Monday, March 07, 2005

On The New York Times' Odd Word Use

Ann Althouse links to an interesting article in the New York Times today. Offering a brief glimpse into President Bush's movie viewing habits, Elisabeth Bumiller uses a slightly disturbing description of the Anti-Defamation League's national-director's attempt to get the president to view Paper Clips, a movie about remembering the Holocaust. She writes:

Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who had pestered the White House to show "Paper Clips," was there when the film was screened the day before Mr. Bush left for a trip to Europe last month.

The verb, "pestered" struck a wrong note with me. One, it hardly seems appropriate to use such a negatively connoted word within the context of the fairly complimentary soft piece that described the president's movie viewing. Secondly, it seems offensive to describe the Anti-Defamation League's director's actions about attempting to retain Holocaust memory that way. The OED offers a definition that should underscore this point:

Pester: To annoy, trouble, plague.
a. Of noxious things, vermin, wild beasts, etc.: To infest. Now merged in b.
b. To trouble with petty and reiterated vexations, as with questions or requests; to vex, annoy, trouble persistently, plague. (The current sense.)

I wonder if the Times is aware that in describing the Jewish Anti-Defamation Director's attempts to raise and maintain Holocaust awareness--the same Holocaust that cast and treated the Jewish people as vermin--they used a word rooted in the word vermin and one that has retained much of that connotation.


Anonymous Snoop said...

Your analogy to vermin is a little premature. A pest may well refer to slimy bugs and other creatures of extremination. While the ver pester is "probably also influenced by 'pest,'" it isn't fair to conclude that one who pesters is vermin or wild beast. Writers cannot always control the exact connotations of their writing (unless they want to be labeled verbose) What harm is there to assume that Ms. Bumiller was referring to definition "b" when she described Mr. Fosman's annoying and troubling the White House persistently. With Iraq and Social Security, lobbying for a movie screening seems slightly less significant. Also, the American Herigate Dictionary defines pester as: To harass with petty annoyances; bother. Etymology: Probably short for French empestrer, to constrain, embarrass (probably also influenced by pest), from Old French, from Vulgar Latin. Also, many journalists and j-schools in the United States recommend the American Heritage Dictionary. The OED maybe the "accepted authority on the evolution of the English language" but the American Heritage Dictionary might be the more appropriate reference tool.

3/07/2005 12:05 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I think that you might be write in some respect, that words do change and come to connote different meanings. But, even if "pest" has come to be far removed from our notion of pest, the AHD's definition really doesn't seem that appropriate either, since it suggests "pettiness" or "bothersome-ness" which has the same effect of casting the Director of the Anti-Defamation League as some whiny little kid type bothering the big and important president. Why did Bumiller need to include that sort of imagery? (Not that she did it on purpose or anything like that). I think a little self-reflection about this word-choice and its context should lead to a quick-edit on anyone's part.

3/07/2005 5:09 PM  
Anonymous snoop said...

that will remain part of the mystery of the interviewer and interviewee. maybe we (those outside the white house circle) will never know of mr. foxman's true behavior. perhaps he described himself as someone who pesters. or those in the white house described him that way.

3/07/2005 11:38 PM  

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