In an op-ed piece in the New York
yesterday, Adam Freedman (Legal Lingo columnist for the New York Law Journal Magazine
takes on an exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over
whether Obama should be "rejecting" or (instead) "denouncing" Louis
Farrakhan. Freedman observes that the two verbs are not
interchangeable and shows how they work differently in the Farrakhan
context. I have nothing much to add to this discussion, but my
attention was caught by Freedman's making two digressions into
"Denounce," which comes from the Latin
nuntiare ("to make known") and is thus related to such words as
"announce" and "pronounce," means "to declare a person or thing to be
wicked or evil." In many contexts, denounce is a much stronger
verb than reject.
... in this context, "reject" implies an even more thorough rebuke,
which is perhaps why Mr. Obama initially resisted the word.
Reject derives from the Latin reicere, "to throw back." To reject
something means to refuse to receive, accept or even recognize
it. You hurl it back, literally or metaphorically.
I have nothing against etymologies; I find many of them
fascinating. I sometimes digress in class to comment on an
interesting bit of word history, like the pen-
being originally the
same element (meaning 'almost') as the pen-
: almost last, almost an
island. But I don't think such excursions actually contribute
content to the class, beyond possibly making it easier for students to
remember the technical terms; what's important in this case is that
being next to last -- syllable in a word, word in a phrase or sentence
-- is sometimes important in the analysis of linguistic structure, and
that it's useful (though not strictly necessary) to have a short
technical term with this meaning. (In most cases, it's actually
necessary to have a technical term, because there's no
Back to Freedman. He characterizes the meaning of denounce
as 'declare a person or
thing to be wicked or evil' and the meaning of reject
as 'refuse to receive,
accept, or recognize'. These definitions, which are very close to
the ones in good dictionaries of modern English, are entirely adequate
for Freedman's purposes in analyzing the Clinton-Obama exchange.
The etymologies contribute nothing; if you're a serious adherent to
Omit Needless Words, or if you're just writing to space limitations,
the etymologies should be excised. So why are they there?
They're mostly ornamental, I think, though Freedman might believe that
they contribute some support to his claims about the meanings of the
verbs. But those claims stand on their own as accounts of how
these words are used. Anything else is just our old acquaintance
the Etymological Fallacy.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 3, 2008 02:13 PM