In Washington last month, the new head of the Office of the Public Advocate, David Howard, was talking with two workmates about his tight budget when he said:
"I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be a lot of money."
Before he could even get comfortable in his office chair, Howard was engulfed in a political firestorm, with some African-American employees attributing this synonym for miserly with a racist epithet. Despite Howard immediately explaining and apologising for any offence, new Mayor Anthony Williams (already under fire from the chattering classes for "not being black enough") sought his employee's resignation.
As The New Republic said in its editorial this week:
"Words no longer have meaning — only consequences."
The Washington public servant was plainly a victim of language fascism, thrown overboard by a politician under siege from a trendy minority (this in a town which tolerated the crack cocaine-fired sexual antics of former mayor and felon Marion Barry).