Angry New Yorker

Tuesday, February 17, 2004
A Moratorium on "Controversial"?

Every so often a word comes along, whose meaning takes on a new tangential connotation that runs away with the original definition for awhile. Sometimes the shift is permanent; other times only temporary. One world I'd like to see added to the do not use moratorium list is controversial.

Now controversial, of course stems from its root controversy, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as:

Etymology: Middle English controversie, from Latin controversia, from controversus disputable, literally, turned against, from contro- (akin to contra-) + versus, past participle of vertere to turn.
1 : a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views : DISPUTE

Definition 1 strikes me as a fairly good, though anemic definition. Unfortunately, today's common usage is gradually flooding the definition 2 side of the tally, to make something controversial an event that's little more than a topic leading to a quarrel. Not everything with two opposing viewpoints is a controversy, or controversial. Yet, that's the way controversial is increasingly used -- if there's heated disagreement it's controversial. But since when is every debate on a worthy topic a controversy? It's not a good trend in my book. And I'm not trying to cause a controversy.

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