Joe Hallett
Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS: Beyond its homophonic resemblance, the word niggardly has no connection to the N-word.

Niggardly means stingy or miserly. The late comedian Jack Benny, who made a career as a cheapskate, was niggardly.

Julie Albert, the Dispatch’s chief librarian, found that the word appears to be Scandinavian in origin and said she could find “no racial component” to it. Another source traced niggardly to the Old Norse verb nigla, meaning “to fuss about small matters.”

Ohio’s Yale-educated senior senator, Sherrod Brown, is a very smart man who knows the meaning of niggardly and how to use it in proper context. It is not clear whether the attack dogs at the National Republican Senatorial Committee know the meaning of the word, but they really don’t care. Once Brown uttered it publicly, that’s all they needed to falsely and despicably portray him as a racist.

“The word is not what they are implying that it is,” said John A. Powell, an expert on racial issues and director of the Haas Diversity Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“Knowing that many of the TV viewers and readers will not be sophisticated about language, they could easily be confused. So, I think it’s important to straighten this out.”

That’s the goal of this column. Here’s what happened:

On March 15, Brown appeared on MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show, and complained about how some of his colleagues are treating veterans.

“Of course we’re falling short,” Brown said. “There are people … in this Congress who will always send a blank check when it comes to spending money on defense or war, but are a little more niggardly, if you will, on spending more money on the actual veterans when they come home. And that means we don’t greet them well enough in terms of getting them the right testing when they’re back in Coshocton, Cleveland or Lima, Ohio.”

The Daily Caller, a GOP-friendly conservative blog, picked up the quote and noted that the use of niggardly cost an assistant to the mayor of Washington, D.C., his job in 1999. When it dawned on folks in the mayor’s office that the employee properly used the word in a budget discussion, he was offered his job back. That incident sparked a national debate over language and racial sensibilities.

Powell, who took the Berkeley job in January after holding a similar position at Ohio State University, said there is “no racial context” to the word niggardly, “and it sounds like (Brown) used it appropriately.”

To its credit, The Daily Caller put the definition of niggardly at the top of its blog posting. That proved inconvenient for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which stripped off the definition and mass-emailed the blog posting to news outlets across the country. The committee included no comment, and actually declined to comment on the record when contacted by the Dispatch. But its intent was unmistakably to stir up debate in the media about whether Brown is a racist for using a word that sounds like the N-word.

“We shouldn’t use people’s confusion as a political football,” said Powell, who is black, “because I’m sure that if the Republican Party had a chance to look at the word, if they already didn’t know, it’s about as similar as lightning and lightning bug. Both of them have lightning in them, but the two words have very little in common.”

When she heard about the committee’s duplicity, state Rep. Tracy Heard, a black Columbus Democrat, was offended: “The language in question has absolutely nothing to do with race and is in no way offensive to me. Sherrod Brown has always been a friend to Ohio’s African-American community, most recently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with us against laws aimed at suppressing our right to vote.”

A note to voters: Operatives at the Republican and Democratic parties really do think you’re stupid and will try to dupe you at every turn of this election year.

Sherrod Brown might be a lot of things, but he is not a racist. Can the same be said about the people who tried to portray him as one?

Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch. He can be emailed at jhallett@dispatch.com.