Becoming obsessed

Lord Froth said it in a 17th-century comedy: "There is nothing more unbecoming a man of quality than to laugh." But what do you do when the mere word "unbecoming" makes front-page news – played bigger that day than Washington, Israel, and the Vatican – in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts?

We'll thank the folks in Minnesota, North Carolina, Florida, and other serious election spots for keeping a straight face. That is, if they even heard how "unbecoming" stole the bullhorn after the climactic gubernatorial debate last week. It began with Republican Mitt Romney using "unbecoming" to chastise the approach of Democrat Shannon O'Brien. Ms. O'Brien and many followers doubted he'd have said it about a male opponent. Mr. Romney explained he was just looking for the right word.

Senior citizens could have told him about the men's retailer sign: "If your clothes aren't becoming to you, you should be coming to us." (Evidently not copyrighted, since the line now appears in ads for dinette sets, bathtubs, body-care products, and even that tattoo that is so not-becoming to you.)

Words like "unbecoming," "becoming," and "becomes" are the standard English both candidates claim to defend, though differingly. But the words need an echo of Henny Youngman's line "compared to what?" As in much of the campaign, even when an issue raised its head, words have had a haziness unbecoming English speakers.

When the BBC talks of conduct unbecoming cricket players, a certain cricket standard is implied. We know what's cricket. We also get the idea in "conduct unbecoming an officer." OK, the jury is out on conduct unbecoming a CEO.

Shakespeare uses "unbecoming" only once, but I heard it as a student-soldier onstage with Lady Macbeth. She says it would have been "all-thing unbecoming" if Banquo were not a guest (for his own murder). Elsewhere a Lord Chamberlain speaks of "a gentle business ... becoming/ The action of good women." King Henry V says, "In peace there's nothing so becomes a man/ As modest stillness and humility." A villain who has hidden in a trunk says of a sleeping victim: "How bravely thou becom'st thy bed!"

The debate's aftershocks leave us dangling without such references. Did Romney mean his version of O'Brien's conduct was unbecoming an achieving woman, unbecoming a worthy opponent, unbecoming an in-your-face debater? Did her response become her as a candidate, as an individual? Obviously we're in country far beyond women wearing unbecoming eyeshadow and men wearing unbecoming neckties. Not that eyeshadow or neckties are wrong.

Still it's un-Massachusettsian to turn perfectly good words into political Nerf balls. They must not be lost to spinmeisters. We know how one spinner's "aggressive" is another's "feisty." One's "stubborn" is another's "patient." One's "bland" is another's "unflappable." One's "indifferent" is another's "nonjudgmental."

We need no-spin zones for Bing Crosby singing "Moonlight Becomes You" and Eugene O'Neill rewriting Greek tragedy for "Mourning Becomes Electra."

What becomes a Massachusetts voter most after this election run-up? Maybe going to the polls anyway.

• Roderick Nordell is a former Monitor writer and editor.

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