April 26, 2006

Accidental spelling at Google; Mary Matalin speaks unfortuitously

Searching on Google a few days ago for unfortuitously -- more below on why I was doing this -- I was startled to get (along with ca. 213 webhits) a query from Google asking if I meant unfortuantely.  Yes, unfortuantely.  My interest piqued, I googled on unfortuantely (I can't tell you how hard it is to type this word) and got, wow, ca. 486,000 hits.  AND NO QUERY if I meant unfortunately.  All I can say is that this is an unfortuante situation, especially the lack of querying on unfortuantely. (Unfortunately, by the way, gets hundreds of millions of hits, and, whew, no query.)

Why was I googling on unfortuitously, you ask.  Because Johannes Fabian had pointed out to me that Mary Matalin had used the word in an NBC morning news interview on 4/20/06 and he couldn't figure out what she meant by it.  Here's the exchange, as retrieved by John Baker on ADS-L on 4/21/06:

COURIC: And this shift, Mary, can--can people conclude from this shift that--that the White House is very worried about the upcoming midterm elections and about the Republicans losing control?

Ms. MATALIN: Well, the White House and the Hill is conscious of their reality. This is a very polarized country right now. There are a number of seats that are unfortuitously competitive because of retirements.  There's--the Democrats have--have done a good job in recruiting. They have not done a good job in preparing any sort of policies or an agenda. They don't have any vision. So what this comes down to in the fall, as in all elections, are a choice--and we have to make our--the choice of voting for us very clear and the catastrophic consequences of voting for a Democrat.

(Try not to focus on the glitches in the speech of someone speaking both passionately and off the cuff.  Focus on "unfortuitously competitive".)

MWDEU has a fairly long article on fortuitous and its development from the meaning 'by accident, by chance' to 'by fortunate accident, by lucky chance' (the meaning that Baker reports as his own) all the way to 'fortunate, lucky' (a usage that people have been complaining about from Fowler's time on, possibly because it is so widespread).  Also a shorter article on fortuitously.  Given this background, unfortuitous ought to mean either 'not by accident' (this would be the historically defensible usage), 'not by fortunate accident' (which Baker suggests would refer to something that is both unfortunate and not by chance), or simply 'unfortunate'.  And unfortuitously would be the adverbial version of this.

Unfortuantely, by the time we get to unfortuitously, the historical meaning seems to have vanished from the web; not one of the Google webhits has the word clearly being used to mean 'not by accident'.  In fact, they can all be seen as merely conveying 'unfortunately'.  As for Mary Matalin's use, that's my best guess now, though she might be understood as saying that the Democrats' success at recruiting candidates for the seats vacated by retirements is what makes those contests competitive, so that the competitiveness results not from the accident of retirements but from the intentional acts of the Democrats.  If so, then I'd take her to be conveying the 'both unfortunately and not by chance' meaning. 

But you see how hard it can be to tease the meanings apart.  And Matalin herself is unlikely to be able to reconstruct what she intended to convey in the heat of the interview moment. 

Meanwhile, Fabian (whose native language is not English, a fact that causes him to think more about the details of the language than your average anthropologist would) observed to me that he would have expected the negated version of fortuitously to be nonfortuitously, not unfortuitously.  As it happens, there's only one legitimate example of nonfortuitously on the web (in a legal decision, where it does, however, mean 'not by chance'), so his expectation is not borne out on the web.  There is a possibly subtle point here, though: my first impulse would be to read nonfortuitously as 'not in a manner that is fortuitous' and unfortuitously as 'in a manner that is not fortuitous', though I find the two scopings remarkably hard to distinguish in the real world, and in any case the more I think about it, the more I think that if there is a distinction in semantics here, both words can convey both meanings.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 26, 2006 11:16 AM