Life Sentences, Day 130: The I-Word

February 8th, 2011

Can we please get rid of “inappropriate?”

It’s become meaningless.  That Congressman a few years back who sent “you so hot, wanna back-rub?” text messages to half the male pages on the floor of the House of Representatives and then actually gave a few backrubs — when he stopped stonewalling, he acknowledged that his behavior had been “inappropriate.”

Mark Sanford, the nation’s most amusing former governor, after admitting that he hadn’t really been hiking the Appalachian trail on a solo spiritual pilgrimage when he was actually down in Rio schtupping the Girl from Ipanema, characterized his judgment as “inappropriate.”  And the ever-lovable John Edwards, caught blinking at the flash bulbs over his affair with New Age Aura Enthusiast Rielle Hunter, fessed up to “an inappropriate relationship,” what with him being married and his wife having cancer and Hunter being pregnant and all.

The CEO of Chrysler, in my favorite “inappropriate” usage of the week, hid behind the word when reporters quoted him about the “shyster rates” his company was paying the U.S. Government for bail-out money.  Those rates are at the 11% 12% level, so I personally think “shyster” is pretty accurate, although I’m thrilled to know that this government is doing something to raise money other than slipping a hand into my pocket.

Nowadays, “inappropriate” covers every possible kind of public misbehavior.  A cop in Chicago who fired into a crowd at a party was guilty of “an inappropriate use of his service revolver.”  The former Blackwater guys who drove an armored personnel vehicle across a crowded public square, significantly reducing the number of living people in the crowd, were accused of “an inappropriate deployment of force.”  The fatsos in the corrupt city government of Bell, California have acknowledged that their bleeding the town of millions of dollars just might conceivably have been “an inappropriate use of public funds.”

What did we used to say, anyway?  “They behaved like murderous thugs” would be accurate regarding the former Blackwater assholes.  “Dick-driven” might do the job for Congressman Backrub, Mark Sanford, and John Edwards. “Pigs at the public trough” would be apt for the swine in Bell.  And not only apt, but preferable.

“Inappropriate” is having a degrading impact on the English language.  With the rise of Orwellian misspeak everywhere, the last thing we need is a catchall, meaningless mea culpa for the rich, powerful, and stupid. We need more accurate, more colorful words for these miscreants, not this verbal band-aid.

Because the thing about “inappropriate” is that it’s recoverable.  People in positions of power who manage to downgrade their malfeasance into “inappropriate behavior” have a chance of getting past it.  Whereas, if their misdeeds were describe accurately, they’d be staked in the sand on a fire ant mound and have honey poured over them.

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue in the Poke novels comes in The Fourth Watcher.  Rose and Poke are in bed, trying to shake off the bad feelings caused by a sort of home invasion by an extremely unpleasant representative of the U.S. Secret Service.

“He has very bad energy,” Rose says in Thai.  She takes another drag off her cigarette and hits the filter.  “He likes power too much.  He needs to spend time in a monastery.  And you should have kept a cool heart.”

“He had it coming.  His behavior was, as they say, inappropriate.”  He uses the English word because he can’t think of a Thai equivalent.

“What does that mean?”  Rose lights a new cigarette off the old one.  She hadn’t smoked like this when he met her.

“Inappropriate is government talk.  It means someone has fucked up on a planetary scale.  When an American Congressman is videotaped in bed with a fourteen-year-old male poodle, his behavior is usually described as ‘inappropriate.'”

“Fourteen is old for a dog,” Rose observes.

I love that reply.

And that is indeed Megan Fox up there, wearing the gag her PR people wish she would wear at all times.  Before her inappropriate mouthing off gets her fired from movies that aren’t even being made yet.  But at least Megan Fox can only screw up her own life.  These other jerks have a longer reach.

10 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 130: The I-Word”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    After your persuasive argument I will hesitate to use the word that let’s everyone off the hook so easily. Wonder if it was a lawyer, a publicist, or a politician who started this trend? Geez I vote for more descriptive language and promise I won’t use the word inappropriate, um, inappropriately. Thank you.

  2. Dana King Says:

    I had a well crsafted and detailed comment on whether the proper phrase for the Chrysler comment should be “shyster” or “shylock,” but erased it, as I felt it was inappropriate in the context of this discussion.

  3. micael hallinan Says:

    Hi Tim, long time listener -first time caller. Any word that is consistantly overused becomes meaningless. words like closure,paradigm and this would be a better first letter if I could remember the third word. anyway I agree. ramon

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I am so glad you brought this up. We seem to soften everything up as if to protect the guilty. It reminds me of the psychological use of maladaptive as in the serial killer engaged in maladaptive-as well as inappropriate-behavior. i think that the proliferation of family psych and talk shows has changed our language. Problem are now issues. You know sometimes there really is a problem with some one acting in a nasty, brutish way. And we don’t always get “closure” on painful experiences. As joyous as life is, it can also be hard. It would be better if we acknowledged that.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Suzanna, it has to be a politician. This just reeks of politics. Not to mention that we live in the Age of the Euphemism, when it’s declasse (and politically incorrect) to say anything unpleasant about anything or anyone.

    Dana, I think “Shylock” would have really have set off a firestorm, even though the root of “shyster” is “scheiss,” which is German for “shit.” Nonetheless, if he’d said “Shylock” he would undoubtedly have been forced from his job.

    Micael, where did this spelling come from? Have you gone Portuguese on us? I’m so proud of you for penetrating the Wall of Fire, not to mention Captcha, to comment. I’m giving away my age, but my favorite overused term for a long while was, “at that point in time,” which is what everyone in the Nixon administration used to try to avoid jail.

    Hi, Lil — we do indeed soften everything, to the point of making our language impenetrable or meaningless or, in some instances, both. “Brutish” is a good word, although perhaps unfair to the brutes, meaning beasts, from which the word is derived. You’re right about “issues” being the new “problems.” And I personally think “closure” is a fraud. Maybe all this linguistic prettification is linked somehow to Twain’s observation that humans are the only animals that blush, or need to.

  6. Laren Bright Says:

    I think the overuse of inappropriate is less than propriate.

  7. Robb Royer Says:

    I don’t like the word it.

  8. Everett Kaser Says:

    One of the euphemisms that’s always stuck in my head was related to me by a friend, who heard a doctor in a hospital telling a nurse that “it was a negative patient outcome.” ie, the patient died.

    The mangling of the language is not limited to politicians, although they are masters of the art.

    As for humans being the only animals that blush, or need to…

    We were just watching a new Nature program on PBS Sunday night. It was about lots and lots of different monkey species around the globe, and how many of them are now known to exhibit traits (language, tools, etc) that scientists used to think were reserved to humans. One part was about a group of monkeys who were known to have many ‘words’, calls that meant specific things, such as warning of snakes in the water or on the ground (all the monkeys would instantly flee into the trees), warning of eagles or other predatory birds over head (all the monkeys would instantly stare at the sky, looking for danger), etc. They filmed one monkey who had learned to lie. He found a bird’s egg that had fallen into the water and floated downstream. He was a lower ranking monkey, and normally if he found something that good, a higher ranking monkey would take it from him. So he screamed the call for ‘snake’, and all of the other monkeys fled into the trees. Meanwhile, he stayed at the water and furtively ate the egg.

    We, as humans, are often times less than many of us would like us to be, but I suspect much of it is wired into us.

    Not an excuse, or a reason to stop trying to better ourselves. Just one more way in which we’re less different from the animals around us than we thought.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, Dr. Bright, and if you can also explain the difference between approximate and proximate, I’d appreciate it.

  10. Tom Logan Says:

    Thank you Tim, and others, for continuing my education. I read the blogs and the comments, mull them over, see how they fit with my world view, and make adjustments if needed. I haven’t commented on the blogs until now; you people are smarter than I am. This one, however, required an acknowledgement and a “right on!”

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