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?

  • 22
    I wonder whether "ignoramus" is in your supervisor's vocabulary?
    – Gnawme
    Jul 13, 2012 at 19:48
  • 10
    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? Jul 13, 2012 at 23:14
  • 13
    If renege is borderline racist, then vinegar is going to be very problematic.
    – JohnFx
    Jul 14, 2012 at 4:48
  • 11
    Use renege, don't use welsh
    – Hugo
    Jul 14, 2012 at 7:45
  • 5
    @timramich: "re-nigg" is a pronunciation of renege which has been around much longer than political correctness—I heard it used in the 1960s. But I agree that it's one that should be avoided near easily offended people. Jul 21, 2012 at 12:22

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 3
    This is a good answer.
    – Daniel
    Jul 17, 2012 at 21:59
  • 10
    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.
    – Questioner
    Jul 20, 2012 at 18:19
  • 2
    Some people are more willing to fight when they're right than others. Others prefer to drop it.
    – Daniel
    Nov 1, 2015 at 13:01
  • @Questioner, Is this site prescriptive or descriptive then?
    – Pacerier
    Aug 1, 2016 at 13:12
  • 3
    @Pacerier Yes, it is.
    – Mitch
    Aug 1, 2016 at 13:26

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. Will you be accused of sexual harassment if you speak of dictators? Will your boss be offended if you call an overweight coworker indefatigable? Do I wish to unfairly marginalize certain people when I discuss propagation?

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

Key for the less obvious examples above:

  • Aster: ass stir
  • despicable, The Whopper™, nip it in the bud: each contains a common single-syllable racial slur
  • dictators: dick is slang for the male sexual organ
  • indefatigable: contains the word fat in it
  • propagation: gay shun
  • 1
    Excellent answer, especially loved all those examples.
    – Bravo
    Jul 14, 2012 at 12:14
  • 4
    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! Jul 17, 2012 at 17:32
  • 3
    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!
    – Questioner
    Jul 20, 2012 at 18:07
  • 1
    Honestly, if the OP had just laughed his boss out of the room, it probably would have worked.
    – ErikE
    Jul 21, 2012 at 16:40
  • 1
    @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.
    – Questioner
    May 11, 2014 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 parts.

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

  • 3
    It's also pronounced /rəˈneɪg/ in British English, which does avoid the problem.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 13, 2012 at 20:00
  • 3
    -1 For proposing that people stop using correct words in order to appease people with incorrect assumptions.
    – Questioner
    Jul 21, 2012 at 4:19
  • @Questioner hey it's the OP's (and any reader's) call. I said "Don't stop using it", but if they are directly told by their boss not to use it, and they wish to comply, whether it be because they're not very diplomatic or because they're just tired, then a synonym is the way to go. Why risk your standing with petty pedantry?
    – Daniel
    Nov 1, 2015 at 12:57
  • @AndrewLeach Is the ‘aig’ part an unusual sound for American English speakers? I’ve noticed that the name ‘Craig’ seems to be generally pronounced Cregg in the US, or at least the parts of it that I see on various screens.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 1, 2016 at 14:30

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.

  • 3
    -1 For proposing that people stop using correct words in order to appease people with incorrect assumptions.
    – Questioner
    Jul 21, 2012 at 4:19
  • 2
    @ Dave M G +1 for demonstrating how life must be in isolation, where one has no interaction with the real world.
    – mikeY
    Jul 24, 2012 at 20:48
  • 1
    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.
    – Questioner
    Jul 25, 2012 at 2:22
  • 1
    From my experience, attempting to educate / enlighten others in these situations with rational argument and historical evidence often doesn't work, and it can backfire too. You can be accused of rationalising - so as to cover your gaff. And the reality seems to be that organisations believe that their reputation is more at risk from a single complainant, than from thousands of people who don't complain at all. I expect the supervisor would say: "Yes, I agree with you that it is ridiculous, but the word is controversial and therefore I prefer you to not use it again.", or similar.
    – Cargill
    Nov 26, 2015 at 21:19

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.