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The Word

Over 'involved'

A euphemism that raises more questions than it answers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
March 16, 2008

THE MONDAY NEWS flash, as relayed by a radio announcer, was startling: Eliot Spitzer, Democratic governor of New York and former crusading attorney general, had admitted he was "involved with a prostitution ring."

It was also a bit mystifying. "Involved" how? Was he laundering money, getting charges dropped, providing hot babes to political backers?

Several bloggers had the same puzzled reaction to the news. "Normally this is where I make a Libertarian joke," wrote James Wigderson at Wigderson Library & Pub. "But what does 'involved with' or 'connected to' mean? He's a pimp?"

Jim Purcell, blogging optimistically at The Inside Clamdigger, wrote "Hopefully, that means he was prosecuting them, or sanctioning them, or trying to get rid of them."

And at 23/6, blogger Jacob Dickerman reported his initial reaction to the "involved with" language: "What if he was a gigolo? Oh wow, Governor Gigolo! How awesome would that be?"

So it was a bit anticlimactic to find that the "involvement with" or "link to" a "ring" was not (so far as we know) high-level official corruption but just very, very expensive sex. Spitzer was merely a customer, said Dickerman. "When I want a [crummy] burrito for a low price, I'm not 'involved' with Taco Bell, I'm just eating there."

Where did the "involved" language come from? The New York Times, which broke the story on its website, didn't use direct quotes: "Gov. Eliot Spitzer has informed his most senior administration officials that he had been involved in a prostitution ring, an administration official said this morning," it reported.

Had it said "involved with a prostitute," that might have sounded like an attempt at euphemism; in one of its more recent senses, the verb means "sexually intimate with." But involve is a versatile word, used for all sorts of coiling, entangling, and enveloping. Once you connect it with "prostitution ring" instead of "prostitute," involved means something closer to "implicated in": it suggests an institutional relationship, not a merely carnal one.

The phrasing, however, may simply reflect the underlying journalistic problem: how to fit a two-headed story under one headline. There's a prostitution racket, there's a famous client, and there's no quick way to explain the connection; "linked" or "involved" is an editor's shorthand for the tale told in the fine print.

Justified or not, though, it's journalese, not standard English. As Dickerman noted, we don't normally say a customer is "involved in" the business he patronizes. The city father arrested for drunk driving may find himself "involved in" a scandal, but he's not "involved with" the liquor industry.

The mainstream media seem to have realized, gradually, that the original bulletin was a bit misleading. By midweek, they were saying Spitzer was "linked to a prostitution ring as a client," or was resigning because of his "involvement with prostitutes." The revisions didn't make his situation any better, of course. But they did make it clearer.

. . .

A NATION DIVIDED: It doesn't seem likely that Democrats will stop accusing each other of divisiveness anytime soon. So they would be doing America a favor if they could at least agree on a single pronunciation - preferably the traditional one, di-VYE-siv.

That may itself be a divisive recommendation, since Barack Obama says it the new way: di-VISS-iv, rhyming with missive, as if it had a double s. (Or at least he did last week; he may be one of the many who waffle on divisive.)

Pronunciation maven Charles Harrington Elster has been following the upstart di-VISS-iv for years, and in the most recent edition of his "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations," he traces it to the inaugural address of the first President Bush. "Was this just a venial bit of Ivy League snobbery, or . . . a beastly mispronunciation?" he asks.

Di-VISS-iv, he notes, was not mentioned in dictionaries before 1961, and only gradually established a toehold in the decades since. Even today, you won't find di-VISS-iv in the American Heritage Dictionary or the New Oxford American or Encarta. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate and Webster's New World label it "also" - that is, a minority pronunciation.

But four years ago, Elster heard the di-VISS-iv version from Robert Siegel, on NPR's "All Things Considered." "This is a very bad sign," he says; unsuspecting listeners tend to follow the broadcasters' lead, and "a vogue pronunciation is born."

Vogue pronunciations are hardly global tragedies, of course. Pronunciation, like other language usage, changes over time, and many a former fad is now standard. (Dissect is DYE-sekt now, illogically or not; the t in often is making a comeback; harass can be stressed on either syllable.)

If you cast your vote for di-VISS-ive, that's your democratic right. But you want to be aware that the pronunciation itself is potentially divisive - and there's no sign of a peaceful settlement.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.

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