The latest New Yorker includes a “Talk of the Town” piece by one Field Maloney, Princeton ’97, who presumably represents the best and brightest of today’s twentysomethings. The piece, about two University of Arkansas biology professors who won a National Science Foundation grant to catalogue slime-mold species, contains the sentence “Stephenson, who is sixty, is tall and deprecating.” What I’m hoping happened here is that Maloney wrote “self-deprecating” and the prefix dropped out somewhere in the process of getting from manuscript to print; this says terrible things about the new New Yorker‘s editing standards, but lets the author off the hook. My suspicion, however, is that the sentence was written as printed, and that nobody from author on down took the trouble to reflect that “deprecating” by itself means nothing at all. Either way, it’s yet another sign that Standards Have Fallen.
And while I have your attention, trot on over to The Discouraging Word and read about an even more egregious misuse from the NY Times (“Google recently started wheedling down a long list of investment banks…”); it’s under “Google: wheedler extraordinaire?” (posted Saturday, November 1, 2003).
Addendum. Well, this will teach me to go off half-cocked, without bothering to do my usual fastidious lexicographical search. It turns out deprecating is indeed a word, even if it had never previously come to my attention; the OED says “deprecating… That deprecates or expresses disapproval or disavowal; deprecatory.” Mea culpa, and particular apologies to David Manley, whose initial comment I dismissed with a flip remark rather than doing a little research to see if he might be right. (I won’t apologize to the New Yorker, which should have edited it anyway; in context, it certainly doesn’t seem to mean what it ought to, and I think “self-deprecating” is what was intended.)
Update. The Discouraging Word goes into the issue in detail, concluding:
The very brief Talk format, admittedly, does not allow for deep characterization, but hundreds of writers before Maloney have been able to cut to the core of the characters they sketch without getting tangled up in overly witty turns of phrase. Maloney goes for knowing complexity with “amiable drill sergeant” but ends up only with jumbled contradiction. As a result, none of us know quite what deprecating means. But, as languagehat points out, we do know it’s used poorly.