Word Court


Andrew Yee, of Brookline, Massachusetts, writes, "A friend and I were having a pleasantly heated discussion about the appropriate use of the word mortified. I've used it, and noticed its frequent use, to express horror or shock, as in 'I was mortified when I saw the chairman wearing Speedos at the swimming pool.' An informal lunchtime poll seems to affirm this usage. However, several dictionaries define mortified as mainly denoting humiliation or embarrassment—for example, 'In my dream I was mortified to find myself naked at work.' Can Word Court adjudicate?"

But of course. Usage manuals and the overwhelming majority of recent newspaper citations in online databases agree with your friend and your dictionaries: mortification does mean "humiliation" or "embarrassment." At least it does when it isn't being used in relation to asceticism and religious penance (as in mortification of the flesh, "self-denial" or "self-punishment") or in one of its specialized obsolete or historical senses, none of which means anything like "horror" or "shock."

I wonder, though, whether a person might sometimes experience secondhand mortification. Could it be that you were mortified on the chairman's behalf when you saw him so scantily clad? I imagine that when Thomas Jefferson ordered a copy of a French book titled Sur la Création du Monde, Un Système d'Organisation Primitive and a contretemps resulted, Jefferson felt ashamed on our country's behalf. He wrote to his book dealer, in 1814, "I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America [this latter emphasis is Jefferson's], a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate." If anyone can be said to have used mortified correctly in such a context, it's Jefferson.

Jonathan Penner, of Tucson, Arizona, writes, "Didn't the word problematic used to mean 'uncertain'—as in 'Whether Billy will come home for Thanksgiving is highly problematic'? My dictionary does give the sense 'attended by problems.' But saying that problems in a policy or a poem make it problematic would once have thudded on the ear. Bastard child of an ancient noun and a promiscuous suffix, problematic has now begotten, especially in academia, its own creepy spawn: problematics, problematical, problematize, even problematicize. What say you? Are problematics different from obscurities or difficulties?"

When a word is given new, more impressive duties, people can be so resentful! But if those duties are worth doing and the word can still handle its old job, too, what's the problem? Actually, for some centuries problematical meant "troubling" or "troublesome" as well as "uncertain," while problematic (which can be traced back to 1609) tended to be restricted to that last meaning. Now problematic is more common in all senses—so what's happened is that the shorter form has taken over most of the longer one's work.

I'm more in sympathy with you about the noun problematics and those unwieldy verbs problematize and problematicize. Problematics began as sociological jargon, though, as you obviously know, it has gone interdisciplinary. The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, by Richard A. Posner; Negotiating Unruly Problematics, by Gearóid Ó Tuathail, Susan Roberts, and Andrew Herod—these are fairly typical uses in titles. Yes, these authors do mean something special by problematics—and if you want to know what they have in mind, you should read their work. But if you'll be satisfied by a quick and snarky definition of problematize, here is one that was offered by Elizabeth Manus in Salon three years ago: "In academia, reading a text in a new way is generally known as 'problematizing' a text." Manus gave that explanation while reporting on a theory then being advanced by Carlyle V. Thompson, a literature professor, that F. Scott Fitzgerald's character Jay Gatsby was a black man passing for white.

Susan Moloney, of West Milford, New Jersey, writes, "I thought that you needed only a form of the verb to be to express the following: 'He is missing.' Lately, though, from various sources including newscasters, I have noticed the thought expressed somewhat differently: 'He's gone missing.' From where has this gone missing come? Isn't it redundant?"

He's gone missing conveys a different shade of meaning from either He is missing or He is gone, signifying something more like "He has disappeared." American dictionaries that give the phrase are likely to tell you it's "chiefly British." Nonetheless, it is indeed increasingly common in American English. I see no reason to object to it—but may I suggest that we draw the line at the nonsensical turned up missing? This turns up surprisingly often, and it comes predominantly from American sources.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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