We here at Casa Languagehat believe in fairness to the point of gritted teeth, yea, unto the uttering of small yips of pain. Having twice this month (1, 2) spifflicated William Safire, the oft-erring language columnist of the New York Times, I now find myself in the acutely uncomfortable position of defending him against his own copyeditors, who, according to Sunday’s column, not only exist but challenge him on mistaken grounds:

These thoughts are triggered by the copy desk’s (two words) objection to the spelling of a word in last week’s column, which dealt with irregardless as a jocular redundancy and therefore, in my judgment, “arrant nonsense.” Last year, I chose that very phrase as an example of “wedded words,” like unmitigated gall, congenital liar and blithering idiot.[…]

As a language columnist, I have a license to use almost any taboo word or misspelling as an object of study, but not as part of my own prose. The objection was not to its being a word-wedding, cliché or fixed phrase, but because the desk held that arrant should be spelled errant. You could look it up, it (the desk) said, in the Dodger and Yankee manager Casey Stengel’s classic phrase.

I looked it up, in Webster’s New World, and in Merriam-Webster’s, and in American Heritage, and cannot fault the desk: there it was in all three of the best sellers: “arrant, adjective, variant of errant.” That was the lexicographers’ way of saying that although some spelling deviants insisted on arrant with a beginning a, most sensible people agreed with the establishment and spelled errant with an e. The Times’s copy desk was going by the book.

Safire is unquestionably right; as he says, “We are not dealing here with one word with one meaning spelled two different ways, one preferred and one variant; in my view, we are dealing with a word whose meaning has split, and the resulting ‘variation’ in spelling signifies the difference in the two meanings.” If indeed the copyeditors wanted him to make the change (and I can’t suppress a small voice that suggests he might be making the whole exchange up as an excuse to discuss the two words), they were not only wrong but a disgrace to their (and my) profession.

But I’m not letting Bloviating Bill off the hook quite so easily. What’s this about “all three of the best sellers”? I can’t speak for Webster’s New World, which I don’t own, but M-W says arrant means “being notoriously without moderation : EXTREME (we are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us —Shakespeare)” and AHD says “Completely such; thoroughgoing: an arrant fool; the arrant luxury of the ocean liner.” So what’s Safire talking about? Presumably the etymologies, for which M-W has “alteration of errant” and AHD “Variant of errant.” Now, the man may be cheerfully amateurish in matters linguistic, but he knows the difference between a definition and an etymology; why he’s obscuring it in this instance is obscure to me, but it gives me a chance to get a bit of revenge for my gritted teeth. His final remark, “Let the dictionaries catch up with the living language,” is not just disingenuous, it’s downright mendacious. Bad Language Maven, bad!

Hmm, let me check the New Oxford American Dictionary… aha:

arrant adj. [attrib.] dated complete, utter: What arrant nonsense! [Middle English: variant of ERRANT, originally in phrases such as arrant thief (‘outlawed, roving thief’).]

Not only is there a nice detailed etymology showing the transition in meaning, they actually give “arrant nonsense” as an example. Come on, Times, spring for a copy for the copy desk and save them from themselves!


  1. Spifflicate him again, Hat; he’s still moving.
    Sad to say, you have a point.

  2. John Emerson says

    It would seem necessary to specify that the word is always pejorative. You would not speak of the arrant perfection of a Mozart piano concerto, for example.

  3. Berberian at the Gate says

    I’m not a linguist (and I don’t even play one on the internet), but I’m sure there’s a term for a word that enters the spoken language twice: first as it was actually pronounced, and then as it is spelled.
    I’m wondering if “arrant” and “errant” aren’t (eren’t?) an example of this. To “err” originally had a meaning (from the French, and thus presumably from the Latin) of “to wander” or “to travel”. So, a knight errant was simply a traveling knight.
    At some point the meaning came to include the idea of wandering or straying from the correct path, and then to include the idea of moral lapse — the sense we find in the phrase “arrant knave”.
    Here’s the kicker: I wonder if these aren’t exactly the same word? In some words the Brits pronounce written “er” as “ar” (or is it that they spell spoken “ar” as “er”?): “clark/clerk”, “Barclay/Berkeley”. The “Barbary Coast” is where the “Berbers” live.
    Is it possible that the word originally spelled “errant” (taken over from the French) was commonly pronounced “arrant” (cf Henri/Harry), then re-entered the written language spelled as it was pronounced (“arrant knave”, “knight arrant”)? Then re-entered the spoken language pronounced as it was spelled (“knight errant”)?
    Help me out, linguistic historians!

  4. Berberian, the change you describe is called a pronunciation spelling, and that does seem to be roughly what occurred: an alternation in pronunciation was matched by an alternation in orthography. The OED etymology for arrant says “For the vowel-change cf. arrand= errand, Harry=Herry, Henry, FAR=earlier fer, etc.”
    Oh, and Tensor, if your read Safire’s column you’ll see he does make mention of relative Googlecounts. (Not that I trust those very much, but in this case they seem to be reliable indicators of collocational frequency.

  5. Oh, for the love of Mike. I keep promising myself I’m not going to assume things, and then I go and make an ass out of…well, me, at least. Hey, Hat, any chance you could delete my comment so I don’t look like a fool for all neternity?

  6. Sure thing!

  7. I ran Safire’s article through MS-Word’s spelling and grammar checker for amusement with some interesting results:
    Safire / Microsoft
    supermaven / super maven
    The Times’s / The Time’s
    errant’s / errand’s
    errants / errands
    its meaning / it’s meaning
    Word apparently doesn’t like errant as a noun. It didn’t flag arrant at all for anything. Both Safire and Word confuse me on the posssessive of “The Times”. I would have thought it was The Times’ without the second s. And finally, Word is just plain wrong on its vs. it’s.

  8. And from the Encarta (UK version) dictionary:
    “arrant adj. used to emphasize that somebody or something is an extreme example of something disapproved of [Mid-16th century. Alteration of ERRANT ‘wandering’; from its frequent application to roving vagabonds].” I’m dubious of the last part but the meaning is clear.

  9. John Emerson says

    Word’s spell check is as bad as WIndows software.

  10. I like “arrant” because I think it recalls, if only visually and aurally, the word “arrogant” — which, in my experience, the spouters of arrant nonsense often are.

  11. Hey this just occurred to me: Don Quixote could be described as a “knight arrant”!

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