Venerable at 45?

Posted: Apr 07, 2006 1:59 PM

Back in the eighth century, a monk by the name of Bede produced an ecclesiastical history of the English people. The tome made Bede so famous that he is remembered to this day as the Venerable Bede.

The old boy came to mind some months ago when reader Kathy Hickok in Delray Beach, Fla., sent along a clipping about the "venerable" Scripps Research Institute as it observed the 45th anniversary of its founding. She wondered if an individual or an institute can become "venerable" at so tender an age. Bede was only 62 when he won his honorific Pulitzer, but one year in his day was the equivalent of 12 months in ours.

Reader Hickok thought "venerable" was a bit much for Scripps. I concur. The award of lapidary adjectives is properly governed by a scale of years. Thus a non-profit think tank, such as Scripps, is well-regarded at 40, widely admired at 50, highly esteemed at 60, greatly respected at 70, and universally acclaimed at 80 -- but an aging nominee must be about to break 90 before gaining the title of "venerable." Some things can't be hurried.

Now and then a word comes along that is literally "duplicitous," not in the sense of being consciously deceptive, but rather in the sense of conveying "contradictory doubleness of thought, speech or action." The usual examples are "flammable," defined as "inflammable," and "inflammable," naturally defined as "flammable." These are Janus words, so called for the two-faced Roman god.

Today's Janus word is the verb "to sanction." It thrives chiefly in the thin air of academia and international law. It can mean "to authorize, support, approve or encourage." Contrariwise, it can mean "to penalize, coerce, punish, apply binding force to secure obedience." An example of the second sense turned up a year ago in a letter from three scholars to The New York Times: "The essence of a university lies in not sanctioning professors or students for the content of their ideas." My suggestion is to lock up "sanction" in a dark closet and hire "penalize" and "approve" as alternative replacements. Why be murky when it's so easy to be clear?

If we are determined to use hard words, at least we ought to employ them with care. A reminder turned up last year in a reporter's interview with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In the interview, Chavez criticized the United States for drawing away the natural resources of Latin America "while doing nothing to confront systematic poverty."

The poverty down there isn't "systematic," a two-bit word for "orderly, methodical, according to plan." The reporter wanted "systemic," a $50, leather-bound, hand-tooled adjective that means "affecting the whole body." There's a gospel lesson for writers: He who is tempted to use a fancy word, let him get it right -- or lie down until the temptation goes away.

We ought to look up these fancy words. A year or so ago a West Coast reporter remarked that "ironically" the Seahawks would meet the Chargers in a playoff match. Regrettably, the story never explained the irony, and "irony" is a tough word. It's in a cluster with "sardonic," "sarcastic" and "satiric." The sages of Merriam-Webster explain that "ironic" implies an attempt to be amusing or provocative "by saying usually the opposite of what is meant." The example given is, "He made the ironic observation that the government could always be trusted."

To my ear, that example sounds more sarcastic than ironic. There's an element in "ironic" of unexpected incongruity, absurd or surprising disparity. It's ironic that some of the hawkiest hawks in Congress are now saying the war against Iraq was a mistake. Are they venerable? Or, maybe, vulnerable?