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Clarifying Clarify

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the frequent use of the word “clarify”.

All of a sudden there appears to be a whole lot of clarifying going on. The New York Times wrote an editorial yesterday that said of John McCain “On Tuesday, he clarified his remarks” regarding the economy. And the Christian Science Monitor recently wrote an article about a slip of the tongue committed by one of McCain’s advisors, Carly Fiorina, in which she said some inopportune things about who could and couldn’t run her company into the ground as well as she had (“In the next interview she clarified the first remark by stating John McCain couldn’t run a major company either.”).

According to the Scotsman, aides to Sarah Palin “have clarified that a purported visit to Ireland was little more than a refuelling stop at Shannon during her trip to the Middle East.” And a recent article in the Las Vegas Sun tells us that Barack Obama has clarified the comment he’d made to a group in Iowa, “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”

If the meaning of a word were entirely defined by how it was used one might be excused for looking through the news of late and thinking that clarify means “To equivocate esp. for political ends; to attempt to change a statement after realizing that it has not has the desired effect.”

I sometimes fall prey to a sneaking suspicion that the rest of the word has got together and had a huddle, in which they’ve all whispered conspiratorially to one another, and have decided that certain words that used to mean one thing will now mean something else entirely, and I am the only one who does not know about this. And the more often I see clarify meaning “Please forget that silly thing I said before and pay attention to this new shiny thing I am saying now” the more I wonder what other words have changed meaning since Monday.

But maybe there’s something else – maybe there is some meaning of clarify of which I am unaware. Perhaps all the politicians and the writers from these newspapers have all just been waxing poetic, or quoting the Tyndale Bible, and it’s been going right over my head. So I turned to the OED and was delighted when I found that the last bit of definition 3B of clarify utterly confirmed these suspicions – “to defecate or fine. Also fig.”

Finally the tail-end of a definition 3B turns out to be terribly important – when these politicians are clarifying they are in fact defecating (in a figurative sense, of course). I was so relieved that things seemed to make more sense that I almost forgot to check the definition of defecate, just in case it too meant some thing other than what I’d thought.

However, I did check on defecate, and of course the first meaning of this word that I thought I knew is “To clear from dregs or impurities; to purify, clarify, refine.” I have now stopped trying to figure out what this word means – but I have decided that if I ever have the need to write a dictionary I’m going to hire a bunch of political operatives to clarify all my definitions when I’m done.

Recent Comments

  1. Jamie Holts

    You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted, I�ve spent most of my time here just lurking and reading, but today for some reason I just felt compelled to say this.

  2. Jamie Holts

    I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.

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