July 21, 2013

The verb "opt."

I like it... and used it in the previous post. ("[O]bviously if you have a single-parent household, you'll need some kind of income stream to opt to say at home." I liked the "obv... opt" combo.) But Meade sniffed at this usage. Is it as off as using "impact" as a verb? (Which I don't do.)

The (unlinkable) OED has the earliest usage of "opt" as a verb coming in 1853 — which is relatively recent — and written by Frederick Douglass:
1853   Frederick Douglass Paper (Rochester, N.Y.) (Electronic text) 16 Sept.,   This course will not suit a discriminating public. They must opt for something more than long winded and rapid declamations.
There are 3 other 19th century examples, and both put "opt" in quotes. ("1899... The two boys 'opted'  for the Navy.") By contrast, the word "option" goes back to the 1500s. So I guess it's like "enthuse," which the OED comes right out and calls "an ignorant back-formation" (from "enthusiasm"). But why isn't "opt" called "an ignorant back-formation"? What makes a new usage "ignorant"? Or does it make more sense to say: There's one thing that makes it not ignorant: when the first use appears in the writings of the revered former slave Frederick Douglass.
Speaking of earlier posts and things Meade has said about my writing, he recently chided me for aiming the word "ignorant" at a black person. He maintained that there is great sensitivity about that word. WaPo columnist Eugene Robinson had made an assumption about the George Zimmerman case that I called "either ignorant or shamefully deceptive." At the time, I said I had thought carefully about word choice, and I thought "ignorant" was the right word because it focuses on the lack of information, not intelligence, and anyway, in my 2 alternatives — ignorant/deceptive — the hurtful accusation is deceit, and ignorance was a gracious offer of an out. And why should I coddle Eugene Robinson? He's one of the elite. It would be patronizing.

So, now, googling, I did find this: "Is the word 'ignorant' a racial slur?" I think the answer is no, but I do see some evidence of sensitivity around the word, depending on the way you attach it to a noun, notably when you call someone "an ignorant [blank]," especially when the blank is a nasty word, as in "Jane, you ignorant slut."