In 1999 there was a kerfuffle about nothing. David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington DC was discussing the budget. His intention was to say that times were tight and he’d have to be very careful with the budget this year. There was nothing unusual in the content of his remarks (aside from the novel idea of fiscal responsibility in Washington) but he had the terrible misfortune to posses a large vocabulary. Howard said he’d have to be “niggardly” with the budget. “Niggardly”, for those of you who’ve fallen behind on your Reader’s Digest Word Power studies, is an adjective derived from the Old Norse verb nigla (“to fuss about small matters”) meaning “miserly or stingy”. The word “nigger” is derived from Spanish/Portuguese and has nothing to do with the concept of “stingy”. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.)
Of course everyone got the vapors about a word that sounds similar to verboten language. Ten days after the mistake of doing nothing wrong, Howard was fired. Did I mention that Howard, tragically, was white (and gay), or that his boss, the mayor of Washington DC (as is required by either law or tradition…I forget) was black. Eventually someone picked up a dictionary. Soon he was rehired and we all had a laugh at our collective stupidity and learned to live together as a nation of reasonable people. Just kidding. He more or less got his job back but we’re still morons and I’m sure Howard wouldn’t play scrabble alone in a locked room.
Eleven years after Mr. Howard’s career went through a wood chipper because one word sounded like another, Shirley Sherrod was pounded for doing the right thing but saying it in a way that exceeds the toddler level sensibilities of those around her. Mrs. Sherrod, a black bureaucrat, told a Hallmark style redemption story of overcoming her racial animosity toward a white farmer 24 years earlier. Thirty-eight seconds of video from her speech took the story out of context and made her look like a racist jerk. This was pitched into the public maw by a pundit I don’t listen to and amplified by a “news” outlet I ignore. In short order Mrs. Sherrod was hurriedly submitting a resignation which was requested (depending on who you ask) by either President Obama’s direct order or one of his flunkies who knew which way the wind was blowing. A decision, like the canning of Mr. Howard, which was ill advised and shortly reversed. For my own amusement I like to imagine the first person to listen to the rest of Mrs. Sherrod’s speech and realize she wasn’t the anti-Christ also has a dictionary and knows how to use it.
So what have we learned? Nothing I’m sure. However, I’d desperately like to meet Mr. Howard and Mrs. Sherrod and buy them both dinner at a nice restaurant. I’d happily pay the bill just to hear what they have to say about the matter. Which, if either of them have learned anything from the pants shitting weenies that nearly ruined them both, is nothing.