[Paleopsych] Safire: On Language: Personal or Private?
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Sun Jan 2 20:36:00 UTC 2005
On Language: Personal or Private?
On Language by William Safire, New York Times Magazine, 5.1.2
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
In his year-end news conference, President Bush was asked
if his relationship with President Vladimir Putin of
Russia, who has been undermining democracy, had chilled.
Bush replied, ''You know, it's complicated.'' Then he
corrected himself: ''It's complex rather than
complicated.'' After that surprising display of
hairsplitting synonymy, he went on to explain what he meant
by complexity: working with the Russians in sharing
intelligence on terrorism while implicitly criticizing
Putin for his recent centralization of power.
Bush liked his choice of the word complex so much that he
thrice returned to it moments later when asked about
criticism of the Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld: ''The
secretary of defense is a complex job. It's complex in
times of peace, and it's complex even more so in times of
Simply put, the president rejects complications and is
hooked on complexity. Let's examine the difference between
those words. Complicated is a participial adjective rooted
in the Latin for ''folded together.'' It has always had a
slightly sinister connotation: ''There they lie,'' wrote
the philosopher Henry Power in 1664, ''all dead, twisted
and complicated all together, like a knot of Eels.'' Three
years later, the poet John Milton, in ''Paradise Lost,''
wrote of a hellish scene, ''Thick swarming now/With
Over the centuries, the word's meaning was rehabilitated
somewhat but still retains a primary sense of ''hard to
unravel or explain; so intimately intertwined as to be
confusing.'' Often it is used as an excuse for an inability
to clearly define: to say, ''That's complicated,'' is to
duck a question or to cover up ignorance of detail.
Although complex, rooted in the Latin for ''encompass or
embrace different elements,'' is also the opposite of
''simple,'' it does not seem to brush aside the questioner
as one too easily confused. Complex means ''with
interconnected parts; compounded of different elements; an
intricate combination of ideas.''
In grammar, a complex sentence contains one or more
subordinate clauses, like the one beginning ''Although,''
which puts the reader to sleep at the beginning of the
paragraph that precedes this one. It is the opposite of the
simple declarative sentence, like ''complex is usually a
compliment.'' (In simplicity there is strength; in complex
ity there are nuances running the risk of voter distrust;
in complication there is danger of a need for drastic
surgery to disentangle those linguistic eels.)
PRIVATE VS. PERSONAL
In his defense of the secretary of
defense, Bush said, ''He has been around in Washington a
long period of time.'' This is an example of lazy
verbosity; Alistair Cooke used to deride Yanks who said,
''Welcome to the New York area'' or substituted on a daily
basis for ''every day'' or Brits who said ''in two weeks'
The president was sharp, however, when it came to getting
personal: a reporter asked about his plan for ''private
accounts'' among proposed changes to the Social Security
system, and Bush began his response with ''As to personal
accounts. . . . ''
This past summer, at the Republican convention in New York,
the former House majority leader Richard Armey took me
aside at a fat-cat function and whispered, ''Personal is
the word, not private.'' Sure enough, in all Republican
presentations of elements of the future ''ownership
society,'' the warm, almost cuddly word personal -- as in
''up close and personal,'' a phrase used in The Times in
1915 to describe the closeness of the Rev. Selden Delaney
with his parishioners, later popularized as the title of a
1996 movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford --
is the term used to escape from private, a word that is the
antithesis of public and is seen to offend most blue-state
citizens. (That's a complicated sentence that wishes it
were merely complex.)
The private/personal synonyms have much in common with the
complicated/complex pair. In both cases, the pair shares an
antonym -- ''public'' for the former, ''simple'' for the
latter -- and within each pair is a subtle separation by
Private is from the Latin privatus, ''apart from the
state,'' its meaning extended to ''belonging to the
individual or interest and not owned by any government.''
As a noun, privacy has a good connotation (keep out of my
computer, you prying cookie). As an adjective, however,
private is often associated in political discourse with
''the truly greedy,'' as in ''private developers.''
Consequently, liberals deride the idea of setting aside a
portion of the payroll tax destined for Social Security as
the dreaded privatization, while conservatives like to call
that percentage set aside a ''personal retirement
Personal probably comes from the Etruscan phersu, ''mask,''
from which we get persona, an assumed character or
''image.'' With the rise of interest in the person,
individual or self, personal took on an intimate character:
we enjoy e-mail's personal correspondence on our personal
digital assistants and grunt happily if wearily at the
behest of our personal trainers. In a word, personal is in;
impersonal can be an insult, and private -- especially in
its verb form as privatize -- has more enemies in the media
''You have ruled out tax cuts,'' a reporter said to the
president, ''and no cuts in benefits for the retired and
the near retired.'' Then came the semantic zinger: ''What,
in your mind, is 'near retired'?''
Bush half-answered that with a reference to ''our
seniors,'' but let me deal with the dropping of the
adverbial -ly and the overuse of near as a combining form.
It became controversial with near miss, a nonsensical
version of near thing; some of us patiently but uselessly
pointed out that the writer meant ''near hit.'' Near miss
has since entrenched itself as an idiom. (Idioms is idioms,
and I could care less.) The abovementioned Vlad the Impaler
refers to Russian speakers in the nations that broke away
from the Soviet Union as the near abroad. And now we have
Bush's near retired, presumably but not decidedly people
approaching their 60's. Two paragraphs back, today's column
was near finished. The compound nouns are chasing the
adverbs out of the language.
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