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Perplexed pedantry

Oliver Kamm’s condition of melder (“mental confusion”), I am sad to report, is a chronic and perhaps incurable one. His latest “Pedant” column states:

We reported last week that David Cameron had “appeared discomfited by questions about why he was one of 13 privately educated members of the Shadow Cabinet who failed to mention that in biographies on the party’s website”.

The verb “discomfit” does not mean to make uncomfortable. It means to rout or to overwhelm.

The first recorded sense of discomfit in the OED is indeed “to undo in battle; to defeat or overthrow completely; to beat, to rout”. Of course, as so often happens — except in Oliver Kamm’s own private semantic universe — the word then acquired weaker metaphorical senses. OED gives:

2. a. To defeat or overthrow the plans or purposes of; to thwart, foil. b. To throw into perplexity, confusion, or dejection; to cast down utterly; to disconcert.

1530 PALSGR. 518/1, I discomfyte, I put one out of comforte…je desconfys. […] 1596 SHAKS. Tam Shr. II. i. 164 Wel go with me, and be not so discomfited. ((Here, “be not so discomfited” means something like “cheer up”: Hortensio reports that Kate broke her lute over his head, and Baptista proposes her younger daughter as a replacement pupil.)) […] 1848 DICKENS Dombey i, Dombey was quite discomfited by the question.

Et cetera. As one would expect, OED‘s meaning 2.b. is also attested by Merriam-Webster (“to put into a state of perplexity and embarrassment”); and is given as the primary sense in Collins:

discomfit vb. (tr.) 1. to make uneasy, confused, or embarrassed. 2. to frustrate the plans or purpose of. 3. Archaic. to defeat in battle. ((Collins English Dictionary, 3rd Edn. (1994).))

Both Merriam-Webster and Collins rightly note that the only meaning of discomfit known to Oliver Kamm, that of “defeat”, has long fallen into desuetude; and the OED confirms that he thinks incorrect a use of discomfited identical to one by Charles Dickens 161 years ago. Nothing daunted by the facts, Kamm goes on to cite another example:

A recent book review in The Guardian referred to a “discomfited journalist”, to whom all that had happened was that he had been criticised by a pressure group.

Amusingly enough, that was one of mine: and being criticised by a pressure group was certainly enough to make the journalist in question discomfited in the venerable senses of “disconcerted” and “confused”; Kamm thinks this is a gotcha only because he is labouring under the strange delusion that the only possible meaning of discomfited is the archaic one of “utterly defeated”.

One must regretfully conclude that either Kamm does not have access to any good dictionaries, or he simply does not care to consult them before issuing his forlornly mistaken pronouncements about what words mean and what they do not. In either case, the combination of pomposity and comical ignorance is, as ever, delectable. ((In the same column, meanwhile, Kamm also flogs the canard of fulsome, claiming: “‘Fulsome’ does not mean full or generous: it means cloying.” In fact, sense 1 of fulsome in the OED is: “Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full”; and this sense remains a current one. See Geoffrey K Pullum at Language Log on fulsome and “people who leap to attack uses of particular word-senses without carefully checking the dictionaries and usage books first”.))

If you were the commissioning editor of a column pretending to expertise that fell so routinely into buffoonish error of fact, would you feel discomfited?

  1. 1  hellblazer  December 17, 2009, 9:44 am 

    Hmm, one lives and learns (or some of us try, at least).

    I vaguely recall Kingsley Amis insisting in The King’s English, in between other swipes, that fulsome should have the sense of cloying. Did he also say anything about discomfit? my own copy has long since been lost or lent.

  2. 2  Ricardo  December 17, 2009, 10:08 am 

    The notion that the primary reason things are put in newpapers is because they are true seems to be bordering on the archaic.

    Do people read their newspapers because they want to become well-informed about the world of linguistics? Possibly. Do people like their newspapers to give them a smug sense of superiority? Frequently.

    From the point of view of Kahn’s commissioning editor, pieces like this are, in the main, successful.

  3. 3  Steven  December 17, 2009, 10:36 am 

    hellblazer — here is Amis on fulsome:

    This once useful word meant ‘disgustingly excessive, cloying’ as applied to compliments, apologies, etc.; Roget lists it between gushing and stagy. Undereducated persons, perhaps foggily supposing fulsome to be a posh form of full (from which it does partly descend), have in recent years taken to using it to mean ‘ample’ or possibly ‘cordial’. Not to be used henceforth by careful writers.

    He is wrong on the word’s history (it meant “full” or “abundant” eg “the fulsom lyght of heuenly influence” [1412] before it meant “excessive” or “cloying”), but at least notes the word’s derivation (OED: full + -some), and so is not quite as wrong as Kamm’s simply false claim that the word “does not mean full”.

    Amis has nothing on discomfit, but Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, as Kamm says, does (this seems to be the entry that “inspired” Kamm to his error). Funnily enough, however, my New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. R.W. Burchfield, 3rd edn. (1996), says:

    discomfit. Once (from the 13c. onward) mainly used in the primary sense ‘to undo in battle’ and ‘to defeat or overthrow the plans or purpose of’, discomfit is now mainly used in the weakened sense ‘to disconcert’.

    (Though this weakened sense is itself already at least 480 years old, as the OED shows.)

    One lesson of this farrago might be that a 1957 revision of a 1926 usage book is not necessarily a reliable authority for contemporary pronouncements about word-meanings; of course, in the case of discomfit, it wasn’t even reliable at the time of original publication.

  4. 4  des von bladet  December 17, 2009, 11:47 am 

    pedant n. One who takes exceptional pains to be wrong on matters of detail or fact; a fuckwit.

  5. 5  WIIIAI  December 17, 2009, 2:02 pm 

    I find myself in some sympathy with Amis: fulsome with the meaning he attributes to it, and only that meaning, is a useful word for which there is no satisfying alternative. I do hate losing useful words (see also, enormity).

  6. 6  Steven  December 17, 2009, 2:27 pm 

    I think that the potential loss of useful distinctions is probably the only sensible reason to complain about usage changes, though I suspect that, depending on the context, one of excessive, cloying, sentimental etc would do quite well as a replacement for that sense of fulsome, if you are really worried that using fulsome would lead to misunderstanding. (But as Pullum points out, context can sometimes make it perfectly clear which sense is meant.) Note that K. Amis suggests its complete avoidance.

    Meanwhile, since Oliver Kamm thinks that the only meaning of discomfit is one that is no longer in use, it follows that he thinks we should never use that word either. Which is a shame, because it’s not so unpretty a word?

  7. 7  sw  December 17, 2009, 5:38 pm 

    May I say something? Please? Kamm says it is no excuse to turn to “common usage” – and I think there is something really crucial there. Obviously, it is an excuse, and sometimes a very good one. But I wonder if something else is going on, something hinted at in the term “common usage.” What I find most striking in these discussions by Kamm et al is the theme of education – obviously a theme of some importance and interest to Kingsley Amis. Who is educated and who is not, but even more importantly, who sounds like they are educated and who do not. I begin to wonder, then, if this is not an exercise in studying language but an exercise in flexing some social muscles; this is really a barely disguised way of laughing at the malapropisms of the lower classes, the common people with their common usage. Perhaps there is a congratulatory hint of self-analysis in scorning the work of fellow journalists and politicians, but that’s rather like a Lord of the Manor mucking in for a few hours at harvest time and then, with a well-earned stretch, saying, “I’m as filthy as a hog, lads, let’s get some cider.” Sometimes we can be a bit like them, but we mustn’t forget – we’re not.

    Why does one read Kamm’s column, knowing full well that one will learn very little about language, and may even be terribly misled? Because despite all his protestations about what words apparently actually mean, the column is not about language as meaning per se, but about using language to effect superiority (easily audible in a well-placed “Bravo” here and there, in the contempt for the “common”, and so on). So, I would propose that the title to his column is an example of unspeak – the jocularly self-deprecating claim to pedantry masks an unamusing urge to deprecate others, and what he claims is a close, pedantic attention to language is a broad, far from scrupulous or nit-picky commitment to self-elevation.

    But I could be totally wrong about this, yeah?

  8. 8  sw  December 17, 2009, 5:40 pm 

    *self-edit, “sound like they are educated”, not “sounds”.

  9. 9  Steven  December 17, 2009, 5:57 pm 

    I believe you are not totally wrong but, like, totally right? (But I also really like des von bladet’s definition of the column’s title at #4.)

  10. 10  KB Player  December 18, 2009, 9:08 am 

    I was reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton last night. The heroine, Lily Bart, has been caught somewhere socially compromising and has told a fib to cover up:-

    But, after having let herself be surprised in a falsehood, it was doubly stupid to snub the witness of her discomfiture.

    Lily is disconcerted and confused, not totally defeated (this is from Chapter 2). The House of Mirth was published in 1905. On the whole I’d rather read Edith Wharton than Oliver Kamm.

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