Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

That's Unconscionable, the Mayor Maintains

Our two-part interview with William Safire about the new edition of his Political Dictionary focused on the lasting contributions of political talk to the English lexicon. But sometimes the language of politics is more idiosyncratic. High-profile politicians who are speaking publicly on a daily basis inevitably develop their own verbal mannerisms, their peculiar linguistic likes and dislikes. Take New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance. We've recently learned that he's a big fan of the word unconscionable, but he's got a problem with the word maintain.

Last week the New York Times reported on Mayor Bloomberg's penchant for calling things he disagrees with unconscionable ("The Mayor Has a Word for Almost All Occasions"). It's certainly a strong word, and in the Times article I'm quoted as saying that the mayor runs the risk of diluting the impact of the term by using it all the time. My colleague Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary adds that this kind of dilution often happens in the history of words: outrageous rarely connotes real outrage these days, and things that are called awesome don't often inspire awe.

But we shouldn't blame Bloomberg for singlehandedly taking the oomph out of unconscionable. The word has long had a range of meaning from the merely negative to the more extreme. The wordmap for unconscionable shows two main senses. The first sense is the stronger one: "lacking a conscience," closely related to conscienceless and unconscientious. In that sense it can be a pretty harsh characterization of someone's lack of moral compass. The second sense, however, tends to refer to actions and not people: "greatly exceeding bounds of reason or moderation." Outrageous is a close synonym (along with words usually referring to high prices, like exorbitant and extortionate), and adjectives like immoderate, excessive, and unreasonable are not far away in the wordmap.

That weaker sense is what Mayor Bloomberg seems to be using when, for instance, he refers to the New York Assembly's decision to torpedo his congestion pricing plan as unconscionable. But one of his Assembly opponents is quoted in the Times article as interpreting the word more pejoratively, as if Bloomberg were accusing his rivals of being amoral: "Sometimes I think the mayor conflates his conscience with the larger, greater conscience. But my colleagues and I, we're quite clear that whatever our other sins might be, we're conscionable."

Earlier this week the Times followed up with an article about a word that the mayor clearly dislikes: maintain. Bloomberg's aversion came up in a heated exchange with a Newsday reporter at a press conference where there was discussion of the recent acquittal of police officers in the Sean Bell incident and the subsequent protests. The reporter began his question, "Mayor, you maintain that you kept a dialogue open with the Sean Bell demonstration..." before he was cut off by Bloomberg. "Maintain is a word I don't think is appropriate, sir," the mayor said, curtly adding, "Next time you have a question, you want to insinuate that I lie, just talk to the press secretary." (You can see a video of the exchange here.)

Bloomberg's reaction is a bit puzzling since, as the wordmap for maintain shows, it's not closely connected with the constellation of words having to do with lying. The reporter used the word in the sense of "state categorically," related to assert and insist. What a person maintains (or asserts) doesn't have to be untrue. But here the context of the press conference probably played more of a role than the semantic nuances of maintain. The reporter was beginning to question an assertion of Bloomberg's involving the fallout from the highly charged Sean Bell trial, and the use of the word maintain must have sounded to Bloomberg's ears like an accusation of deceit in dealing with demonstrators. Perhaps he heard the reporter's question as a kind of hostile cross-examination, since the opening line "You maintain that..." brings to mind courtroom dramas.

In any case, if Mayor Bloomberg had a Visual Thesaurus profile, I think we know what his favorite and least favorite words would be!

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Excerpts from William Safire's Political Dictionary.
Affluent or Effluent?
A website to help untangle easily confused words.
Michael Erard explores slips of the tongue.