12 JANUARY 2008, Page 16

Mind your language

I was looking at bird-feeders reputed to resist the attentions of squirrels as a suitable present for my husband, who already often sits in his armchair nursing his whisky glass and staring out of the window, when I came across a sinister outrage on the English language.

An advertisement for birdfood said: ‘To differentiate between the imported niger oilseed, used to feed wild birds, and thistle — as well as to eliminate any possibility of offensively mispronouncing the word “niger” — the Wild Bird Feeding Industry trademarked the name Nyjer in 1998.’ They might have done, if an industry can, but I’ve seen a packet of seed bearing the name of the British Trust for Ornithology, on sale at a garden centre, labelled ‘Nyger’ in big letters, which is neither one thing nor the other.

There is also a standard blurb that birdseed merchants copy on to their websites, both in Britain and America. The section on escaped specimens of niger has been updated, but some websites also preserve both the older version in rather comical juxtaposition, thus: ‘Occasionally a fertile seed slips in that is capable of sprouting and people may find that the yellow flowering plant growing under their Nyjer feeder is indeed Guizotia abyssinica, which will make their finches very happy! This is not necessarily good news because even though niger (Nyjer) is not a weed, it spreads like one and produces zillions of seeds.

‘REVISED To protect our environment from any invasive weed seeds (like dodder seed) that may enter the country with the imported niger oilseed, all shipments are heat sterilised to prevent germination of these weeds. Very rarely, a fertile Nyjer seed may sprout a yellow flowering plant under their feeder and this is indeed Guizotia abyssinica. This is not cause for worry as it won’t last long; this seed does not grow well in any part of the UK.’ So either niger produces ‘zillions’ of seeds and spreads like a weed, or it won’t last long and does not grow well in any part of the UK (or, for American readers, the US).

I don’t much care if the nation is smothered in yellow-flowering niger. I do care about a silly, illiterate manipulation of spelling lest some fool say ‘nigger’ when he means ‘niger’. Are we to change the name of Nigeria to Nyjeria on the same grounds? Is Nigella Lawson (who shares her name with the pretty flower love-in-the-mist, also known as devil-in-abush) to change her name to Nyjella? It’s enough to make a blue tit blush.

Dot Wordsworth