The Corner

‘Congenital Liar,’ Indeed

In response to Re: Sachs

Jay: Homer may have nodded, but Bill Safire never did. He responded to critics of the choice of “congenital” in his famous “On Language” column in February 1996:

When the ghost of the vituperative columnist Westbrook Pegler seized control of an ordinarily temperate New York Times columnist last month, readers were exposed to an opinion with the bark off. Pointing to examples of mendacity through 15 years of commodities trading, Travelgate and Whitewater, he concluded that the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a congenital liar.

The reaction that is of interest to language students centered on the meaning of congenital. An op-ed colleague called to ask: “Did you mean inherited? Shouldn’t you have used habitual?” . . .

What was the political vituperator’s semantic intent? Although he did not return repeated calls, it can be surmised that he rejected habitual, inveterate and chronic as too mild, baldfaced as too trite and pathological as too severe; congenital, with its sense of “innate” and connotation of “continual,” must have seemed just right. We know that he asked his copy editor beforehand to read him the definition in Webster’s New World Dictionary, and she reported that it came down on innate as the synonym.

Safire notes, in passing, that “congenital” is regularly confused with the unrelated “congenial.” Of course, that confusion has never obtained in the case of Hillary Clinton.

Most Popular

White House

For Democrats, the Party’s Over

If the Democrats are really tempted by impeachment, bring it on. Since the day after the 2016 election they have been threatening this, placing their chips on the Russian-collusion fantasy and then on the phantasmagoric charade of obstruction of justice. The attorney general accurately gave the ingredients of the ... Read More
Elections

The 24 Democrats

Every presidential primary ends with one winner and a lot of losers. Some might argue that one or two once-little-known candidates who overperform low expectations get to enjoy a form of moral victory. (Ben Carson and Rick Perry might be happy how the 2016 cycle ended, with both taking roles in Trump’s cabinet. ... Read More
PC Culture

TV Before PC

Affixing one’s glance to the rear-view mirror is usually as ill-advised as staring at one’s own reflection. Still, what a delight it was on Wednesday to see a fresh rendition of “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family, a show I haven’t watched for nearly 40 years. This time it was Woody Harrelson ... Read More