Columns » Words

Words, Jan. 17



From the Word Detective: “The massive herds of bison were gradually replaced by massive herds of political pundits. Like bison, pundits are slow-witted, unimaginative creatures with a passion for conformity. Their primary activity consists of repeating the words of their herd-mates with minor variations and occasionally stampeding as a group, eyes firmly shut, over the nearest cliff. Between bouts of cliff-jumping, the pundits pass the time by glomming on to popular buzzwords and catch-phrases and slowly gumming them to death. Having driven readers to distraction by invoking ‘at the end of the day,' ‘stay the course' and ‘in harm's way' ad nauseam for the past few years, the herd has now moved on to ‘outlier.' ”

The Detective says that pundits use outlier in two ways. “One is an extension of the original ‘outsider' meaning, in which ‘outlier' is applied to a candidate whose views and pronouncements fall outside the mainstream of party orthodoxy.” The other sense comes from the field of statistics, “where an ‘outlier' is a data point or result that falls substantially outside the boundaries of the distribution expected or predicted by other results, and is usually disregarded.”

“The idea of a third-party candidacy movement advances, pushed by, who else, David Broder. If he's for it, you have to believe he assumes it would damage Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.” — A blogger

A reader responds, “I'd say putative nominee. Presumptive's association with presumptuous is too strong.”

I'll go with the blogger. Presumptive concerns what will happen in the future. An heir presumptive is one who's expected to become heir, but whose expectations could be crushed by the birth of a closer relative. A presumptive nominee is one who's expected to win the nomination but doesn't have it in the bag yet. Putative concerns what's happening right now. The putative leader of a gang is someone believed to be the top dog of a mob presently in operation. The presumptive leader of the gang is the one who's expected to take over after he knocks off the other guy. Presumptive and presumptuous come from the same Latin root, it's true, but they're two different words.

Add a comment