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The Inappropriate ‘Inappropriate’

by Kevin D. Williamson

An adjective abused

Some conservatives believe that it was reverence for the Constitution that constrained the growth of government in the early days of the republic, while the economist Arnold Kling has argued that the frontier — an escape hatch for the energetic and imaginative — kept the state from getting out of hand. My own theory is that political ambition was leashed because Americans in the late 18th century lacked the word “inappropriate,” the earliest usage of which is attested, as the etymologists say, in 1804. How politics was practiced at all without the word “inappropriate” is difficult to imagine from the vantage point of anno Domini 2013. It is the irreplaceable word, five mustelid syllables without which the conduct of modern government would be all but impossible.

Bill Clinton was of course the master of the inappropriate. During the lead-up to his confessing to crossing the line with a strapping young fellatrix from the intern pool, President Clinton threw the word “inappropriate” around a good deal. Asked by National Public Radio whether he had talked to Monica Lewinsky about her testimony, Clinton did not deny that he had — instead, he said only that it would be “inappropriate” for him to revisit his earlier statements about the case.

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