Revisiting “Inappropriate”

[Note. This essay was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 1999. Now seems like a good time to revisit it. I’ve resisted the urge to tinker with it, other than to add a Google Ngram Viewer chart at the end.–BY]

When Bill Clinton, by way of apology, acknowledged last fall that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a White House intern, he was appropriating a term that has come to seem appropriate for a remarkably wide range of situations and purposes.

A quick Lexis-Nexis search for “inappropriate” yielded 198 hits in major newspapers just in the month of January 1999 (for the same month three years earlier there were 108). Scanning some of the headlines that came up offers a strikingly wide range of uses for the word:

“Survey finds pharmacies giving customers inappropriate advice” (The Herald, Glasgow).

“Niece as flower girl would be inappropriate in gay wedding” (Houston Post).

“Holmgren regrets outburst. Coach admits cursing at fan was inappropriate” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

“Enemas are inappropriate, dangerous as a weight-loss tool” (Chicago Sun-Times).

“Blindfold use in school ruled inappropriate” (South China Morning Post).

The meaning of the word in all of these uses is evident (respectively, “incorrect,” “in poor taste,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” and “barbaric”). But “inappropriate” has become such a catchall term that sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what it’s supposed to signify. A New York Times article on last year’s Thanksgiving Day parade reported, “Earlier this year, five balloons were permanently retired because they were too big, too awkward or, in the case of Cat in the Hat, inappropriate, as a Macy’s spokesman put it.” You want to run that by me again?

I hasten to point out that “inappropriate” is no piece of neologistic slang. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition “not appropriate; unsuitable to the particular case; unfitting, improper,” cites its first appearance in the early 19th century and quotes a use in Dickens’s Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.'” Its antonym and root, appropriate (“specially fitted or suitable, proper”), has an even longer pedigree, dating at least to 1546, when an edition of The Regiment of Lyfe referred to “remedies … appropriate to every membre throughout the body.”

Both words proceeded quietly along until the middle of this century, when they began to receive wide use in specific fields. Medical discourse acquired the habit of referring to procedures as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for a particular patient — terminology that had a nicely scientific, non-judgmental feel. The new discipline of psychotherapy, in its many and varied forms, adopted this lingo to describe not the treatment but the patient (or client), no doubt in large part because it liked the idea of being a branch of medicine rather than religion. And so such phrases as “inappropriate affect” began to be heard in consulting rooms throughout the land. I asked some friends about their first awareness of “inappropriate,” and one of them told me by e-mail about working in a child-psychology clinic in the 1970s: “We were practically required to describe behavior as inappropriate, when what we really meant was (a) annoying, (b) obnoxious, or (c) crazy.”

But what propelled the words into the national consciousness, I believe, was E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, which extolled the virtues of “appropriate” — that is, small-scale — technology. A journal called Appropriate Technology began publication in 1974; my university library has six publications just from the years 1977 to 1979 whose titles begin with that phrase.

So the words were there for the taking, and they got taken — especially, as I started out by saying, “inappropriate.” While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted.

That understanding of the term is so widely shared that an explanation is often seen as unnecessary. I found a citation for a 1998 article from The Journal of the American Dental Association called “The Inappropriate Patient.” This struck me as a fascinating concept. I looked up the abstract, only to find that the article is about dentists’ legal obligations when they or their employees are sexually harassed by patients. Similarly, a 1994 article from Nursing, called “Grieving Spouse: Inappropriate Behavior,” deals exclusively with what to do when the husband of a terminally ill patient makes what used to be called advances. (“It is recommended that the nurse should first redirect the man’s energies by asking him how he’s coping with his wife’s illness.”)

A number of reasons plausibly suggest themselves for this word’s ever-increasing popularity. The first is our old friend moral relativism. To call an action “inappropriate” is not to call it wrong, bad, shameful, reprehensible, or evil. To call a video “inappropriate” for a child is not to say that it will warp his or her mind or is an instrument of the devil. Use of the word may also subtly imply that those concepts are themselves inappropriately moralistic — that all behavior and expression are okay only as long as they are performed in the suitable or proper time and place. At first blush, that approach to the world has an appealing, vaguely Zen feel to it. But we live, inescapably, in a Judeo-Christian culture. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said on the floor of the Senate, referring to Clinton’s antics, “Such behavior is not just inappropriate — it is immoral.”

A related explanation for the popularity of this and other euphemisms is personal or institutional timidity when making judgments about other people’s behavior. The perpetrator of “inappropriate” actions is pretty much off the hook, and so is not likely to take any actions — verbal, legal, or physical — against his or her accuser. Another friend, who used to work in college residence halls, told me that “inappropriate” was a “standard word in disciplinary letters I wrote or when talking with a student when you wanted to say ‘You screwed up’ in a nice way. No matter how minor (being caught with a beer) or major (trying to plug the exhaust pipe of my car), the behavior was not appropriate for a residence setting.”

Conversely, someone — say, the President — who admits to inappropriate behavior isn’t admitting to anything too terribly awful. It’s classic rhetoric for a non-apology apology.

Perhaps the most important explanation of the word is simple linguistic laziness: “Inappropriate” is such an easy way to avoid saying what you mean. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed resolution to censure the President began: “Whereas William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee in the White House, which was shameless, reckless and indefensible. …” Shameless, reckless, and indefensible are great words! Feinstein’s prose would have been so much stronger (and maybe her resolution would have passed) if she had scuttled the old and tired “inappropriate relationship” and let them shine.

The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication. Yet another friend recalls that when she was an intern at a high school in New York City, “I had to tell an Episcopal priest that his daughter had called the Spanish teacher a son of a bitch. I chose not to be explicit and explained to him that his daughter had used inappropriate language. He responded by asking, ‘What the hell do you mean by inappropriate?'”

Google Ngram Viewer chart showing frequency of “inappropriate” in English-language books. (Reliable data only goes through 2000.)

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