Top 10 Perfectly Nice Words that Sound Offensive

b-word-memePeace, writer peeps!

Last month’s crazy response to my using a single word (shh…it was feminist) got me thinking about David Howard, and the trouble a single word made for him.

In February of 1999, David Howard, an aide to Washington DC’s then-mayor Anthony Williams, publicly used the word niggardly. Niggardly means “stingy.” Williams used the word in that context, in a conversation about government funding. The word comes from an old (c.1300 CE) anglicized word nygart,  and it has no racial connotations and no racially-linked etymology at all. But because it sounds similar to an offensive word that Howard–a public advocate and a white guy–shouldn’t say, offended semi-literates protested, and Howard was compelled to resign from his job! That really happened!

I’ve got your back. I don’t want what happened to David Howard to happen to you. To help keep writers out of trouble with the outraged ignorant, I’ve compiled a Top Ten list of Perfectly Nice Words that Sound Offensive, along with their true meanings.

vintage-keep-mum-posterBut first, The Non-Optional Apology: I sincerely apologize if I used a word that you did not know. I am only in my fifties and we all do stupid things at this age.

*drumroll please*

Top 10 Perfectly Nice Words that Sound Offensiveoh-my-takei

#10  honking – making a sound like the call of a goose, often with a car horn
That honking bird should’ve stayed with his flock.

#9  homophones– words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings
See? Their, there: They’re homophones, just as I told you.

#8  thespian – a dramatic actor
Mary Tyler Moore was a talented comedy actor, but did you know she was also a thespian?

#7  twite – a type of finch, a little bird
When you purposely make that noise, you sound like a twite!

#6  homogeneous – made up of like parts that are evenly distributed
The school board deliberately broke up homogeneous groups of students with rezoning.

#5  peniaphobia – the fear of poverty
Marcy could afford to live on her own, but her peniaphobia drove her to share a home with Patty.

#4  beanie – a small hat
Marcus nervously twisted his beanie in his hands.

#3  idiom – a cultural expression that cannot be understood by literal translation
That idiom is a flash in the pan.

#2  niggling – slight anxiety or unease
I have a niggling feeling that this list of naughty-sounding words might get me into trouble.

And…*drumroll*… the #1 Perfectly Nice Word that Sounds Offensive……

asp – a venomous snake
If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from that asp’s hole.

*cue wild applause*

WARNING! Think twice before saying any of these words. And maybe gather a committee, hire a lawyer, and do some market research before actually publishing them.

Or you could taunt the shocked and offended with your right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Whatever floats your boat. (Just remember, enough wind can capsize a boat.)

Have any good words ever gotten you into trouble? Do you have more to add to this list? Let’s hear ’em! Or, you know, read ’em in the comment section. Stay safe out there, writers! We’re all in this together.




2 Comments on “Top 10 Perfectly Nice Words that Sound Offensive

  1. The English language is unique in having tons of those pesky homophones, homographs and homonyms!
    Here are a few of them: there/their/they’re; would/wood; rain/rein/reign; to/too; do/dew/due; lead/lead/led;
    read/reed/red/; rite/right/write; sew/so; Mary/merry/marry (some people pronounce them using the same
    vowel sound, while others pronounce distinctly different vowels),slay/sleigh; way/weigh; male/mail; site/sight;
    see/sea, maid/made, aye/eye/I, wound/wound, mane/main; scene/seen, wind/wind, plain/plane; we/wee, etc. These homophones/homographs/homonyms are one reason English is difficult to learn!

    • Language is such fun to play with. I read the following sentence recently, wherein the meaning changes according to which word is emphasized.

      I never said she stole my money.

      No wonder English is so hard to learn!

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