Of Branches and Penumbrae

Posted: Feb 27, 2006 1:26 PM

The first meaning of "precipitous," as every schoolboy knows, is "steep." Merriam-Webster says it means "very steep." Oxford says "dangerously steep." The Random House and American Heritage dictionaries raise the stakes to "extremely steep." Today's plaintive question is: Could we please let "precipitous" stay that way?

The question is prompted by a rash of warnings, in print and on the air, against "precipitous" withdrawal from Iraq. Gen. Wesley Clark says the United States went to war "precipitously" in the first place. All my dictionaries treat the adjectives as virtually synonymous, but advocates of strict construction will contend that the better modifier is "precipitate": "sudden, premature, abrupt, headlong, impetuous."

A kind of Gresham's Law operates on language as it operates on currency: Bad usage chips away at precise usage. Strict definitions yield to loose ones. Humpty-Dumpty reigns, and words come to mean anything the user chooses them to mean, neither more nor less. The editors of American Heritage warned in their 1993 edition that even "reputable" writers erroneously are substituting "precipitous" for "precipitate."

Bryan Garner, in his "Modern American Usage," urges that "precipitous" be reserved, both literally and metaphorically, for an aspect of steepness (steepivity?). The distinction may be small, but small distinctions lie at the essence of the writer's art.

What about "reticent"? The New York Times reported some months ago that "public confidence in Canada's health insurance program is eroding, though politicians remain reticent to privatize services." The editors at Merriam-Webster define "reticent" as most writers employ the word: inclined to be silent; reserved, taciturn, restrained in expression. They say it may also mean "secretive," but none of my other desk dictionaries sanctions such a spin. In the news story from Ottawa, I believe the word the reporter wanted was plain old "reluctant."

Two years ago The Washington Post reported a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission: "An expletive uttered by rock star Bono was indecent and profane." The lead singer of U2 "blurted out the profanity after winning an award ..." Staff Writer Frank Ahrens explained that use of the f-word "did not violate the FCC's decency standards because it was not used to refer to sexual or excretory functions; it was used as an adjective, not as a noun or verb."

It seems a remarkably prim expiation, but no matter. The expletive was clearly "indecent" (grossly improper or offensive), but was it also a "profanity"? Strictly speaking, no. It was an obscenity or a vulgarity, to be sure, but if we use "profane" and "profanity" so casually, we diminish their value in writing about religion.

Last May, Time magazine chortled at the embarrassment suffered by its competitor Newsweek for offending Muslim "sensibilities." Newsweek had reported (falsely, as it transpired) that Guantanamo guards had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet. Kempton H. Roll of Asheville, N.C., wrote me to suggest that Time's reporter wanted "sensitivities" rather than "sensibilities."

He's right, I believe, but the question is close. Words have roots, and roots grow into branches; or to switch the metaphor, words have penumbras, and the penumbrae have shadows. Here we start with a root of "sense," both noun and verb, and we hack through the resulting shrubbery. Jane Austen hacked away at "sense" and "sensibility" in the early 1800s, but only 417 persons have testified, under oath, ever to have read the novel in full. The Muslims were sensitive. Newsweek's retraction was sensible. There's a difference, not a mere distinction.