Word Court

Dubious distinctions; the F-word

Carolyn Simon, of Tucson, Ariz., writes: “I am seeking evidence to present to the activities committee here at my retirement center. Each evening on our closed-circuit TV channel a feature film is broadcast. In the past we’ve had variety. Now we have a new activities director. I suggested Babel, and one of our members said, ‘No, it has the F word!’ I said that the F word is part of today’s accepted vernacular and often simply means ‘Omigosh!’ or ‘Oops!’ or ‘Look what I did!’ Our activities director has been swayed by the puritan wing of our committee. What do you think?”

I think saying the F word, like doing the F thing, is appropriate behavior for consenting adults in private. Newspapers and many magazines are concerned mainly with the public sphere, so they (we) tend to shy away from the word unless it’s part of a quotation that was uttered in public. Saying the word in public demonstrates recklessness, crassness, or both. But movies almost inevitably portray private life. Here the word, like the deed, tends to come up. Anyone who is truly shocked when he or she overhears it—moviegoers are in effect eavesdropping—hasn’t been paying attention.

And what do I think about the suitability of Babel for your retirement center? The Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating, which means a viewer “under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.” I can’t help believing your group is mature enough to handle that.

Reba Sundberg, of Portland, Ore., writes: “My reading time is increasingly ruined by encountering the word dubious where I’m certain the writer means doubtful. I see this error in newspapers and in books by respected writers. It upsets me every time I see it. Is dubious now synonymous with doubtful?”

Even worse: Dubious has been synonymous with doubtful for centuries. The two main definitions for dubious in the Oxford English Dictionary begin “objectively doubtful; fraught with doubt or uncertainty” (the supporting citations include this one, from 1548: “To abide the fortune of battayle, which is ever dubious and uncertayne”) and “subjectively doubtful; wavering or fluctuating in opinion” (“Though I beleeve … yet am I somewhat dubious in beleeving,” from 1632).

Along with English-speakers’ penchant for turning verbs into nouns and vice versa, our tendency to use the same words for feelings and the things or situations that elicit them often exasperates people who don’t realize how deeply rooted in the language it is. We can be comfortable when we’re sitting in a comfortable chair, healthy when we stick to a healthy diet, indifferent to an indifferent musical performance, sure of a sure thing. Granted, this imprecision could give rise to misunderstandings. But it hardly ever does: Does the chair feel comfortable or does it make us feel that way? You say that when you read dubious, sometimes you’re “certain the writer means doubtful.” That’s about as much clarity as you can reasonably expect.

Harold Simon, of Camarillo, Calif., writes: “An article in Time magazine, a very positive one about a popular TV personality, called her ‘antisnob and utterly nonaspirational.’ My medical background complained. Aspiration, medically, is the oral ingestion of a substance into the trachea instead of the esophagus, and it may have serious consequences. Am I being picky or reasonable?”

Aspiration in medical lingo is one thing; in common parlance it’s something else. Though the word comes from the Latin for breathe, its meaning is often more nearly “desire.” As for aspirational, time was it tended to have to do with lofty spiritual desires. In recent years, though, it has come to refer mainly to material or status-related ones. People use it because it looks more kindly on these desires than such near synonyms as ambitious, covetous, or social-climbing. But in the passage you quote, nonaspirational is meant as a compliment—which goes to show that the near synonyms’ negative connotations have started creeping into aspirational.

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court, The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

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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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