The changing connotations of words isn’t a small issue


‘This is ridiculous’. As well as a plethora of other boorish things.

I don’t understand what this person is doing wrong here. The question is a valid one: if you are trying not to be a jerk inadvertently, does it matter if a word that sounds offensive has an etymology that isn’t?

In the real world, racists use nigg* words regularly to express and signal their racism, from otherwise made-up terms to ones like niggardly, chosen solely because of its resemblance to the slur.

Another person used the example of a swastika, where except in specific contexts, the symbol will be understood and identified with Nazism, whatever long provenance it has otherwise.

This is a complicated question without a clear answer, and worth being asked and discussed because of how it affects words beyond niggling. Many people ‘don’t give a fuck’ who they offend; sure, great. But the person in the image does care and is asking for feedback from people whose opinions and reasoning they do care about because they don’t want to cause someone to feel shitty over the sorts of things they don’t have to think or worry about.


Niggling is a valid non-insulting word.

Here’s a clue: read some books to broaden your vocabulary and perhaps you won’t be offended.

That’s revealing of some fairly profound ignorance on your part in itself. Communication has context and different effects depending on who the audience is, who’s doing it, and how.

If I were at a job interview for an American company primarily staffed by people of East Asian descent, and I said, ‘I think I’d fit in here like white on rice‘, it really doesn’t matter that the origin of the phrase and its typical usage are anodyne. In that context, it’s not the best choice of words and the other person could reasonably expect that I’d tried to make a race-based pun, even if in truth it’s just a common phrase I use that slipped out. That’s basically the definition of why puns work: they mean more than one thing at once.

In a similar way, if a black person were to go to get a loan and everything seemed great about the application but then the lender says, ‘You know, I there’s just one niggling thing I needed to ask you about.’ Being college-educated, reading lots of books, and even being a professional etymologist has nothing to do with interpreting that as a coded, racist word choice, especially if the loan is then denied.

Some people who think they’re clever or edgy regularly work into their conversations niggling, snigger or niggardly. People who want to prove the point that being offended is your problem definitely do, as these comments have demonstrated.

So it’s reasonable and helpful to ask, ‘Hey, if I don’t want to come across like an asshole, does doing this make me sound like an asshole?’ That’s what the person in the original image was trying to determine.

If you’re dealing with the same people that speak the same language, it’s not my responsibility to make sure that someone is ignorant to their own native tongue.

You’re literally projecting your own racism here. I wouldn’t think twice about the word niggling being offensive, because I don’t use derivatives of the word nigger (whatever they might be) in common speech. So to me, it’s just another word that I use.

And essentially, what you’re doing is saying denotation is the only thing that should ever matter, and if some word or phrase has a negative connotation, that’s really only because people are ignorant.

Except, you know, that’s not the way language works or ever has. ‘Meaning’ is not a static thing, not over time and not even between settings.

Except there is no negative connotation. not even remotely. if you choose to be offended by something, that’s on you, not anyone else

What you’re saying is that the negative connotation is from people whose opinion you don’t value.

It doesn’t even have to be strictly rational, by the way. Moist is starting to have an unpleasant connotation to many people. You won’t find it listed in a dictionary yet, but this is a well-known phenomenon. And the way language works, they aren’t wrong to feel this way because meanings change with time.

There’s a really obvious, rational reason why some people might not like nigg* words. And if you don’t care, that’s on you, which is why some people might think you’re an asshole.

Of words that start with nigg*, the green one is exactly what you think it is.

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