Word Court

The art of ant eating; another N word

JOEL BLUM, of Paris, France, writes: “I have no problem with the nouns fund-raising and fund-raiser—but what’s up with the verb fund-raise? When I saw it the other day on an ACLU Web page, I realized it was starting to seem familiar. But doesn’t normal English call for raise funds? Similarly, bartend and caretake. Are these verbs anomalies or errors?”

Anteaters eat ants, bookkeepers keep books, and cabdrivers drive cabs—so why indeed shouldn’t fund- raisers just raise funds and leave it at that? Then again, air conditioners air-condition rooms, babysitters babysit, and, at least according to some dictionaries, caretakers caretake. Maybe fund-raise and bartend belong to this category of verbs.

Dictionaries aren’t especially helpful. They claim to present the language as it is currently used—but if that’s what they’re doing, you’d think they would agree on whether our three words exist as verbs. The major contemporary American dictionaries—TheAmerican Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, TheNew Oxford American, and Webster’s New World—are split in each case. Only TheAmerican Heritage and The New Oxford American give fund-raise. Only TheAmerican Heritage and the Collegiate give bartend. Only the Collegiate and The New Oxford American give caretake.

Of course, now that we have the Internet, we can see for ourselves how the language is currently used, including usage in professionally edited media. According to programs that search U.S. news sources, raise funds continues to be seen much more often than fund-raise—though fund-raise is now approximately as common a word as, oh, say, anteater. Bartend appears approximately as often as tend bar. Caretake, however, is rare, whereas, obviously, take care is extremely common.

To me, this suggests that fund-raise is unstoppable, bartend probably is too, and the jury is still out on caretake. All the same, pulling the word apart and putting the root verb first—raise funds, tend bar, take care—shows more respect for the traditions and usual patterns of English.

SARAH KEMMER , of Weiser, Idaho, writes: “My husband and I are locked in a word-court battle. He has discouraged me from using the word niggardly in polite conversation because of its similarity to another N word. He is concerned that people will think that the one is derived from the other. Although I have assured him that it is not, he is convinced that I will be cast as a racist. Should we abandon words that resemble offensive ones from fear of a misunderstanding, or is the burden on the listener to know the difference?”

Sorry, but I side with your husband. Few innocently intended English words are easier to mistake for a vile epithet than niggardly. What’s more, the word’s history isn’t as pure as you might suppose. Yes, niggardly probably came to us from Scandinavia and originally had nothing to do with black people. But since the late 18th century, according to TheOxford English Dictionary, niggard has shown “coincidence in form and pronunciation in some regional varieties with nigger,” and this “may have influenced the development of sense 1c”: “a harsh, insensitive, or thoughtless person; a lout, a barbarian. Also as a more general term of abuse.”

Apparently, people have been jumbling up the two insults for centuries. There’s no reason to expect them to stop now. I think the burden is always on the speaker to leave as little room for misinterpretation as possible, and therefore niggardly doesn’t belong in polite conversation. Why not say miserly, parsimonious, or stingy instead?

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court, The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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