Putting umbrage in its place

I've done my bit of late as a news consumer, absorbing countless stories about freedom of expression vs. cultural sensitivity (and who sold us the idea that they have to be in conflict, anyway?). There's a bon mot widely ascribed to Oscar Wilde that keeps coming to mind: "A gentleman is someone who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally."

Wilde - or whoever it was - seems to have put his finger on a critical point: accounting for intent in discussions of what's insulting and what isn't. And maybe we need to understand insult as having an active and a passive side.

Another aspect is "offense taken on the part of others," which is a mainstay of reader comment at a newspaper, and which is why "politically correct" language drives some people round the bend: It's seen as language that pulls its punches to prevent some people from taking offense on the part of others.

We think of "insult" and related words as describing mostly verbal attacks - but these words are generally rooted in the concept of physical violence. "Insult" itself is related to "assault"; both refer to "jumping" on someone - ambushing, in other words.

Variations on this theme include "affront," which sounds a little more genteel somehow, but actually derives from the notion of banging foreheads together, or butting heads - as does "confront." (More violence!) There's "offend," literally meaning to "strike against" someone. Then there's "outrage," from the Old French. Think "oo-TRAHJ." That derives not from "rage," as in worked up into a lather, but from "ultra," beyond, over the line.

Which brings us to "umbrage," as in "to take umbrage," an idiom meaning "to take offense." Umbrage comes from "shadow," like the much more common "umbrella" (an umbrella is a portable shadow one carries to protect from the sun).

"To stand in umbrage" was once a common phrase to mean what we say when we describe someone as "under a cloud." But in more recent years - recent centuries, actually - umbrage is generally something one takes rather than stands under.

"The Bishop ... took umbrage at his freedom of speech in the pulpit anent [regarding] the government," is a usage example from the Oxford English Dictionary. The reference is from 1680, but aside from that "anent," it could have been a comment on the recent funeral of Coretta Scott King, for example, where a number of prominent figures saw an opportunity to critique the Bush administration, and seized it. Plenty of umbrage was taken.

But once you "take" umbrage - where do you put it? Where do you go with it?

Those are not completely smart-aleck questions. Actually, what "taking umbrage" has going for it as an idiom is that it recasts the "insultee" as the actor, rather than the recipient of the action. It may more honestly represent the decision one makes to be offended or not.

Can you insult people against their will? What happens if someone chooses not to be insulted, period? And what happens when the target of a real insult just doesn't get it? Can that somehow inadvertently advance the progress of civilization?

Consider this bit of Lincoln lore: the story about the man who was about to be run out of town on a rail, but protested, "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd just as soon walk."

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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