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I used the word "renege" in a meeting the other day (something like, "the vendor decided to renege on their offer of shipping replacement SAN disks"), and got a few wide eyes.

My supervisor sat me aside just today and told me that my word choice has racial overtones, especially in mixed company, and that I should avoid using it.

I've heard that "niggardly" is somewhat taboo, but should I stop using "renege" as well? Is there a less offensive word I can use?

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I wonder whether "ignoramus" is in your supervisor's vocabulary? –  Gnawme Jul 13 '12 at 19:48
This is surely Too Localised! Are we expected to consider whether any word that happens to contain n-vowel-g is potentially racist in the mind of some nincompoop somewhere in the world? –  FumbleFingers Jul 13 '12 at 23:14
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 Jul 14 '12 at 4:23
If renege is borderline racist, then vinegar is going to be very problematic. –  JohnFx Jul 14 '12 at 4:48
Use renege, don't use welsh –  Hugo Jul 14 '12 at 7:45

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Although I strongly agree with the answers given so far — no racial overtones to renege — you must bear in mind that the kind of people who frequent this site are linguistically aware and, therefore, not necessarily reflective of your supervisor or your work environment.

What you’ve stumbled across in your supervisor is the “eggcorn” phenomenon, where speakers who are (partially) ignorant of some word give it a false etymology that accords with their (partial) understanding of its meaning. (For instance, acorn sounds like it’s made up of corn and a. But what’s an a? In dialects where egg rhymes with vague, it’s easy to reinterpret this as the (eponymous) compound eggcorn, as acorns are vaguely egg-shaped.)

In the case of renege, I bet your supervisor thought, “It means something negative, so it must be related to the racist derivatives of negro.” (As you correctly point out, the same thing has happened to niggardly, which is as stigmatized by some speakers as the derivatives of negro are.)

As a linguistic process, though, the phenomenon is ancient. The word bridegroom is a case in point. Historically, it ought to be bridegoom: the goom, ‘man’ (cognate with the hum part of human), of the bride. But, when English eventually lost the Anglosaxon root guma, bridegoom ceased to make intuitive sense to English speakers and was replaced by the current, somewhat bizarre compound suggesting that women marry stablehands.

Eggcorn etymologies of the sort you’ve encountered occur at the phrasal or idiomatic level too. Black magic (as opposed to white magic) and dark day are felt by some to have racist overtones or implications (Ossie Davis famously makes this case in “The English language is my enemy”, for instance) — though advocates of this view generally (universally?) ignore the fact that black and white have the same metaphorical extensions (bad versus good) in traditional Igbo and Luganda proverbs. An op ed in the The New York Times (from 1988) consequently urges prudence, or self-censorship, here.

So, though you are right, you should be aware of people’s propensity towards misconceptions in this domain.

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This is a good answer. –  Daniel Jul 17 '12 at 21:59
It does not matter that the people on this site are more linguistically aware than the supervisor referenced in the question. The people on this site are right about the definition, and the supervisor is unambiguously wrong. This answer seems to be advocating that some leeway should be given to the supervisor for their completely misguided outlook. There is no justification for tolerating someone bringing uninformed racial sensitivity in the workplace. It's just as wrong as if the supervisor had said something genuinely mildy racially insensitive. Both fully deserve clarification. –  Dave M G Jul 20 '12 at 18:19

This reminds me of when my friend and I were 8 years old or so, and he got all upset when I said that he was tittering, because he knew he'd get in trouble if his mom heard us saying tit.

I say educate them on the word, its meaning, and its roots. Then use it. Don't let 8-year-old-level keyword-driven knee-jerk reactions force you to elide a perfectly good word from your vocabulary.

Ask your boss if he thinks there are no tables in the Notables product line. Ask him if he thinks that pistachios have piss in them and whether Aster is aware her posterior is in motion. Ask him if he thinks doing something by fiat means driving around in a car. Check if he thinks despicable, The Whopper™, and nip it in the bud also have racist overtones.

The cure for ignorance is education. Do it. Save the world from them. Don't let them destroy the language.

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Excellent answer, especially loved all those examples. –  Bravo Jul 14 '12 at 12:14
Ha, fun examples. I'll scream them to my boss... in my head... perhaps saving education for a day when I'm not in such a need for a job! –  derekvinyard98 Jul 17 '12 at 17:32
I'd +1 this many times if I could. The bizarre over-sensitivity to racial issues that leads people (particularly in the US) to get confused over words like niggardly is dumb enough, but renege? That's so unfathomably stupid that it must be stood up to. Education: when done properly, there is no defense! –  Dave M G Jul 20 '12 at 18:07
Honestly, if the OP had just laughed his boss out of the room, it probably would have worked. –  ErikE Jul 21 '12 at 16:40
@JoeTaxpayer, that is exactly the kind of fight I am talking about. Cowering in anticipation of how things "might not go well" is exactly the reason why stupidity runs rampant. Yes, it could be awkward, but that is not your fault for using the word, it's their fault for being uneducated. Stand up for yourself and educate them. –  Dave M G May 11 at 1:12

First off, congratulations for knowing what the word means and using it! Double points for knowing how to pronounce it.

To my ear, there is nothing racial or offensive about the word renege. Just because one racial slur contains a particular syllable, it does not in my opinion tarnish all words containing that syllable. (Think enigma and denigrate.) However, as your supervisor clearly did not like the term, you should probably use it with caution around him.

Don't stop using it - just play it by ear when you do use it, and be sensitive to sensitivity. Another option you have is pronouncing it differently. The other pronunciations in Dictionary.com are /rɪ ˈnɛg/ and /rɪˈnig/ (ri-NEG and ri-NEEG). Also note that in writing, the word will (understandably) not be nearly as controversial, in any case.

A substitute in the context you provided is go back:

The vendor decided to go back on their offer of shipping replacement SanDisks.

I would have a similar approach to niggardly; though I don't find fault with it, others do sometimes.

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It's also pronounced /rəˈneɪg/ in British English, which does avoid the problem. –  Andrew Leach Jul 13 '12 at 20:00
-1 For proposing that people stop using correct words in order to appease people with incorrect assumptions. –  Dave M G Jul 21 '12 at 4:19

I've never heard it used with racial overtones.

Medieval Latin renegare First Known Use: 1548

My guess would be they were overreacting to the 'nig' syllable.

I would concur with Daniel and just make a different word choice with those people.

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-1 For proposing that people stop using correct words in order to appease people with incorrect assumptions. –  Dave M G Jul 21 '12 at 4:19
@ Dave M G +1 for demonstrating how life must be in isolation, where one has no interaction with the real world. –  mikeY Jul 24 '12 at 20:48
Your sarcasm is noted, but actually I find the criticism to be based on a misconception of what I'm saying. If you think about it, what I am promoting is dialogue: to communicate with the supervisor and talk about the real meaning of words, and the intentions behind them. So quite the opposite from isolation, I'm saying that one should engage other people and work with them, and educate them if need be, so that offense based on ignorance can be wiped out. –  Dave M G Jul 25 '12 at 2:22

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