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.

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