Sunday, February 27, 2011

Misusing Malfeasance

I recently read what purported to be an indictment (informally, rather than in the legal sense) of a public-sector employee who the writer was calling to task for what he viewed as a refusal to enforce a law. The specifics of the issue don’t matter to us because we’re here to talk about the English language and abuses to which it is subject. The sentence in question began thus:

This appears to be a blatant malfeasance of justice…
Ah, the overblown sentence! When your opponent resorts to this sort of rhetoric you know that you have him or her on the run. Disregarding the excesses of ire, I was struck by the phrase “malfeasance of justice”.

Now malfeasance exists, both as a word and as a political problem. It simply means unjustifiable conduct or an illegal action perpetrated by a public official. I could argue that the person against whom the charge was leveled was not an “official” but that would be descending into petty semantics. I have much a higher semantic point to make.

“Of justice” in this instance acts as an adjective describing the instance of malfeasance. Yet “of” in this case means that justice was being…malfeased? No such word exists because the word being modified is a noun, not a verb. It’s tantamount to saying the actions were an apple of justice.

You can commit malfeasance, certainly (though I wouldn’t recommend it). You can witness it, call it out, and publicize it. You can even say that it runs rampant. But the fact that I can replace the word with a pronoun in that last two sentences means that it is still a noun.

Nowhere on-line or on paper could I find any indication that malfeasance can act as a verb. So what do you suppose our erstwhile agitator intended to convey? One presumes that the writer wanted to point out that the act was perceived to be malfeasance (and blatant misconduct at that) and that justice was being perverted thereby.

As to whether the author’s somewhat hysterical style swayed those with whom he was communicating, I can’t really say. I didn’t read the rest of the communiqué as I was too busy running for the dictionary.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Word Tidbits: Recap

I was driving home the other day, listening to NPR’s fabulous All Things Considered as I do every night. The woman presenting her story said something like, “For those of you unfamiliar with his record, let’s recapitulate.” Naturally, I immediately wondered how many people know that “recap” is actually an abbreviation of the word recapitulate.

Of course, I immediately looked it up both on-line and in my adored 2,700-page Webster. There, recap is defined as putting a new cap or tread on something. Recapitulate, in many forms, stands fully defined and clearly its own word. In many other places, however, I saw no acknowledgment of the fact that recap stands for a longer word (and one with a more easily-understandable etymology). Indeed my word processor defined recapitulation with “same as recap” with a link to that definition. You can imagine my horror at this sort of linguistic laziness.

And so for those of you who were unaware, I point out that giving a recap is fine for sports scores and television shows. I don’t even believe you should include a period at the end of the word to indicate this apparently-obscure English tidbit. But do remember that in serious writing recapitulate needs to do its own job. Regardless of the widely-accepted nature of recap as a word it will never be more than a small part of recapitulate.

For those among you who are curious, it came from the Latin recapitulare which was a compound of the re- prefix meaning "again" added to the word capitulum for "chapter or main part" or even older, "small head". That makes perfect sense considering that recapitulate means a concise review of the main points or headings of a larger whole.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Own Fit of Pique

I received a newsletter from a printer in town that contained an article purporting to give advice on naming your business. One of the items on the checklist was, “Peaks customer interest”. As you may imagine, this piqued my ire more than my interest. I’ve written before about the two words, but my mind this time took a different turn. I thought of the ways you can and generally do not use the word pique.

You might write, “Alfred stormed out in a fit of pique.” You could certainly say, “Your post piqued my interest,” and I would thank you kindly. But I would not write, “Julia piqued me,” or “The source of my pique was the neighbor’s howling dog.” Those two uses agree with the definitions of the word but seem to have fallen out of use, though GotBrainy shows it used by several writers in the past century or two. The Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton examples in particular show that such uses were not unknown.

While my massive print dictionary promises me that you use pique as a reflexive verb in a sentence about someone takes pride in his appearance or some ability, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it used that way. I can find no real agreement from on-line sources, particularly the venerable Merriam-Webster, except at The Free Dictionary which cites The American Heritage® Dictionary from 2000.

None of this really has much of a point, I suppose, except to celebrate the fact that there are often more and deeper meanings to words than we often realize. In the "related words" sections of various sites I came across some of my favorite words for being offended or anger, including miff and dudgeon. I must admit that I don't believe I've ever seen the latter used with out being prefaced by "high" and most places now define it as archaic except in sentences like, "Celeste slammed out of the house in high dudgeon." Clearly, that's a bit more serious than a fit of pique. I love English. It's like a box of LEGO® pieces, adaptable, evolving, and pointy at parts.