February 12, 2006


David Brooks' 2/12/2006 column "Bring Back the Gang of 14" includes this:

On the right you have Dick Cheney worrying about the return of Frank Church and on the left you have Howard Dean vaporizing about the return of Dick Nixon.

Some may object to vaporizing on the grounds of word usage, but I think that it's just mildly subversive of Brooks' proposal for bipartisan cooperation.

The OED has an appropriate sense for the verb vapor (well, "vapour" in their stick-in-mud orthography :-):

5. intr. To use language as light or unsubstantial as vapour; to talk fantastically, grandiloquently, or boastingly; to brag or bluster.

The AHD has a similar gloss for vapor the verb:

3. To engage in idle, boastful talk.

For the verb vaporize, the AHD gives us only the literal sense

To convert or be converted into vapor.

and the OED gives us only a few figurative evocations of things thus converting or being converted (making allowances again for British spelling):

1831 CARLYLE Sart. Res. II. vi, In figurative language, we might say he becomes..spiritualised, vaporised.
1866 FELTON Anc. & Mod. Gr. I. x. 175 They have not only vaporized her husband into a myth, but have consolidated a myth into a lover.
1888 DOWLING Miracle Gold III. xxvii. 15 The family estates and honours had been vapourized before that last of the Poniatowskis fell under Napoleon.

Brooks surely doesn't mean that Dean has been vaporizing in anything like this sense, while the idea of idle and fantastic talk fits his phrase perfectly.

But in his defense, let's note that Brooks isn't alone in using vaporizing to mean vaporing. Over at NRO, David Klinghoffer wrote (emphasis added):

A fellow with a beard like Bluebeard the Pirate hawks a deluxe bong that operates on the vaporizer principle. Vaporizing about the virtues of hemp, he explains that "hemp seed lubricates your brain. It actually helps you think more clearly."

On the left, and without the excuse of a reference to the vaporizer principle, Barbara Eherenreich at LiP magazine wrote (emphasis added again):

Whatever the psychology of this new type of war—and there has been much vaporizing about a recrudescence of "evil" in the world—one particular innovation has made it possible, and that is the emergence of an international market in small arms.

So you could see Brooks' usage as a malapropism (vaporizing substituted for vaporing), perhaps caused by an errant copyeditor or spellchecker. On the other hand, perhaps Brooks is joining an appropriately bipartisan effort to extend the English language in new directions. It's your call: I'm going with #2, myself. Why, as Horace asked, should we grant to Plautus a privilege denied to Virgil? (Not that Carlyle is much like Plautus, or Brooks like Virgil.)

But either way, isn't Brooks' phrasing inappropriately partisan? Cheney is "worrying" while Dean is "vaporizing"? To stay with the bipartisan mood, as well as the matter-phase metaphor, shouldn't Cheney be going to pieces about the return of Frank Church? or for added morphological parallelsim, how about fragmentizing?

[Update: Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin writes that

I bet Brooks didn't mean "vaporizing" to be understood as 'engaging in boastful talk'; I bet he meant it as a nonce formation for 'having the vapors' - i.e., 'experiencing depression or hysteria'. This is more parallel with Cheney's "worrying", and I think it's more recognizable and common than the meaning of "vapor" which has to do with boastful talk.

If that's right, it improves Brooks' score for word choice while bringing him down a notch for covert gender-baiting in bipartisan disguise.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 12, 2006 08:30 AM