Words are tricky. Sometimes, one word can mean different things to different people. Like how in the civilized world, "football" refers to a sporting competition with four downs and actual scoring, but everywhere else it means something boring and awful.
Unfortunately, the similarities between words aren't always that innocuous. Sometimes, a perfectly respectable word sounds like something from that stack of Klan literature you were dismayed to find your grandfather had willed to you when he died.
Here are a few completely innocent phrases that led to ridiculous accusations of racism ...
#3. Acting Niggardly
David Howard, an aide to Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony A. Williams, used the word "niggardly" in a discussion with two of his city employees. While his real crime was trying to shoehorn a ten-dollar word into a two-dollar conversation, D.C. employees objected to the use of "niggardly" due to its "racial overtones."
The problem is, "niggardly" isn't even sort of a racist term, it just sort of totally sounds like one. But it really just means "frugal." The contemptuous "N-word" comes from a Latin word meaning "black" and has absolutely nothing to do with "niggard," aside from the fact that both words will likely get you punched in the face if you're overheard saying them in public.
The misunderstanding got so out of hand that Howard was forced to resign, although he eventually got his job back after everyone realized that this was a controversy that could literally be squashed by consulting Merriam-Webster.
#2. Become a Black Hole
You know what sucks? That one department at your company that always messes things up. For Kenneth Mayfield, a county commissioner in Texas, that department was central collections. In fact, he was so frustrated with their habit of losing important paperwork, he opined that central collections "has become a black hole."
Mayfield was, of course, referring to the kind of black hole that is a thing in outer space that eats astronauts and anything else in its path. Judge Thomas Jones, on the other hand, apparently took this reference to mean that central collections had literally turned into a hole filled with black people. Mayfield assured him that it was only a science term, but the judge demanded an apology anyway.
It's a mix-up made all the more hilarious by the fact that the man who made the mistake may literally hold your freedom in his hands someday. Funny!
#1. The Yellow Line
If you're in a city with anything resembling a subway system, there's an excellent chance that riding the "yellow line" is a thing you do regularly. Or at least it is as long as you don't live in Atlanta.
Caving to pressure from the Asian community, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority changed the name of their transit system's yellow line to the "gold line."
John Park, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Pan Asian Community Services, argued that having a yellow line "physically paints a very unattractive picture. I don't consider myself 'yellow'."
But come on, it's not like the train ran through the heart of Atlanta's Asian community, used to be called something else and then was just up and renamed the "yellow line" for no discernible reason.
What's that? That's exactly what happened? Well fine then, maybe that's kind of messed up, Atlanta. Maybe.