Verbal Energy

Giving adulthood a bad name in D.C.

Washington may have glommed onto the phrase 'adult conversation' to spice up the debate on fiscal reform.

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"Web-footed waterfowl w/slight disability seeks partner(s) for discreet adult conversation. Capitol Hill area." Thus we imagine how a lame-duck congressman's personal ad might run during these recent vexed weeks in Washington.

As news reports have been full of the back and forth over contentious issues such as gays in the military and extension, or not, of the Bush-era tax cuts, we can't help remembering the line, widely attributed to Bismarck, to the effect that anyone who cares about legislation or sausage would not want to observe the making of either.

But did you notice the phrase that has been so widely applied to the legislative sausagemaking: "adult conversation"? Could you have failed to notice, if you were paying any attention at all?

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It's what everyone claims to be ready for, to deal with the national debt, the deficit, health care, Social Security, all those problems with unimaginably huge numbers attached to them. Arguably, Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, started it, when he said of the proposal his group put together, "There's no turning back.… Together I think we have started an adult conversation."

Soon the phrase was in the talking points and on the lips of everyone in Washington – even apparently all the Republicans, those firm embracers of "family values." (Given Republican Party discipline, however, this could be the work of one person. Remember Will Rogers's line: "I am not a member of any organized party – I am a Democrat.")

What am I getting at? "Adult conversation" has connotations that "grown-up conversation" does not.

It has to do with nuances between adult and grown-up. English speakers get a choice between a Latin-derived word and an Anglo-Saxon one.

Adult comes from adolescere, a Latin verb that means simply "to grow up, or to mature." It's obviously related to our English word adolescent, which has something of a clinical air about it. One wonders, did the ancient Romans have teenagers, too?

Grown-up, on the other hand, quite obviously comes from the English phrasal verb "to grow up." I've just checked in several dictionaries and none of them indicates that it's anything but a standard usage term. I saw no labels of "informal" or "colloquial." And yet grown-up strikes me as a word a child would use. "Be quiet, or the grown-ups will hear us." It's also a word an adult uses when in touch with his or her inner child. "In my new job I've got an office with a door that actually closes. I feel like a real grown-up!"

"Adult," on the other hand, can be part of the language of bureaucracy: "How many adults are there in the household?"

It has a darker aspect, too. Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about adult: "As a euphemism for 'pornographic,' it dates to 1958 and does no honor to the word."

Speakers at all points along the political spectrum have an interest in using language that calls for maturity rather than childish ranting. On the other hand, to call this childish may be unfair to children. I've never heard a child scream because he thought he was losing his mortgage interest subsidy.

But it's interesting that Washington has glommed onto a phrase that sounds ever so slightly racy. It just might be an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to introduce a little spice into the sausagemaking.

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