October 15, 2005

Pot and Kettle

Geoff Pullum's comments on Michael Tortorello's complaint that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers' bland writings are grammatically and stylistically poor omit one point that I found salient: Tortorello's complaint is itself stylistically weird. His statement that:

Miers hasn't just micturated on the grave of Strunk and White; she has desecrated the whole cemetery.
uses the verb to micturate. I bet quite a few people either had to look that one up or inferred its meaning from the context but were previously unfamiliar with it. The word is rarely used. Here are the results I obtained from Google for micturated and various synonyms:

went/made wee wee971

Since pissed also occurs in the non-synonymous expression to piss off, the count reported above is the number of Ghits on pissed less the number of Ghits on pissed off.

Here are the counts I got for V on his/her/the grave:

went/made wee wee0

There were 3 gross hits (GrGhits?) on micturated, but one of them was to Tortorello's article, and two were to different posts of this article where it is in square brackets, intended as a substitute for the putatively offensive term actually used by the person quoted. Since nobody really used this collocation, I have not counted it.

As it happens, the word to micturate is part of my vocabulary, but that is the result of having had a fair amount of exposure to medical terminology. Even so, it is hard to imagine a context in which I would find it the natural word to use. Even in a formal medical context to urinate would be entirely appropriate and much more natural. I strongly suspect that there are few if any native English speakers for whom this is normal usage outside of a formal, medical context, and even there I suspect that it is rare. To me, using it in a less formal non-medical context is very odd; to use it in the expression to piss on X's grave is bizarre.

I'm not sure whether Mr. Tortorello was being extremely prissy or whether he decided to spice up his writing by going to a thesaurus, but either way I consider this poor usage. This seems to me to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

[Addendum: reader Steve Jones suggests:

We might piss, and lawyers and even High Court Judges have been known to urinate from time to time, but a potential Supreme Court Justice can't possibly do anytning less hi'-fallutin' than 'micturate'.
He's got a point, though given Tortorello's attitude toward Miers I am doubtful that this was his reason for using to micturate.]

Posted by Bill Poser at October 15, 2005 12:20 PM