanie Bell, a veteran fourth grade teacher at Williams Elementary School in Wilmington, North Carolina, has been placed in jeopardy. Why? Because she taught a new vocabulary word to her class, and one student's mother became so outraged by the word that she's now on a crusade to have the teacher fired for introducing it to her students, in context, with a definition and discussion of its proper use. The word? The oft-maligned but wholly useful niggardly. (more inside)
posted by Dreama (118 comments total)

 
A similar controversy arose in 1999 when an aide to Washington DC mayor Anthony Williams was fired and then rehired after using the word to describe the city budget. But that was politics.

What does it say about this school that a teacher cannot teach children a legitimate word? What does it say about this parent that she would try to have a Bell fired (even though she has already issued a [ed. note - wholly unnecessary] letter of apology and the child in question has been transferred to another class) for doing her job? Isn't the idea of education to banish ignorance, and isn't this a stunning example of ignorance at work? Or am I missing something?
posted by Dreama at 1:31 PM on September 5, 2002


The only solution is to start burning any book written by the evil Samuel Langhorn Clemens, and his partner in crime, the despicable Flannery O'Connor.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:36 PM on September 5, 2002


I'm not a murderer, but I look a bit like one. Off to death row with me....
posted by rushmc at 1:36 PM on September 5, 2002


in other news, "do wop" and "aspic" will be purged from Websters.
posted by gwint at 1:37 PM on September 5, 2002


That's ricockulous.

I'm in total agreement, Dreama. It sounds to me like this mother misunderstood or didn't know the word, had a knee-jerk reaction, found out that the word has no relationship to the slur, but doesn't want to hurt her ego by backing down.

A second-grader, maybe. A fourth-grader? I think it's good to stretch kids' vocabularies. And fourth-graders know the differences between homonyms and synonyms. Fourth-graders don't get 'knight' and 'night' confused, even though they sound alike, do they?
posted by gramcracker at 1:37 PM on September 5, 2002


I wholeheartedly agree with your description of the purpose of eduction. And it is a good and useful word that should be taught. But, in a mixed race FOURTH GRADE classroom it might have been a bit much. I think the teacher was right to apologize to parents, firing is way way over the line. The school was also wrong to move the girl in question. In my opinion the teacher made a slight error in judgement, but that's it.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:38 PM on September 5, 2002


I heard about this on my drive to work today. This is really a shame. A kid in my mom's second grade class misread the word tidy for the word titty. Would my mom's job be jeopardized because some kids parents were offended. Geez....
posted by bmxGirl at 1:39 PM on September 5, 2002


I think y'all are way over estimating most fourth graders reading levels. And niggardly is not a word in common usage anymore. Its an important word, and should be taught, but 10 year olds might be a little young for it, no?
posted by pjgulliver at 1:39 PM on September 5, 2002


Niggardly.

Spic-and-span.

Heebie-jeebies.

I think I've found a chink in their armor.
posted by RylandDotNet at 1:40 PM on September 5, 2002


If this was a high-school class, a level at which some serious discussion of the strength of words -- such strength as to poison their near-homonymousl neighbors -- I think it could be excusable. But I tend to agree that it's an inappropriate word to bring up to 11-year-olds, who still giggle at "woodpecker" and "breast." And yes, they do still get knight and night confused, along with there, their and they're, etc.

She may have been doing her job, and the word may be just fine, but she was certainly courting trouble by assigning it as a vocab word to 4th graders. There are plenty of words that get at the same meaning -- avarcious, covetous, parsimonious, sparing, miserly, penurios, sordid, and stingy, according to Dictionary.com -- that avoid the sensationalism of that other n-word.

That said, I think firing Ms. Bell is too extreme, a knee-jerk reaction to an overeacting parent. That mom should take a chill pill.
posted by me3dia at 1:42 PM on September 5, 2002


O no. This is really depressing.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 1:45 PM on September 5, 2002


Not only is this an example of ignorance at work, it is an example of public officials being scared shitless (and acting utterly spineless to boot...I can't believe the principle did nothing to defend Ms. Bell) of an ignant pleb with a lawyer. It doesn't sound like Ms. Bell will be fired, but you can never tell in these types of situations. During my 7th grade year, a history teacher of mine was fired for alleged sexual harassment in our classroom..which i can guarantee did not happen. I'm sure most of you have seen some sort of rediculous act blown completely out of proportion by an over zealous member of the PTA...madness..

The only apology that Ms. Bell should make would be to admit that she possibly overestimated the intelligence and maturity of her class. And perhaps their parents.

*cues Coltrane's Mr. PC*
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 1:47 PM on September 5, 2002


We must blow Norfolk, VA off the map. Filthy, dirty, bastards.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:47 PM on September 5, 2002


In my opinion the teacher made a slight error in judgement, but that's it.

Welcome to the world of zero-tolerance, where when one screws up, one is immediately lined up against the closest wall.

At least we don't usually execute people for failure. Yet.

Yes, I declare that Norfolk must utterly be destroyed! I'll provide pitchforks but somebody else has got to cover torches for me.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:49 PM on September 5, 2002


Keep those kids away from world geography, too.
posted by Dirjy at 1:49 PM on September 5, 2002


'Niggardly' is a legitimate word, of appropriate length and complexity for 4th graders. It's also one they're going to encounter in some reading assignments in the next few years, and frankly I'd have taught that word in my classroom without a second thought. Shame on that parent for insisting on ignorance and misinformation for her child.
posted by ctartchick at 1:50 PM on September 5, 2002


Granted, the word might be above many of the children's reading levels, but what is the impact of teaching it to them? That they learn there are words in our language that sound like other words? I think people are being far too sensitive to what children hear and see; the article notes that the children were visited by a counselor. At the same time, the article never asks a student what they might think about the whole thing. Sure, fourth graders laugh at dick and fart jokes, but they can be amazingly mature as well. I'll bet most of them don't care. But the real point is, no one seems to care what they think.
posted by risenc at 1:52 PM on September 5, 2002


Is every element of the fallout a total flaming over-reaction on the part of some overly PC folks? Absolutely. And I'm certainly in favor of latitude at schools, and for the free exchange of ideas, even at the fourth-grade level.

That said: Niggard, please.

I understand and applaud the idea of a vocab-boosting, extra-curricular word-of-the-day -- again, even at the fourth-grade level; I woulda loved it -- but niggardly is a totally archaic word. The equally old-school parsimonious is used 100 times as often as niggardly. Teachers have to be expected to parse context and make appropriate decisions, and, y'know, offering a nigger soundalike to fourth-graders is probably somewhat on the imprudent side. Not a firing offense, for sure, and I'm not saying niggardly should be retired, but if you want to teach it as vocab, we're talking late-middle-school/ early-high-school. That's the earliest that a student is going to have the fleetingest chance of finding the word used somewhere in context.



ctartchick: Are you serious? What reading assignments? Surely I'm not that out of touch with the nation's fourth graders.
posted by blueshammer at 1:53 PM on September 5, 2002


A counselor will meet with Ms. Bell's students. Give me a break! Do you think the school might hold interventions for fans of Rap? Perhaps pharmaceuticals for geography students that accidentally discover Lake Tittycaca?
posted by TskTsk at 1:53 PM on September 5, 2002


Agreed, pjgulliver -- I just spent a few minutes helping my 5th-grade kid sister with her homework, and niggardly is both highly unlikely to occur in any text she'd encounter, and downright hard to distinguish from the offending n-word for someone so young.

It's tremendously stupid this teacher got fired though. And people wonder why there are a shortage of enthusiastic teachers in America? (I myself just got hired by a public school, but then rejected by the superintendent, in the New York City school system for no good reason whatsoever -- so I'm a little bitter).
posted by josh at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2002


There is only so much stupidity one person can prevent. Sigh.
posted by junkbox at 1:55 PM on September 5, 2002


But, in a mixed race FOURTH GRADE classroom it might have been a bit much. I think the teacher was right to apologize to parents,

So if it'd been a class full of white children who were in fourth grade, it wouldn't have been too much? 9 year old African-Americans aren't sufficiently capable of understanding the difference between these words? Seems like the kids got it perfectly well, it's the adults (or one of them, at least) who got their undies in a knot.

It should be noted (as the story reports) that the word appears in the very popular Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. My seven year old is reading that now, with her father.

As for the apology, the only way that an apology would be at all valid is if it said something like:

"I'm sorry that I taught your children a frequently misunderstood, misused word in an effort to help them to understand and use it properly. I'm sorry that some of you are so deficiently educated that you are unaware of what that word means, and couldn't be arsed to pick up a dictionary to find out before you started your needless bitching. I'm sorry that some of you aren't bright enough to realise that many words seem similar but mean completely different things. I'm sorry that your pointless, baseless complaints are going to land me in meaningless PC cultural sensitivity classes for the next six weeks, because I have better things to do with my time, like prepare lesson plans so that I can continue to educate your children so that they don't end up being small-minded ignorami like yourselves. Above all, I'm sorry that educators are not insulated from the slings and arrows of idiots, and that administrators and school boards have become so over-politicized that they will kowtow to any loudmouth buffoon who rattles their tiny cages hard enough. I'm sorry that you, as parents, are so unappreciative of my efforts to improve the minds of your offspring. But I will not, ever, for as long as I live, be sorry that I am a teacher, and I have brought knowledge to children to the best of my ability."
posted by Dreama at 1:55 PM on September 5, 2002


This is why I didn't go into teaching.
posted by tommyspoon at 1:55 PM on September 5, 2002


I directed Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" a couple of years ago. It includes this line:

"Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being, as it is,
so plentiful an excrement?"

My actor said the line like this at the first preview. I was stunned at how much of the audience's post-show conversation was about this one word.

At the time, I didn't want the production (which was basically two hours of silly fun) to be derailed by a single word, so I made the choice to change the word to "miser" in subsequent performances. It is the only time I have altered one of Shakespeare's words in production.

Since that time, I have questioned my decision. Shouldn't I have wanted to educate the audience about language? Was it right to alter a classic work to appease the masses?

Had the audience had a larger vocabulary, perhaps they would not have had such a strong negative reaction to the line.

"Niggard" is a common word in classical literature. Ms. Bell should be teaching students words that they might encounter later.

I hope that her job is in no real danger over this incident.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:58 PM on September 5, 2002


Come on.....if this word were as common and appropriate (for fourth graders) as you all are implying, would Dreama have felt obligated to link to a dictionary definition? This was FOURTH GRADE. The kids are ten or eleven. Of course they should be able to handle this word, and there is nothing wrong with the word, but think about this.

The two words sound alike and both have negative connotations. I could see that being confusing to ten year olds. And to uneducated parents. Who might assume that "niggardly" is derived from "nigger" the same way gyp, to cheat steal is derived from gypsy. Or the slang "jew me" meaning to cheat me is derived from Jew.

The fact is, there are people who the word nigger hurts. This would probably apply to many of the kids in that classroom. She should have though a little more before introducing what could be a controversial word.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:58 PM on September 5, 2002


I agree with all of ctartchick's post, with one exception: I confess I would've had a second thought about teaching the word. I might well have chosen 'miserly' instead, simply to avoid confrontation. I'm a little ashamed to admit that, but there it is.
posted by nickmark at 2:03 PM on September 5, 2002


Yelling fire is not a slur, yet in a crowd with nothing burning is a crime.

What am I saying, why did she choose that word, for the children or to point. Yes, I'm pointing yet she is with her views.

Please, leave the kids out of the fire, lady. From a non educational view she knows the history of the word, and what has happened of late, so she knew. She is a teacher who is educated in history too, or they don't teach that anymore?

Hey preschoolers can you spell sex...............
posted by thomcatspike at 2:04 PM on September 5, 2002


Firing is extreme, but I can’t imagine why it was in a fourth grade lesson. “Niggardly” is obscure enough that fourth graders won’t have a pressing need of it…I think I first encountered it in high school (not in a vocabulary lesson, just as part of a text). The only people I’ve ever run across who’ve used it did so either to be pompous or deliberately inflammatory (in fact, I recall George F. Will using on C-SPAN once and a caller taking him to task for it; Will acted as if he had no idea what could be offensive about it, going so far as to say he had no idea what word it sounded like).

In a similar vein, the TLS ran a piece a couple of months ago about a flap over the term “nitty gritty”: it seems it derives (possibly) from a term for the detritus left in a slave-ship’s cargo hold after the slaves had been unloaded. The TLS had apparently asked a prominent black writer in New York (unnamed, I got the impression it was Ishmael Reed maybe) if he knew of the origins of the term and what did he think of the situation: “This is why no one can write satire anymore.”
posted by sherman at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2002


Yes, Dreama, it is used in the Lord of the Rings. But then again, the Lord of the Rings was written fifty years ago, and even then was written in a deliberately archaic style. Remember, Lord of the Rings is also a series of books that gleefully preaches racial differences among humans, regarding the "high men" of Numenor far superior to the lower men of middle earth. It describes enemy humans in terms like "dark" and "swarthy" to refer to men from the East and South respectively.

That said, I love the books and have read them multiple times, but I think we can all agree they are a product of a time and place with different standards then ours.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2002


ctar:

'Niggardly' is a legitimate word, of appropriate length and complexity for 4th graders. It's also one they're going to encounter in some reading assignments in the next few years,

not to be contrary or anything, but i'd honestly never encountered the word "niggardly" or any of its permutations until a few years ago. (i suppose one could claim i was therefore undereducated, or whatever.)

what's more interesting to me is parent involvement. i think involvement in the cirricula of their children by parents is relatively new (on its current, and large, scale). on some points it's good: parents should be involved in their children's education. but one also sees situations such as these.

i guess one could claim that the parent has displayed ignorance in this case, though i think it's something that is rather closed-mindedness. i don't know that there is a solution for that. the responsibility of schools in the eyes of parents and government, it seems to me, has lead to zero tolerance policies (and by extension, oversensitivity, though that is a nebulous claim in contrast) that currently plague school systems today.
posted by moz at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2002


pjgulliver, I did that for the small minds that might be lurking here. It isn't a common word for precisely this reason, because there are idiots who get all up in arms about it without having any idea of what it means, or bothering to find out before they blow a gasket. But it is frequently found in classic English literature, the kinds of things that I would hope teachers are still encouraging their students to begin reading alongside all of the Harry Potter and RL Stine and whatever other contemporary claptrap that's shoveled at them with great frequency.

And fourth graders, who are actually 9 and 10 years old, are old enough to encounter both words, and to have a lesson about why one is okay to use in proper context and why the other is never appropriate to use, no matter what Jay-Z, DMX or Ludacris might think. The point that you continue to miss, pjgulliver, is that the word was taught, not just uttered and glossed over. It was given context and meaning. Any confusion that might have existed upon first hearing should have been well-diffused by the fact that she spent time explaining exactly what it is, and exactly why it's not anything like the similar sounding (but complete etymologically different) slur.
posted by Dreama at 2:07 PM on September 5, 2002


I had hear the tv interview with the woman whose child was in the classroom when the word was used. The mother noted that the teacher (1) apologized, (2) promised never to use the word again. But the mother insisted that the teacher be fired! And that is why most people need unions. School administrators and politicians will not defend the rights of teachers but play along with anyone parent making a fuss.
posted by Postroad at 2:08 PM on September 5, 2002


blueshammer: I am entirely serious. In the next few years these kids will be encountering books such as Lord of the Rings and some Shakespeare - classical literature does use this sort of archaic language.

I fail to see how teaching a child early on that just because a word sounds bad doesn't mean it is bad could be a bad thing. Sure, 4th graders still laugu at dick and fart jokes. So do most high-schoolers, in my experience. I am convinced that if we weren't quite so sensitive about words, this might not be the case.
posted by ctartchick at 2:08 PM on September 5, 2002


Oops. lagu=laugh. That'll teach me to use the spell check next time!
posted by ctartchick at 2:10 PM on September 5, 2002


We used to call each other "female parental copulators" and say, "You're full of defecation."

We also referred to our teacher as a "Xanthippe."
Kids will be kids.
posted by ColdChef at 2:10 PM on September 5, 2002


pjgulliver: Curiously, when I have worked on Shakespeare's plays that use the archaic (and, IMO, much more offensive) use of "jew," audiences haven't had anything to say about it.

When "niggard" or "jew" (in its miser guise) rear their heads in classical literature or in language class, they potentially give a teacher the opportunity to discuss how languages and societies change over time. I think fourth graders could benefit from such a discussion, though there is no evidence that Ms. Bell attempted to lead such a talk.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:11 PM on September 5, 2002


You all miss the point. This word did not come up from a student reading Lord of the Rings (which, sad as this is, is pretty advanced for most fourth graders) or from students reading Shakespeare (which there is really no way they will do in a public school for at least another four years) but was DELIBERATELY choosen by the teacher, on top of many more frequently utilized alternatives, to teach, completely out of any context.

It isn't a bad word. Ms. Bell wasn't "wrong" to teach it. It just exhibited poor judgement, and really, on the face of it, isn't that useful a word for fourth graders to know (any of the alternatives mentioned above have far more utility for your average student.)
posted by pjgulliver at 2:12 PM on September 5, 2002


Joey, come on. We are talking about FOURTH GRADERS. They are not working on Shakespeare. They aren't reading classics of western civ. They probably haven't even had sex ed yet, which means there is a whole lot of Shakespeare they wouldn't understand.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:15 PM on September 5, 2002


not to be contrary or anything, but i'd honestly never encountered the word "niggardly" or any of its permutations until a few years ago.

I'm pretty certain I knew the word by fourth grade, likely third or so. I wouldn't say I'm overeducated, either - different folks have different experiences. But I do think, whether they've been exposed to it before or not, that most fourth graders are perfectly competent to understand the word and its correct usage if it's taught to them - or even to figure it out from context if they read it.

(and on preview - pjgulliver, I got sex ed in 4th grade, for whatever that's worth.)
posted by nickmark at 2:17 PM on September 5, 2002


I would like to recognize me3dia for his use of the word homonymous. That was beautiful.
posted by Dr. Boom at 2:19 PM on September 5, 2002


Kids are too knowledgeable on subjects that they shouldn't be and don't know enough of the things they should know. I think it speaks of the parents' education that they take offense to it.
posted by nemesis at 2:23 PM on September 5, 2002


I take it they won't be reading The Count of Monte Cristo (",)
posted by dash_slot- at 2:24 PM on September 5, 2002


Not to sound like an echo chamber, but you ALL are missing the point! Did you read this...

She added the "-ly" because the class was studying adverbs.

Class? Is "niggardly" an adverb? After all this, it turns out she SHOULD be fired!
posted by soyjoy at 2:25 PM on September 5, 2002


pjgulliver: I was assigned "Romeo and Juliet" in fifth grade, so, at least in theory, they aren't that far away from reading Shakespeare.

Of course, public schools may expecting less of kids these days than in the 1970's and, to be fair, curriculum varies from place to place.

Oh well. Perhaps this would be a better word to learn in context (for example, while studying "Lord of the Rings").
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:26 PM on September 5, 2002


ctartchick: That's a totally different lesson, and there's no appearance that it was the one the teacher intended to present. And as to the lesson itself, I also don't see why it's bad, but I don't see why it's good, or particularly valuable. Who's teaching fourth graders that cock means rooster, that bitch means female dog, that retard means slow the progress of, or, to use a screwball example but one that's closer to your soundalike question, that philately means stamp-collecting? And, OK, so as they enter, say, the sixth grade, some students may be turning to Tolkien or Shakespeare, but there's a wealth of vocab there that they won't have picked up. Again, I don't find the teacher at fault, but all the same, wisdom -- not political correctness, just wisdom -- might have suggested to her that there was little good to come of this.

Had she explicitly brought up the fact that it sounds like nigger, and that we have to respect each word as it is and not for what it might sound like, then that's something admirable to teach fourth graders, but not only do I not think she did that, I think she would have even more certainly gotten criticism from parents. We all agree that the parents here are overreacting, and propagating ignorance, but teaching niggardly to fourth graders is not, to my mind, at the front line of that battle.
posted by blueshammer at 2:27 PM on September 5, 2002


What's also not clear from the article is what she had to say about the word; it implies that she discussed the difference between it and the N word, explained the different roots, etc. That's wholly appropriate, and she probably figured she was doing a good thing by enlightening kids who might (or might not) come across the word outside her class. Now, she might have figured, they won't be offended. Of course, she forgot about the parents.
posted by risenc at 2:29 PM on September 5, 2002


First I've heard of the word...and I've read Lord of the Rings many times....
posted by Orange Goblin at 2:31 PM on September 5, 2002


risenc: The discussion about the proper way to describe people of different races appears to have come on a different day than the niggardly discussion.

soyjoy has the real answer, of course. Shall we assume it was a sloppy reporter?
posted by blueshammer at 2:33 PM on September 5, 2002


Joey, come on. We are talking about FOURTH GRADERS. They are not working on Shakespeare.

Maybe not in *your* school...but I was being taught Shakespeare in the 4th grade, we were studying Tolstoy by 5th, reading Canterbury Tales in 6th and reading it in Middle English by 7th. Oscar Wilde was familiar to us by middle school, as was Trollope, Thackery, Dickens and Twain. I wrote a paper on 19th century Russian authors in 8th grade. The advantage that I held when I got to high school and college is almost impossible to imagine.

My point is, that when the school is *not* overburdened by idiot administrators and ignorant parents who have the power to change the curriculum of an entire school...then you have quality education.

4th graders are quite capable of understanding LoTR, and Shakespeare and George Elliot...if you just give them a chance.

But, nonsense like this...this is why I don't waste my time and my degrees as an educator in a public school.
posted by dejah420 at 2:36 PM on September 5, 2002


Class? Is "niggardly" an adverb?

Yes.
posted by nickmark at 2:36 PM on September 5, 2002


Incidentally, the Ministry of Truth would like to advise you all that from now on, horses are only allowed to be frightened, and that different words that sound the same will be called soundalikes.
posted by rusty at 2:37 PM on September 5, 2002


The thing for me is that, although they sound the same, they aren't even spelled the same except at the beginning.

I would hope, since I would imagine "niggardly" would be seen much more in print than spoken, that someone could tell they were completely different words because of that.

But what do I know? Obviously, not much.

I bet Saddam uses "niggardly" tho. All the time. Bastard.
posted by tittergrrl at 2:37 PM on September 5, 2002


I learned the word in school as a child. 5th grade if I recall. It was also found in several reading assignments from about that point on into high school.

Tonight I will make sure to teach my child the word.

I hope to hell the teacher is executed immediately. It would be niggardly of the school district to make such a fuss and then balk at a proper punishment like a simple execution.
posted by filchyboy at 2:38 PM on September 5, 2002


Not long ago my wife in her supervisory postion referred to someone (I am not sure what the reason all about) as getting "uppity," implying the lady getting snotty. A black coworker warned my wife about using that word as it referred to blacks and was derogitory. Can a white person be uppity?
posted by Postroad at 2:39 PM on September 5, 2002


Joey and Dejah, it never cease to amaze me how Mefi denizens never ever cease blowing their own horns. Terrific. You guys were well read. You had extensive and challenging curriculums. You are smart, and now everyone reading this post knows that. And yes, there are gifted kids out there who can understand this. And who could read Shakespeare in fifth grade.

But the point is, Bell wasn't teaching advanced literature. She wasn't teaching a gifted and talented class. She wasn't teaching at a specialized intensive academy. She was teaching a normal fourth grade class at a public school.

And, Dejah, for the record, my school was quite comprehensive, but I also realize I grew up in a wealthy suburb and was raised by parents and relatives who made pushing my education a priority. That is not the norm, and you know that.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:48 PM on September 5, 2002


i'd say mom is behaving in a rather fuckwitly manner.
posted by quonsar at 2:49 PM on September 5, 2002


Wow, I was so surprised to read the above comments and discover that many of us on metafilter (which I have always taken to be a group of above-average intellects with good critical-thinking skills) do not agree with the teaching of the word "niggardly" simply because it sounds wrong.

And what if the parent in question objected to the word "picnic"?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 2:51 PM on September 5, 2002


This teacher lacked foresight, that's for sure. If I were a teacher, I'm not sure who'd make me more jittery, the kids or their parents. The whole profession seems to be a daily walk through a minefield. It's a sad thing, but she really should've expected something like this.

Still, niggardly is a perfectly cromulent word.
posted by picea at 2:51 PM on September 5, 2002


Can a white person be uppity? --Postroad

Well, according to pjgulliver...I am.

heh.
posted by dejah420 at 2:52 PM on September 5, 2002


Again....as multiple people have said, no one is OBJECTING to the teaching of niggardly. People (myself) are just saying that the teacher lacked judgement.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:53 PM on September 5, 2002


Yes, yes you are Dejah.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:54 PM on September 5, 2002


*Touches her pearls, waves at the peasants*
posted by dejah420 at 2:55 PM on September 5, 2002


Ha!
posted by pjgulliver at 2:57 PM on September 5, 2002


I first learned the word here at Mefi. Teacher of the masses.

And so what if a teacher teaches kids a word that someone deems "too advanced" for their reading level. Is there harm in this?

me3dia--They might misspell "knight" vs "night," but 4th graders don't confuse their meanings. Teach a kid that "niggardly" means stingy, and I don't think they're going to get confused by the slur.

This is the case of administrators getting scared of having to go to court to pay a big lawsuit, which they can't afford, with education budgets as they are. Similar to the case of the Kansas teacher that wouldn't pass a flunking student, and took flak from the school district for it.
posted by gramcracker at 2:57 PM on September 5, 2002


oooo! kin ah touch them thar perls?
posted by quonsar at 2:58 PM on September 5, 2002


I went into teaching. I even taught, for a year, 7th grade Biology or as I remembered it 5th grade biology.

This word is appropriate for a fourth grade vocabulary, maybe when I was in the fourth grade. Now- no way , the standards keep slipping as we continue to place all the students into a single track curriculum.

Putting the smart kids with the ones bred from dumb genes leads to all sorts of fun.

Call me a Nazi if you will, the bell curve is correct and out culture peaked in the 1950's.
posted by crackheadmatt at 2:58 PM on September 5, 2002


"Everyone knows Graham Greene from Bonanza!" -- Donnie Darko

And in other news, it looks like the word for black is equally challenged in a few languages.
posted by ed at 3:02 PM on September 5, 2002


Someone said...People (myself) are just saying that the teacher lacked judgement.


Nonsense. All words should be fair game from the first word on. Anything less is setting your child up to not succeed at life. Every advantage helps a child.

The person who lacked judgement is the parent.
posted by filchyboy at 3:02 PM on September 5, 2002


I certainly hope that the offended parent calls 'em saltines.
posted by oflinkey at 3:04 PM on September 5, 2002


So the words rape, sodomize and fellatio should be taught to first and second graders?
posted by pjgulliver at 3:07 PM on September 5, 2002


Crackhead, saying our culture peaked in the 50s is equivalant to saying that Jim Crow laws and lack of womens rights (such as access to Ivy League educations) were a good thing...come on....

Oh, and does a self reference constitute an invocation of Goodwin's law?
posted by pjgulliver at 3:09 PM on September 5, 2002


Bell wasn't teaching advanced literature

I am shocked - SHOCKED - that you refer to Shakespeare as advanced literature. His work, in my mind, is the gold standard for English literature. If you want to learn English, and how it can be, should be used, you read him. Pynchon, yes, that's advanced. Late Joyce is advanced.

They probably haven't even had sex ed yet, which means there is a whole lot of Shakespeare they wouldn't understand.

This remark is a disservice to both Shakespeare and fourth graders.
posted by rocketman at 3:12 PM on September 5, 2002


Class? Is "niggardly" an adverb?

Yes.

Yeesh, I should have known I couldn't get away with that clipped phrasing. Yes, "niggardly" can be USED as an adverb, but as this makes clear,

She began looking for a synonym for "stingy." The children's dictionary offered "self-centered."
the main word, the adjective, was clearly the one being discussed (especially since the adverb could only be defined as "in a niggardly way"). Therefore I refuse to back down from my call for the teacher's (or, if it turns out that way, the reporter's) resignation. Thank you, and good night.
posted by soyjoy at 3:19 PM on September 5, 2002


I feel the teaching of English in general is somewhat niggardly nowadays. If kids are taught the word, they'll be sensitive to its meaning and won't think it's racist, unlike their dumbass parents.

So the words rape, sodomize and fellatio should be taught to first and second graders?

And onto our non sequitir of the week, this time brought to you by pjgulliver...
posted by RokkitNite at 3:21 PM on September 5, 2002


Come on, everyone stop getting offended.

Look. I went to Yale. I graduate with a degree in political science and took extensive courses in literature, philosophy and history. Shakespeare is routinely taught to advance middle school and to all high school students. But for FOURTH GRADE it would be considered advanced literature. Anyone who has children in a public school system knows this. Lets get some perspective people.
posted by pjgulliver at 3:22 PM on September 5, 2002


Its not a non sequitir, its a direct response to Filchyboys comment: "Nonsense. All words should be fair game from the first word on. Anything less is setting your child up to not succeed at life. Every advantage helps a child."
posted by pjgulliver at 3:23 PM on September 5, 2002


I think y'all are way over estimating most fourth graders reading levels.

And they ain't going to get any better so long as people insist on dumbing down their curriculum.

Your attempt to distinguish between some Metafiltarians' knowledge of the word "niggard" at a relatively young age and the unlikeliness of certain segments of the population to know it at that (or, indeed, a later) age simply illustrates that some people are poorly educated in this country. Your proposed solution contributes to that problem. Rather than force people down to the LCD, we ought to struggle to educate all.
posted by rushmc at 3:23 PM on September 5, 2002


"So the words rape, sodomize and fellatio should be taught to first and second graders?" Certainly if there is a context for it of course. My eight year old knows "rape". And when there is a context behind the other two words she will learn the others as well.

We started sex ed at 6yrs old. So there are a large number of words you can produce which she already knows. Take your pick. She will have an advantage in both school and life over those who do not get taught these "difficult" words.
posted by filchyboy at 3:24 PM on September 5, 2002


crackheadmatt:

Call me a Nazi if you will, the bell curve is correct and out culture peaked in the 1950's.

i won't call you a nazi, but i will call the bell curve ignorance and not science. you say you taught biology? yikes.
posted by moz at 3:25 PM on September 5, 2002


It's happened before and if you do a bit of research, you'll find that niggardly is unrelated to racial slurs.

It would seem sensible to look up the etymology of niggardly to be certain that it doesn't have a racist background. And it would be good teaching to note that the word sounds like a racial epithet, but that it has a different origin. But, disciplining a teacher for teaching. WTF? It stinks that the principal didn't back her up.
posted by theora55 at 3:30 PM on September 5, 2002


I used to think that "call a spade a spade" was a racial slur. Turns out it's not really. It's 2000 years old. I still don't plan on using the expression. And I would hardly look at someone who got offended as grossly mis-educated.

I've known the word niggardly since I don't remember when. I recognize it and wouldn't be offended by it in print or in person for that matter. However, I wouldn't use it. It's not a common word and I just don't think that knowing that word and using it makes me some kind of warrior for proper English. I wouldn't feel good about offending people with decent educations. And really in the niggard form, education or no education it just doesn't sound good. It would give me a momentary pause. Now, how do you teach this sort of context and decision-making to fourth-graders? I don't use the word and I don't consider myself a barbarian at the gates of English. Therefore I wouldn't necessarily consider it wise to tell kids about it unless you think they are ready to think about these sort of issues.

p.s. From the article I get the distinct impression that the teacher brought the word up because of the lingua-political issue. It's not the first synonym for stingy that I would come up with.
posted by Wood at 3:30 PM on September 5, 2002


pjgulliver: I was not attempting to blow my own horn so much as I was trying to say that some school systems do teach Shakespeare as early as fifth grade. Lacking evidence beyond my own experience, I used that...

Anyhow, I understand your point of view.

If the word were not out of general use, there probably would not have been an uproar. For example, "knickers" sounds a bit like the offending word and I suspect that nobody would object if that had been Ms. Bell's word of the day.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:34 PM on September 5, 2002


Fourth graders may be sophisticated enough to know understand what niggardly means, but they're also unsophisticated enough to call each other "niggards" as a play on the similarities between the words. I got my head slapped many a time around that age for saying such things as "What the funk."

Both the teacher AND the mother should have used better judgement. The word, and thus the controversy, could have been avoided, and tempers could have been held in check.
posted by me3dia at 3:37 PM on September 5, 2002


picea: Still, niggardly is a perfectly cromulent word.

Okay, I'll bite. Cromulent?

(and what's with all this about pancakes?)
posted by Vidiot at 3:46 PM on September 5, 2002


Thank you me3dia and Wood.
posted by pjgulliver at 3:46 PM on September 5, 2002


Now, how do you teach this sort of context and decision-making to fourth-graders?

By, um, teaching? Certainly not by avoidance, which only produces ignorance.
posted by rushmc at 3:47 PM on September 5, 2002


I think you make it sound too easy, rushmc. I think that I and a random proponent of the word from this group could have a debate over whether it was a good word to use that would go over the heads of most 4th graders. (Even the smart ones from the 50s.) One reasonable simplification is to do like the dictionary and give a brief "may be offensive". But that doesn't really help the kids make up their mind. Besides the teacher is obviously a proponent of the use of the word. Like I said, I think you can be educated and a language lover and not believe that niggard is a useful word.
posted by Wood at 3:56 PM on September 5, 2002


A simple and sensitive explanation by this idiot teacher (who was teaching a class that apparently includes African American children in NORTH CAROLINA) that the word "niggard" creates difficulties in usage because it sounds like the racial epithet "nigger" would have gone a long way. Such an explanation would have made her look like a good teacher instead of a buffoon, would have actually taught her students something worthwhile (rather than their memorizing yet another lame definition...a practice that in no shape or form is teaching), and would have possibly prevented the panty-wadded outrage of the anti-PC crowd.

Funny. A lot of these anti-PC folks will howl at a story like this, of course...and lay silent as new white snowfall when evidence of racism (the original root of problems like these) is placed before them.

The "politically correct" thing to do is usually in fact the correct thing to do. It is usually the kind thing to do. It is usually the right thing to do. That's what grates on many of our conservative friends so much.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 3:57 PM on September 5, 2002


Reminds me of the idiots who don't know the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile (north americans feel free to extract excess letter 'a's).
posted by daveg at 4:11 PM on September 5, 2002


I, for one, WELCOME our new niggardly overlords.
posted by Espoo2 at 4:12 PM on September 5, 2002


niggardly is inoffensive, and it's only three syllables. why is it so hard to believe that fourth graders can comprehend three syllable words, regardless of the word's obscurity?
posted by tolkhan at 4:13 PM on September 5, 2002


Vidiot - "Cromulent?"

It's from Dilbert, in a scene where Dilbert's mom & Dogbert are totally bluffing him at scrabble with phony words. Since then, lots of people on the internet have started using the word, but with no apparent agreement on what it means.
posted by tdismukes at 4:26 PM on September 5, 2002


I thougt Cromulent was from the Simpson's in the Jebediah Springfield/Hans Sprungfeld episode when Lisa's teacher uses the word.
posted by pjgulliver at 4:29 PM on September 5, 2002


Like I said, I think you can be educated and a language lover and not believe that niggard is a useful word.

We'll just have to agree to disagree, then.
posted by rushmc at 4:34 PM on September 5, 2002


To say niggard is not "useful" is wrong. Let me correct myself. I would rarely, if ever, use it. It's certainly useful to know.
posted by Wood at 5:07 PM on September 5, 2002


"(who was teaching a class that apparently includes African American children in NORTH CAROLINA) "

Please explain to me why this matters? What if it was a classroom full of white children? Or Native American? In New York? North Dakota?

Really does the race/color of the children and state it took place in, matter?
posted by SuzySmith at 5:07 PM on September 5, 2002


At the risk of being totally self-referential ... I teach a combined fifth/sixth grade class in an urban school system. My class is a standard ed class, not a gifted and talented class. Every other year, our classes perform Shakespeare (I do Twelfth Night, while the other two classrooms do Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing). Performing Shakespeare is absolutely not beyond the capacities of fifth graders.

As for niggardly, I probably wouldn't teach it just because it's a word with little utility. I have to spend time on the things that matter. But if it came up, I'd immediately have a discussion about how the word is unrelated to the racial epithet even though it is close in spelling. I'd advise kids to use it carefully, as it can be misinterpreted. In fact, I do have that identical conversation when we study African history, because I've learned to make sure that the kids know the proper way to pronounce the nation known as Niger.

I think that it's admirable to teach rare or more advanced words to younger kids. But I do wonder why the teacher chose that word with all of the available alternatives - as has been pointed out, there are synonyms out there which kids are also not likely to know, and which they'll encounter more frequently in both life and literature.

And if you do choose that word, you have to know that it requires a conversation clearing up any misconceptions, and letting kids know the word may be misinterpreted if not carefully used. Not having such a conversation would be irresponsible, in my opinion.

I can understand taking this teacher aside and telling her to think through her choices and her approach to explaining things a bit more carefully. But firing her? Ridiculous.
posted by Chanther at 5:12 PM on September 5, 2002


In Oregon, we have these stores called the Dollar Tree. Basically, its a dollar store with a bunch of halfway useful stuff.

But lets get to my point. My sister bought a dictionary once from there, and I was flipping through it. Under the meaning of meager, it gave a reference to niggardly. I then looked throughout the entire N until I realised they purposely removed it in a revision.

How interesting.
posted by Keyser Soze at 5:27 PM on September 5, 2002


I fail to see what benefit there is in not teaching kids words that sound like offensive words. Sure, the kids will deliberately misuse them if they're so inclined. But if they aren't taught such words then they'll just make some up. If they never hear a swear word then they'll just make something up to fill the gap. And while they're using the dirtiest words in their vocabulary by calling each other "waffnorns" and "pogloops" then the parents will be blissfully unaware. Is that really what they want?
posted by MUD at 5:33 PM on September 5, 2002




Really does the race/color of the children and state it took place in, matter?

It shouldn't, but i think it could be possible that an African American living in NC might be more sensitive to perceived racism than a white suburbanite living in Iowa. i might even go so far as to suggest that this person could be overlysensitive to such issues. i'm not trying to lay blame, but i have to place myself squarely in the teachers camp. It's a valid word, it's being used in books that kids that age are reading.

i think Walker is in the wrong.
posted by quin at 6:16 PM on September 5, 2002


Since no one took me up on my challenge, let me ask again. Would you feel the same if the parent took umbrage at the word picnic? In this case it is not a word that sounds "wrong" nor is it too advanced for 4th graders, and it is a frequently used word. Yet many black Americans feel it should be banned because of a mistaken idea of the word's etymology.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:17 PM on September 5, 2002


On the topic of the reading comrehension of 4th graders:

As a fourth grader, I read and did a book report on Orwell'sAnimal Farm. The classes I have taught have had children in kindergarten learning the 6 step writing process. Of course, I have also taught high schoolers who couldn't make it through abridged versions of To Kill a Mockingbird.

On the word niggardly in 4th grade:

A few years ago there was a similar flap over a University of Wisconsin professor's use of the word during a Chaucer lecture. A black student heard the word, got offened and left. The professor proceeded to explain the meaning and use of the word, but she wouldn't have known that....having left in a huff. I was on campus at the time, and was amazed at the reactions. Some people actually saw this as a reason why a faculty speech code would be a good thing. College student. 4th grader. When *is* it appropriate to teach this word?
posted by kayjay at 7:36 PM on September 5, 2002


Clearly, if that student had been educated properly in the 4th grade, she would not have behaved so ignorantly in college.
posted by rushmc at 8:33 PM on September 5, 2002


Neale, pjgulliver, you're right on the Simpson's episode. I was obviously getting scenes from Simpsons & Dilbert conflated in my mind.

Now what was the word Dilbert's mom used if it wasn't cromulent?
posted by tdismukes at 8:48 PM on September 5, 2002


i thought that cromulent was the word dilbert's mom used too... maybe it was a shout out from one show to the other...?

i knew what the word niggardly meant by at least grade 4... and in grade 4 we were studying and performing shakespeare and brecht and reading jane austen, the bronte sisters, and chaucer. granted it was a private girl's school but when i switched to public school for grade 5 the curriculum was on the same learning curve.

at any rate, firing this teacher was an asinine reaction to the situation, but not surprising considering some of the similar things i see in the news. book banning still goes on, so word censorship makes sense along that same narrow path.

it's terrible that so many people are so comfy underestimating what their children are capable of taking in and making sense of. 9 year olds are some of the smartest, wisest people around.
posted by t r a c y at 10:21 PM on September 5, 2002


tdismukes and pjgulliver: thanks for the tip. (I hear there's a really cromulent broomstick over at Amazon.)
posted by Vidiot at 2:08 AM on September 6, 2002


Maybe the parents were overreacting and maybe the teacher showed poor judgement, but as a result you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know what the word means now. I'm sorry that the teacher lost her job, but that's a pretty big impact.m
posted by Jeff Howard at 8:18 AM on September 6, 2002


The teacher has not been fired, at least according to the first article.
posted by Wood at 8:46 AM on September 6, 2002


I realize this thread is mostly dead now, but something was brought up early on (by the poster herself) that went unchallenged, so I thought I'd challenge it:

And fourth graders, who are actually 9 and 10 years old, are old enough to encounter both words, and to have a lesson about why one is okay to use in proper context and why the other is never appropriate to use, no matter what Jay-Z, DMX or Ludacris might think.

So there are six camps here, each comprised of one each from the following lists:

1. Thinks the word niggardly ...
a. Is OK and should be taught to fourth graders
b. Is OK but finds it imprudent to bring up to fourth graders
c. Is not OK; it's archaic and borderline offensive, so let's be done with it

2. Thinks the word nigga (and by extension nigger) ...
a. Is acceptable in the common parlance
b. Is not acceptable in the common parlance

We all seem to agree that the 1c'rs are pretty silly, but I'm curious about the 2b'rs in the crowd. As far as English being a living language that has evolving meanings and political power is concerned, I think that 2a is absolutely the correct stance. Nigga (which still appears as nigger from time to time, but that usage is basically being phased out) has been reclaimed by the black community, and there's nothing wrong with the reclamation. It's all about how the word is used; nigger spoken as an epithet to or about blacks will always be wrong, but nigga is not an epithet. Meanings change over time. (Which puts me in mind of the greatest would-you-teach-this-word-to-fourth-graders analogy: Would you teach the word faggot to fourth graders?)

I'll stop now to see if there's any fire left in this thread, or if this is a discussion for another time.
posted by blueshammer at 9:10 AM on September 6, 2002


I have no problems teaching controversial words to fourth graders. I think it is important that people learn about the shades of meaning that is inherit in language.

But I think it is important that with words that are either controversial in meaning--nigga--or are prone to misunderstanding and controversy--niggardly--that there is a legitimate reason for the teaching, ie, a context. If the teach was reading LOTR out loud and Sauruman was described as niggardly, of Aragorn went out to gather a faggot for the fire, yes, have a conversation about the word, teach it, embrace it. If you are looking for a for synonym for "Stingy" to teach--a synonym that is being taught to the students to expand their vocabulary for everyday usage and writing, I think it exhibits poor judgement to pull niggardly out of thin air and teach it just like that.
posted by pjgulliver at 9:19 AM on September 6, 2002


Faggot's a great example. (But maybe I should keep quiet since I'm apparently in the "1c pretty silly crowd." Really, I'm somewhere between 1b and 1c.) Of course, the two meanings of faggot are very different which helps. Because niggard is a derogatory term it's much more confusing. Here's an idea: Go out with some friends and get coffee. Walk up to your buddy leaving his change behind and loudly say, "don't be such a niggard, leave a buck". (Assuming you're getting one of our $5 Seattle lattes.) Where do you really use this word? With your oh-so-smart friends? Who have really good hearing? Seriously, I've been saying this word over and over and I know I'd end up pushing that d ("niggard-duh") so much that it would defeat the purpose of having a metafilter-esque vocabulary.

I'll bet you anything that the word nigger wasn't big back when niggardly was. You language preservationists are fighting a losing battle. It's not that people are way stupider than 50 or a 100 years ago. It's just language change. You have a word that is used at least 100 (a billion?) times less often than an offensive near-homonym. It's toast.

Educated kids and adults should know the word. But it's toast as far as conversation.
posted by Wood at 9:55 AM on September 6, 2002


Everyone keeps brushing aside the comment that the word appears in Lord Of The Rings. But it is a pertinent fact; how much do you want a bet that she picked the adverb because she knew kids were reading the book?
posted by jennak at 10:39 AM on September 6, 2002


First off, Jenna, the class wasn't reading the book. Second, it probably appears once in the text. Third, no ones brushed it off, I addressed it yesterday.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:42 AM on September 6, 2002


Nigga (which still appears as nigger from time to time, but that usage is basically being phased out) has been reclaimed by the black community, and there's nothing wrong with the reclamation.

No, it's been used, not reclaimed. The fact that it's used by the kinds of people who hang on street corners, a bunch of less-than-funny comedians and "musical" performers of dubious intellect does not mean that it's been reclaimed. There are just as many (if not more) people who find it inappropriate and detestable as there are those who sling it around like it's the equivalent of "man." I don't want to hear it any more than I want to hear the epithetical version, and I'm not alone in that.

But it's predominance in a certain corner of black culture does make arguments against a completely non-related word even more ridiculous.
posted by Dreama at 11:48 AM on September 6, 2002


The fact that it's used by the kinds of people who hang on street corners, a bunch of less-than-funny comedians and "musical" performers of dubious intellect does not mean that it's been reclaimed.

Dud(ett)e! Not only are you treading on thin ice here, but you're doing it in a way that paints yourself into a particularly unflattering (and tiresome) corner.

But it's predominance in a certain corner of black culture does make arguments against a completely non-related word even more ridiculous.

This is true, but it was more applicable in the Anthony Williams case. Again: We're talking about fourth graders, and as everyone is correct to point out, kids are sharper than they're given credit for, but they're not the actors in this equation -- teachers and parents are.
posted by blueshammer at 1:09 PM on September 6, 2002


Dreama....

If you were Ms. Bell, and the word stingy came up, and you wanted to find a synonym to teach the class, would you have choosen niggardly?
posted by pjgulliver at 1:18 PM on September 6, 2002


Everyone keeps mentioning how there were many other more common choices for a synonym for stingy. Has it simply occurred to anyone that those synonyms didn't have the implied meaning she was looking for?

All (or almost all) of the other synonyms are more common words that these kids will run into, and it's obvious that niggardly isn't a word that the mainstream is too aware of. Which is a bit sad, given that it does actually have a unique and specific meaning and connotation.

The word isn't obsolete, or even considered archaic by any dictionaries I could find, pretty good indication that there exists no more popular word which would serve the same purpose. Merriam Webster's dictionary gives a good showing of the synonyms for stingy, and what each one of them implies--almost makes them seem like completely different words, doesn't it?

--That's because they are. Color me anal, but when I'm looking for a synonym for a word, I like to find the one that has the most exact meaning for the concept I'm trying to convey. Niggardly is still very much a unique and necessary word, fallen into disuse undoubtedly for superficial reasons.

Kudos to this mother for eagerly and ignorantly contributing to the dearth of literary clarity becoming increasingly prevalent even within the educated.
posted by precocious at 8:29 PM on September 6, 2002


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