This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Each day in April (except Sundays) bloggers post a new post relating to a letter of the alphabet. You are on Letter O in my 2021 collection.
One of my favorite words of the English language is 'niggardly'.
Now wait, before you assume I'm a racist bigot, please read the rest of this post.
Niggardly is a Scandinavian word that means stingy, miserly, or - to use a literary reference – a scrooge. Despite its similarity in sound, it has never and should never be associated with that hateful racial slur against African Americans. Niggardly is a non-offensive word, but of course using it is dangerous because of how easy it is to mishear.
Other Misheard Words
It goes right along with -
horehound (a candy I don't like)
seersucker (a type of fabric)
mastication (chewing - are you eating while reading this? That's mastication)
diphthong (certain blended sounds)
tittle (the dot of a lowercase i)
The list goes on, but I'll leave it there.
I once saw one of those prank reality shows where people were given a list of words and asked to categorize them as 'dirty' or 'safe'. The story they were told was they were a focus group at a greeting card company.
One former English teacher put all the words under the 'safe' category, but she began to wonder what greeting card would use the word seersucker or mastication, and I think she suspected the truth early on.
The others all put at least a few of the words in 'dirty'.
I thought the gag was laugh-out-loud funny, but that was before I heard the word niggardly.
Favorite Words I Don't Say
You see, it's not my favorite word to use, it's one of my favorite words to know. It's a cautionary tale in linguistics, that sometimes a word sounding close to offensive is enough for the word itself to be offensive, regardless of its etymology.
On the other hand, there are times when you can allude to 'bad words' and it can be quite funny. It's why I love the scene in Matilda so much – a little subversive humor where Matilda is clearly more intelligent than her father, even while he so arrogantly, adamantly assumes she is not.
(P.S. If you missed my Book vs. Movie post about this scene, welcome to my blog! Now go back and read that one, too.)
Tarry Pratchett's books are full of subversive humor that can be taken offensively. I like to say he and Neil Gaiman probably wrote Good Omens after getting drunk while reading the Bible. A little too much holy wine, if you ask me. (But, I love the humor nevertheless.)
And, the Point is...
SO, I guess my point is that there is a fine line between offensive and subversive when it comes to word choice.
And what one person finds subversively funny, another might read and take offense. After all, dark humor is like food; not everybody gets it.
So, Writers, tread carefully.
What do you think? Are there words you never use in case you'll be misheard? Let me know in the comments!
About the Title Image
I write about, with, for, and around kids all day. (Well, maybe I do the dishes too. Sometimes.)