These words sound like trouble

Homonyms: Saying the right things is no defense.

January 29, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

What's in a simple word? Only simple misunderstanding, stupidity, insensitivity or simple ruin.

David Howard, an aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, resigned this week after using the word "niggardly" to mean what it means: stingy, miserly. Some people were offended, as the word sounds very similar to a racial slur.

Williams accepted the resignation, saying his aide showed poor judgment; an investigation is under way. Howard said he used the word to describe a fund he administers.

"Niggardly" generally tends to be avoided in speech and in writing. For example, the word has appeared only four times in five years of Sun newspapers.

Washington's latest war of words drew immediate commentary. "Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in his judgment on this issue," NAACP board chairman Julian Bond told the Associated Press yesterday. "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding."

The episode, if nothing else, serves to remind everyone that words can be trouble. Borrowing -- no, stealing -- George Carlin's signature bit "Seven Dirty Words," we have compiled our own seven words. These are all innocent words -- living in a not-so innocent world. They just precariously sound like other words:

Homomorphism: Means similarity in form -- does not mean morphing into a homosexual.

Mastication: You know, chewing your food. To grind, cut or knead to a pulp, says Webster's.

Prostate/prostrate: Your prostate never lies.

Thespian. An actor or actress, such as Ellen DeGeneres.

Lugubrious: A potentially exciting and juicy word but, in truth, meaning very sad or mournful.

Coxswain: A person who usually steers a ship's boat.

Fuddruckers: Chain of upscale hamburger restaurants. Still, it's a word you might have to to explain to your children.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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