26 Feb 2013

The appropriate use of inappropriate

“There are certain phrases potent to make my blood boil!” wrote Charlotte Bronte. The word that drove her crazy was “improper”. For me it’s the latter day equivalent – inappropriate.

It’s a word we hear all the time now, an all-encompassing term to be applied to everything from the fraudulent sale of insurance policies to¬†allegations of unwanted sexual advances.

Last weekend Cardinal Keith O’Brien was accused of having “inappropriate” relations with young priests.

Today Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has said it is “inappropriate” to say anything about Cardinal O’Brien while an internal inquiry continues. I presume that at some point someone will say that holding an inquiry is inappropriate.

Yesterday I put out a question on Twitter: which word did we use before “inappropriate” became fashionable? My favourite was from R.O Bennett (@talprofs) who replied; “‘Inappropriate” drawn from therapeutic lexicon and adopted by PC brigade. Much prefer “unconscionable” – legal and moral.”

I like “unconscionable” too – it conveys a passion which shows up “inappropriate” as anaemic.

“Inappropriate” neither condemns nor condones, leaving writer and reader suspended, unclear whether the alleged crime or sin is serious or not. It manages to be a euphemism, while simultaneously conveying the smug sense that everyone should abide by the unwritten rules of polite society.

Roget’s Thesaurus comes up with an interesting list of synonyms: “bad form, disproportionate, foot-in-mouth, garbage, ill-fitted, ill suited, ill-timed, improper, inapplicable, inapropos, incongruous, inconsonant, incorrect, indecorous, inept, irrelevant, left-field, malapropos, off, out of line, out of place, tasteless, unbecoming, unbefitting, undue, unfit, unfitting, unmeet, unseasonable, unseemly, unsuitable, untimely, way off, wrong, wrong-number.”

“Predatory” and “offensive” are two more terms I can think of.

I went back to Charlotte Bronte to look for another quotation to end this blog and found: “If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”

It’s a beautiful piece of writing, succinctly and wittily describing a worrying male attitude to women which I don’t think has moved on too much since Charlotte Bronte was writing.

I suspect, however, that it is not entirely relevant to the subject in hand. It’s the wrong quotation on which to end this meditation.¬† Or maybe it’s just inappropriate.

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