Thursday, November 17, 2011

The perils of an extensive vocabulary

Ah, first-world pains. I used a word that means exactly what I meant to convey, but, because it so closely resembles another word -- a not-very-nice word -- it was, shall we say, cause for unintended offense.

Our story begins...

I accepted a position with a new company back in October, with the intent of starting that new job on October 24th. I started that job yesterday. Yeah, I know - yesterday wasn't October 24th. What pushed back my start date was a call from the old employer telling me that if I wasn't actively employed by the company on November 15th, I would forfeit my utilization bonus for Q3. Since we're talking about a pretty sizable chunk of change, I wasn't happy.

Fortunately, both the hiring company and the new customer were understanding and agreed to push my start date back to November 16th.

In the interim, my supervisor from the old company wanted me to talk to him about what had made me decide to leave the company after 14 years. I sent him an email detailing the things that had left me dissatisfied. On the subject of the "stay until 11/15 or lose your bonus" matter, I wrote:
I was informed that my earned Q3 bonus would be forfeited if I weren’t on the payroll 6 weeks after having earned it. That is seriously the most niggardly policy I’ve ever seen.
I used the word "niggardly" because it conveyed exactly what I thought of their policy.
niggardly - adjective
1. reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly.
2. meanly or ungenerously small or scanty: a niggardly tip to a waiter.
I sent it off to my supervisor and cc'd my HR rep.

On Tuesday I had my exit interviews with the old company. As I was wrapping up the interviews, I ran into the Director of Professional Services, a man I've known for several years. For the purposes of this tale, I'll refer to him as "Bob". To further assist you in understanding how this conversation started and where it went, I will further note that "Bob" is a black man.

"Bob" said to me that he appreciated the candor of my "why I left" email...but he was troubled by my choice of wording. Puzzled was I. What exactly had troubled him? He pulled up the email and read back the offending passage.

Niggardly. Yeah.

I explained to him what I meant by it, but he still seemed puzzled/concerned. I finally got through to him when I described it as "mean-stingy - like Ebeneezer Scrooge". It was as if a light bulb turned on over his head. He finally grocked that "niggardly" had nothing to do with "nigger".

At that point his whole demeanor changed. He wished me the best of luck and expressed his wishes for me to one day return to the company, etc, etc.

Words have meaning. But sometimes a word that sounds too much like another word can really bust your balls. Fortunately for me, "Bob" went to me directly and asked me about it man-to-man. But what if "Bob" wasn't a measured, intelligent man? It could have gotten sticky, I suppose (although one has to wonder, what was he going to do, fire me?).

Would I use that word again to describe a similar affront? Possibly. But it's a dangerous world these days. Check this out to see how use of the word "niggardly" can be hazardous to your well-being.

The moral of the story is: just because you know what a word means doesn't give you license to drop it like a grenade in the midst of people who don't know what it means.

Unless, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing.