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.


  1. commonbeauty says

    Nice to know I’m not the only one who winces at such instances of misuse.
    “If only I was in your place” instead of “if only I were in your place”: that’s another pet peeve of mine. This misuse of the subjunctive happens precisely because the error of confusing it with the past tense *is* so simple: I should be more generous about it, but I can’t help thinking of the Standards and their inexorable (and, let’s face it, fictional) Fall.

  2. I’ve been frequently offended by editing and proofreading errors in Oxford and Cambridge U. P. books. “Et tu, Brute?” It seems that they would be two of the last places to fall. I blame Thatcher.
    (Did Thatcher own the New Yorker at one point?
    No, that was Tina Brown.

  3. Yes, and the more they (OUP and CUP) lower the standards, the higher they raise the prices. Bastards.
    (I still can’t think of Thatcher without hearing “Stand Down Margaret” in my head.)

  4. ‘If only I was in your place’ is OK in British English, in less formal style. See Quirk, 3.62. I find the insistence on (false) correctness a bit irritating myself!

  5. That guy Stephenson has never met anything or anyone he didn’t deprecate. The chances are, unless he is asleep and dreamless, that he is deprecating even as I post.

  6. But don’t allow languagehat’s deprecation make you miss what is a charming article, really–especially the discussion of how to rebrand slime molds; for example:

    Spiegel told Walker about a friend of his who wanted to make a T-shirt that said “SubLIME MOLDS.”

  7. According to TechEncyclopedia, to deprecate means:

    To make invalid or obsolete by removing or flagging the item. When commands or statements in a language are planned for deletion in future releases of the compiler or rendering engine, they are said to be deprecated. Programmers should begin to remove them from the source code in subsequent revisions of their programs. See flagging and nugatory.

    I think they are saying that a sexagenarian is “planned for deletion” … dear god, I never thought the New Yorker could be so cold.

  8. And as for the New York Times – ! Egregious misuse might as well be their middle name. I long ago concluded they must have simply fired all their copy editors. Every last dang one.

  9. David Manley says

    There’s no egregious misuse at all in Maloney’s piece.
    The context doesn’t suggest in any way that Stephenson SELF-deprecates. The only reason languagehat assumes that is because “deprecating” no longer commonly appears without the prefix “self-” added to it. In fact, languagehat writes that ” “deprecating” by itself means nothing at all”, which is just false. To deprecate is to disparage or belittle, to be deprecating is to be disparaging.(“Deprecate” never now carries the old uses of “pray against”, or “seek to avert” [i.e. to deprecate some evil], but just means “belittle”.)
    Why couldn’t the author be saying that Stephenson just tends to deprecate: things, people, topics of conversation, politicians… I know quite a few people like that; in fact, I’m probably one of them. That’s the obvious, and correct, reading.

  10. Nice try, but “deprecate” is a transitive verb and requires an explicit object.

  11. The whole damn place is depreciating quick. Its everywhere, it used to be only here and there. Used Auto’s, fresh strawberry’s. Plane speaking.
    The New Yorker sold it’s soul, and a bunch of us got singed in the deal.
    Nobody cheers when I mention it but it was Tom Robbins, the novelist, who said once, in defence of the strict grammarian and, tangentially, the shushing librarian, to the effect that we are vastly separate and alone, and language is the one means we have of bridging the distance between us.
    Precision in language thus being a key determinant of the degree of human connectedness.
    The erosion of standards of usage being more than simply an irritant to the finicky, more even than just cause for dismay in hide-bound traditionalists, but an alarming sign of rot and unravelling at the edges of what it is to be human. A truly bad thing.

  12. The New Yorker sold what?
    “Its” so easy to fall foul of proper grammar and spelling, and I’m content to admit that I don’t know why, precisely, lack of precision bothers me so. But there’s no point getting all teleological or tendentious about it.
    And all that talk of “rot and unravelling” makes me want to whip out my anti-utopian night-stick and mete out a beating.
    Metaphorically speaking, of course. 🙂

  13. I’m assuming msg was being deliberately improper in the first couple of paragraphs, as if writing for the New New Yorker. But I could be wrong.

  14. You think it extended to the second paragraph? You’re probably right, and I should be more generous (again).
    Wouldn’t want to be a pendant.
    {Though it would be funny, would it not, had s/he not meant it.)

  15. David Manley says

    I find your reply perplexing, even baffling. (Or do I have to say “me-perplexing” or “people-baffling” because “perplex” and “baffle” are transitive verbs?)
    Of course the verb “deprecate” is transitive; but we’re talking about the adjective “deprecating.” So your hidden premise must be that contexts with adjectival forms of transitive verbs always have to be explicit about the direct object. Well, we’ve just seen some counterexamples to that claim.

  16. We could all be wrong. It’s love that drove me to it though.
    Those little addenda, column fillers, touché riposting ‘News From All Over’s?
    I learned what little I know of brevity and wit from those unsigned zingers.
    John McPhee, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pauline Kael, Ellen Willis, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jim Harrison’s “The Woman Lit By Fireflies”, Thom. McGuane’s stellar short story about two veterans, one cowboy one Indian, that I can’t find again, Orville Schell, Alma Guillermo-Prieta’s El Salvador journalism, James Dickey’s ‘Falling’… there was an extended period of my youth during which The New Yorker was in sole charge of my literary education.
    Robert’s Rules of Order, The Elements of Style, and a close reading of any week’s issue, what else did we need?
    I found a typo once, back in the mid-70’s. It was like winning a couple hundred bucks in the Lotto, I got that excited.

  17. If you want to waste more time, on my front page (click my URL) I have my low-tech (Google) statistical survey of the usage of “condone”. Summary: “not condoning” is 1000x — 10,000X more common than condoning.

  18. Manley, you are wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The word is simply never used that way by English speakers. Self-deprecating is an adjective. Deprecating alone is never an adjective. (The correct stand-alone form is deprecative.)

  19. I suppose you would also defend Rumsfeld’s “explanation” of his usage of slog.
    It is so annoying when an English speaker refuses to get their idioms straight, because there’s no way to convince them that they’re wrong.

  20. David, “perplexing” and “baffling” are adjectives. People use them constantly. “Deprecating” is not, and nobody ever uses it in this way. It is not a word (in this sense). There’s no point defending it by analogy; analogy doesn’t work here. You could say that because “manfully” is a word, “boyfully” must be too. But it isn’t.

  21. David Manley says

    First, I wasn’t “wrong, wrong, wrong” that the transitive verb thing was a red herring. Now the issue is supposed to be whether “deprecating” is ever used in that way. I’m finding some dictionaries have “deprecating” as an adjective intersubstitutable with “deprecatory”, and some don’t. One example pasted below. Anyway, when do you stop crying “egregious misuse” and start getting evidence that people are using it that way? Language nazi.
    adj : tending to diminish or disparage; “belittling comments”; “managed a deprecating smile at the compliment”; “deprecatory remarks about the book”; “a slighting remark” [syn: belittling, deprecative, deprecatory, depreciative, depreciatory, slighting]

  22. David Manley says

    and two comments for Baloney. First, I don’t see what this has to do with idioms; no one’s claiming that this is an idiomatic use. Second, given your normative conservativism, I’m surprised that you’re OK with the third-person singular use of “they”.

  23. My apologies; it seems you’re right. The OED has:
    deprecating (‘dEprIkeItIN), ppl. a. [f. deprecate v. + -ing.] That deprecates or expresses disapproval or disavowal; deprecatory.
    Just because I’ve never seen or heard it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’ll amend my entry accordingly.

  24. “They”: Baloney, he’s got you there.
    Two axioms?
    Never mind what we believe, in practice we adhere to both.

  25. English speakers use “they” as a first person pronoun all the time.

  26. English speakers use “they” as a third person pronoun all the time.

  27. Given that you use the expression “Language nazi” I’m surprised you expect to be taken seriously in an argument
    [Insert middle finger here]

  28. Third person singular, even.

  29. The, er, excessively excitable baloney is correct: there’s nothing wrong with singular “they”.

  30. Let’s consult our little colloquial corpus. – 22 hits, only one that’s not using it as a verb is this languagehat entry – exactly what you’d expect
    THIS is what I mean by it being an idiom. English speakers simply do not use deprecating as an adj in reference to persons (probably because of the confusions that can result), unless they’re making a blunder for ‘self-deprecating’ (as in the New Yorker article) or being recherche beyond their grasp like David Manley or Alan Dershowitz. There are just too many readily available synonyms & too high likelihood of confusion. It’s not bad English because of ‘normative conservatism’ but because 99% of the time its user is not going to convey what is intended.

  31. The dictionary is not the language.

  32. I take that back, even the languagehat hit isn’t using it as an adj.

  33. Joking about “they”: I thought that was clear. Isn’t the whole thing about what’s “correct” and what’s “permissible”?
    Anyway this “deprecating” thing seems technically correct, but why should we give a damn? It’s such an unusual usage that we’re better off assuming that Mr The Princeton Graduate flubbed this one, and the New Yorker didn’t catch it (because their “spell-checker” ok’d it?).
    Only people who have mastered the language thoroughly, like Vladimir Nabokov or Seamus Heaney, are permitted to use these very rare words/usages since, in their case, one can be sure that they’ve arrived there after a noble struggle to find “the right word.”

  34. I did exercise restraint, honest. I refrained from calling anybody ‘illiterate’.


  36. Hey, of you put “Manley” and “baloney” together, you might get “Maloney”, as in “Field Maloney”, Mr The Princeton Graduate.

  37. David Manley says

    commonbeauty: you got my point about “they”.
    baloney: (on name-calling) I guess using “dumbass” doesn’t detract from the seriousness of an argument?
    Also, I guess you use “idiom” differently than I do.

  38. DM: That’s just baloney’s little way; as he implies, he’s said worse. I don’t thrash him ’cause he’s usually right.
    commonbeauty: Interesting! I’m beginning to sense an Ivy League plot…

  39. field maloney says

    Dear Mr. Languagehat,
    I used deprecating, and not self-deprecating, deliberately. Mr. Stephenson is appealingly modest, and thus self-deprecating, but he also has a penchant for wryly, gently deflating pomp and ceremony around him, and I wanted to suggest that as well. If the word is not solidly enough in place in correct usage, then apologies are mine.
    Field MAloney

  40. Well, then, my apologies — I still think if it was that hard to figure out what you meant, it wasn’t the ideal word, but I was wrong to assume you simply meant “self-deprecating.” And I appreciate your dropping by the den of lions to explain yourself!
    [I transferred your comment here from the more recent post where you left it; I hope you don’t mind.]

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