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A few years ago there was a controversy over the word niggardly — a perfectly innocent word that unfortunately sounds like a racial slur.

Given that controversy, is it safe to use denigrate, which is actually derived from the Latin niger?

Can whole families of words become tainted purely by association?

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I'm no etymologist and probably not qualified to answer with any authority, but that won't stop me from offering my opinion. ;) I think the abandonment of perfectly acceptable words just because a few semi-literate individuals mistake them for racial slurs elevates ignorance to the level of a virtue. –  Kelly Hess Apr 28 '11 at 17:31
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I think your question is a bit on the argumentative side...are you really asking a question here, or just trying to confirm your opinion (which I happen to share, by the way)? –  JeffSahol Apr 28 '11 at 17:35
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I edited the question to make it less argumentative. @z7sg, feel free to edit further if you think it's necessary. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 28 '11 at 17:59
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@Kelly C Hess: I'd upvote more if I could. In fact, I try to use "niggardly" (appropriately) just to set off the yahoos. These are folks who would assume that because I'm a dogged curmudgeon that I have something to do with canines...if their stunted vocabulary extended that far. –  PSU Apr 28 '11 at 20:07
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"I bet that even as I write, some adolescent boys, in the stairwell of some high school somewhere in America, are accusing each other of being niggardly, and sniggering at their own outrageous wit. I bet ... Wait a minute. 'Sniggering'? Oh, my God...." –  Andrew Grimm Sep 7 '11 at 13:50

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

"Nigger" is pronounced /ˈnigər/ and "denigrate" is pronounced /ˈdeniˌgrāt/. The /nigər/ part is completely missing and the accent isn't in a similar place.

For comparison, "niggardly" is pronounced /ˈnigərdlē/ which does have /nigər/ and the accent is in the same place. So no, denigrate doesn't sound enough like nigger to matter.

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To which I'd add that "denigrate" is clearly Latinate to the ear. Making matters worse, the 'd' in "niggardly" is difficult to enunciate clearly. If you're unfamiliar with the word, you might well take offense at it. The context will usually not be flattering to the subject of the term. It's a bit sad that we've virtually lost a useful word due to widespread illiteracy. –  The Raven Apr 28 '11 at 18:33
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@The Raven: I completely agree. The similarity between niggardly and niggerly are close enough for me to avoid using the word. –  MrHen Apr 28 '11 at 18:36
    
I’m sure this is the main reason. Stress placement has a huge, huge effect on how similar-sounding we perceive words to be. –  PLL Apr 28 '11 at 18:43

Yes, it's certainly possible for whole classes of words to become taboo just because of sound-association. It's going on right now, for better or worse.

However, I doubt that denigrate will fall victim to this. In the first place, it doesn't sound very much like nigger or any derivative. Furthermore, you have to be fairly conversant in Latin to realize that the -nigr- part of denigrate has anything to do with "black", which prevents the association between the words from becoming strong or widespread enough to incur the taboo.

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I've never made that connection. Is it racially offensive to say that someone is "blacklisted" or that he has done something to "blacken his name"? Maybe go ahead and use it?

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I have actually heard people disparage those phrases for exactly that reason. That's pretty far outside of the mainstream, though. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 28 '11 at 18:59
    
There was even a huge controversy about someone using the term "black hole". –  Dan Apr 29 '11 at 2:42
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@user744: If that actually happened, someone(s) need(s) to calm down. Black is a color. So are white, orange, pink, purple, and yellow. Saying that someone has been "blacklisted" is closer to being reasonably racially offensive than "black hole". The "black" in "black hole" isn't being negative about the blackness. The blackness just has to do with it not giving off light! –  compman Apr 29 '11 at 2:58
  • I don't think 'denigrate' is currently realized as possibly taboo because of the etymology or the sound.

  • pointing out that connection, I'm almost inclined now to not use the word 'denigrate', but a close phonology is more likely to trigger taboo avoidance.

  • I don't know about whole -families- of words, but certainly a single morpheme might be recognizable and so any word with it might share the taboo properties.

  • How do you pronounce the seventh planet from the sun? It's at least humorous to every 10 year-old. People are changing the pronunciation because of it.

  • There's a country in Africa whose pronunciation hasn't changed even though it is spelled very closely to the n-word.

  • Associations are whatever people make and you can't control how other people make their associations. Whether there is a logical association that is hard to hear but intellectually discussed, or an unexpected phonetic change that makes a word sound like a taboo word, it doesn't matter. If some people don't like it then, well, they don't like it. Sometimes it is because of semi-literacy or lack of common culture, but it can also be pretty legitimate. Some things aren't taboo (or otherwise special) until it's about you.

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Regarding the seventh planet, the new pronunciation isn't much better, meaning "urine colored". –  PSU Apr 28 '11 at 20:09
    
Just stumbled upon this question... what's wrong with Uranus ? I don't get it. –  Alex Sep 21 '12 at 15:05
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@Alex: Nothing's wrong with my... ha ha! you almost got me, you clever ten-year-old! –  Mitch Sep 21 '12 at 15:14
    
@PSU: Which one is the 'new' pronunciation? The 1892 Webster's International gives the "urine-colored" pronunciation. Presumably this was changed to your 'old' pronunciation to keep 10-year-olds from snickering. –  Peter Shor Feb 5 '13 at 5:17

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 21 '12 at 14:36

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