Robert  Charles

A terrible confusion has occurred in Washington. It is not the confusion you think. It is another confusion. I am not talking about the enormous differences between Republicans and Democrats, the gaping chasm between those who believe in more limited government, free speech, press, worship and gun rights, and those who advocate more government and greater limits. That one is secondary. This is a different sort of confusion, one that we can all understand.

It might have grown up from a mis-transcription of the Congressional Record, a few years ago. It could have been the result of President Obama reading his teleprompter too fast. It might even have been the result of some crazy pundit who thought the two words were interchangeable. But here is the rub. The White House – indeed, the entire Obama Administration and half the Congress – appear to have transposed the words “official” and “officious,” a simple yet remarkable error.

While we expect our government to be official, we recoil when it becomes officious. As most know, the word “official” means “relating to an authority or public body and its duties, actions, and responsibilities.” Think of the “Official” Great Seal of the United States, or an “Official” ruling on a first down. The word “officious,” on the other hand, is quite different. It means “assertive of authority in an annoyingly domineering way, especially with regard to petty or trivial matters.” I am not kidding, they are completely different words. The White House may not think so, but look at their last three letters!

So, now we know. This is all just a big mistake. Stop the White House presses, pull back the next White House proclamation. Hold the next vituperative attack on the Senate floor. We just have a big confusion here. It took some careful research, but I think we are better for discovering our error. This is like that alleged missing comma in the Declaration of Independence. Imagine the unnecessary heartache we have been through, thinking that all that brusque business about “phone and pen,” that oozing hubris and over-the-top arrogance from the White House – was just a transcription error.


Robert Charles

Robert B. Charles is a former US Court of Appeals clerk, litigator and adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. He served as Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, and presently heads a consulting firm in Washington DC.