October 31, 2002

Adjective wars…

Mitt Romney (a man) used the adjective “unbecoming” to describe something Shannon O’Brien (a woman) said during their recent debate in the Massachusetts race for governor. O’Brien and Sen. Hillary Clinton have charged Romney with sexism, and Romney denies it. So is “unbecoming” an adjective with female connotations?

Here’s what dictionary.com says. Notice the example in the first denotation of the word clearly suggests that “unbecoming” has female connotations. It is difficult to imagine a man telling another man his suit is unbecoming. But also notice that the second denotation has clearly male connotations–one might even argue macho male connotations.

So, should O’Brien tar and feather Romney for this adjective? Maybe. What can she get away with? If politics is a battle of definitions as I claim it is, then sticking Romney with a charge of sexism could be a good move. It forces him into a defensive stance. But, like all such definitional battles, nothing is guaranteed. This situation seems a bit petty and likely to backfire. If I were advising O’Brien, I think I would avoid this particular battle.

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