When did Niger become Nyjer?

Karin Winegar
Karin Winegar: As our vocabularies dwindle, our mental ability decreases.
Courtesy of Karin Winegar

Karin Winegar is a St. Paul journalist and author.

My birdfeeders were empty. I needed a nuts and seeds mixture for cardinals in one hanging feeder and thistle seed for goldfinches and chickadees in the other.

This was a perfect reason to visit the local birdseed store, where pleasant CDs of birdcalls and streamlets play, pine candles perfume the air, water trickles in fountains and a calico cat curls among the baskets and seed bags. So off I went.

When I picked up the half-gallon jug of the glossy black seeds, I noticed it was labeled NYJER. Had I been wrong all these years? Or had a political coup taken place and Niger, a landlocked country in Saharan Africa, somehow become Nyjer?

"Hey, look at this: What happened to the spelling?" I asked the clerk at the counter, slinging the jug label-forward toward him.

"People were uncomfortable or confused by it, so the bird seed industry changed it on everything," he said.

Nyjer sounds faintly faux Nordic, like a china pattern at IKEA. But it has a more alarming aspect for me.

People were confused? By Niger — nee-jair? If this is what I think it is, "Nyjer" is more than phonetic spelling; it is a political or cultural choice that seems to be made with good intentions but just accommodates galloping global (or maybe just American) ignorance. The U.S. wild bird feeding industry altered a respectable word to "clarify pronunciation" — and when I looked, I found it had done so in 1998. My local store hadn't changed the labels until this fall, however. Or if it had, I had not noticed.

Perhaps I am making mountains out of birdseed, but words have origins — great-grandparents, if you will. And those of us who are word nerds (American student slang first seen in Dr. Seuss' 1951 book "If I Ran the Zoo" ) honor and enjoy those etymological ancestors.

Some years ago there arose a kerfuffle (commotion, agitation; from the Scottish Gaelic car, or twist, and fuffle, to disarrange) about niggardly, a fine and ancient word that means stingy. The Wiki listing says it dates to 1325-75 and the Middle English niggard, equivalent to nig, similar to dialectal Swedish nygg and akin to Old English hnēaw. So there.

As we shirk, we shrink. As our vocabularies dwindle, our mental ability decreases, or so it seems to me.

Now I was seeing how the entire bird seed industry got squeamish rather than helpful — on the occasion of what is currently and wrongly called a "teachable moment" (but more about that some other time).

Later the same week, I was discussing women in literature with a young friend.

"Well, it is called history — his story," she said.

"No, that's not about his or hers — 'herstory' was a joke feminists used to make a point in the '60s. I think history is from a Latin root," I said. I was wrong. Actually it's from a Greek word meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation."

Recently there came more confusion, or perhaps some consolation: Before his capture, Saif al-Islam was reported in the Guardian as "heading for Niger." Niger, not Nyjer. Thankfully, the Brits know their geography — heck, they owned (and named) most of the world at one point — and are not kowtowing (from the Chinese, meaning to kneel and bow one's head to the floor) to anyone's geographical ignorance on this one. At least not yet.

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