The recent Senate hearings with [now former] FBI Director James Comey exposed his need for lessons in lexicography. Here are just a few of the words and phrases for which he doesn’t seem to fully understand proper usage.
Let’s start with “mildly nauseous.” Comey told the Senators, “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.” Before we go further, we have to question “might have had.” Ya think? But our job here is to focus on the lexicography, so let’s move on.
Vocabulary.com tells us that most folks use nauseous when what they really mean is nauseated. They explain that nauseous “should be reserved to mean causing that feeling, not having it.” They provide the example that cod liver oil has a nauseous taste. Modern dictionaries have given up making this distinction. We’re willing to allow Comey the common usage, although the historical one is a better description of the effect his actions had on much of the country. But he still needs a lesson on this.
“Mildly nauseous” is what someone gets when they step into a boat that is docked on a lake that gets a few waves now and then. Or how you feel on a roller coaster as it ascends to the top of its arc, before that hurtling plunge that sucks your stomach up into the back of your mouth. This feeling could also be the first sign that you caught that nasty flu going around. Or how a woman sometimes feels during the initial few weeks of her pregnancy, often providing the first sign that she’s expecting.
What you should have felt, Mr. Comey, was not mild nausea. It should have been the cold-sweat-producing panic of knowing that what you did was so indefensible that you need to chew on the insides of your cheeks so you don’t give in to a full-blown hurl fest. Much like how that pregnant woman feels well into her first trimester. Or the sensation a cancer patient has when he’s about two thirds of the way through six cycles of chemo treatments. If you’re unclear on this, go out into the middle of the Atlantic in a dingy during hurricane season.
We need to at least mention “Lordy,” generally used as an interjection to express surprise or to make a statement more forceful. We know you weren’t surprised by what you did, because your testimony was a studied effort to convince the Senate that you had carefully thought out your choices. That leaves us with adding force to your explanations.
You can’t just appropriate cultural expressions willy-nilly. If you’re from the South, you get to say Lordy, as long as it’s repeated. “Lordy, Lordy!” Your bio says you were born in Yonkers. The farthest South you got was the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. You need to find some more appropriate way to put your questioners off balance. Maybe something like, “Yo, Adrian!” Think about it.
On to those pesky doors you saw, Mr. Comey. A choice between one door marked “Really Bad” and the other marked “Catastrophic.” You said you picked the lesser of two evils. Your defenders say choices often are not black and white; they’re shades of gray. You recognized the shade on the Really Bad door you picked as the gray of a pinstripe suit. The door marked Catastrophic was brightly colored and it had a figure in a skirt on it. Forget shades of gray. You went for the door with the figure in pants because it looked like you.
Let’s do a lexicographic tour of “catastrophic.” Dictionary synonyms are cataclysmic and apocalyptic (foretelling the destruction of the world). You seem to have lost all sense of scale on this one, Mr. Comey. If you get two inches of water in your basement after a thunderstorm, that’s really bad. If your home washes away during a hurricane, that’s catastrophic. Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans was a catastrophe. A rise of three feet in sea levels by the end of this century due to global warming could be apocalyptic.
The election of a female President of the United States would not have been a catastrophe. It would have been more evolutionary than apocalyptic. And that thundering sound you heard the day after the inauguration was not the Four Horsemen. It was the pounding of hundreds of thousands of women’s heels marching on the Capitol. Get used to it.