The 'inartful' dodger

House majority leader Tom DeLay apologized the other day for some sharp criticism he had made of "activist" judges. "I said something in an inartful way, and I shouldn't have said it that way, and I apologize for saying it that way," he told reporters.

Inartful? And exactly what would that be? Beats me - and a lot of other news organizations, too. A lot of them simply popped the sound bite into their reports, or printed his words verbatim (this is why Heaven sent us quotation marks) without exactly trying to characterize their meaning.

I went to, which, as its name suggests, displays multiple dictionaries simultaneously when you type in a keyword. As I entered the term and boldly asked the system to "search all dictionaries," I got a response I'd never had before: "Sorry, no dictionaries indexed in the selected category contain the word inartful."

Then I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, and got a simple "No entries found." I even went to "advanced search," professed interest in any use of the word at all in the book, even in footnotes, or for that matter, the copyright notices. I used Boolean operators in places where G. Boole himself would never have operated. Still: "No entries found."

Well, OK. As they say at conferences and seminars: "Let's unpack this." Mr. DeLay did apologize - but for how he had expressed himself, not what he had said, which was that "arrogant, out-of-control, and unaccountable" judges would one day have "to answer for their behavior."

Considering the ink and air and pixels DeLay has had over this, I'd say he was positively "artful." "Artful" has long been riding the boisterous waves of the sea of simultaneous multiple meanings. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the word thus: "Exhibiting art or skill. 'The furniture is an artful blend of antiques and reproductions.' Skillful in accomplishing a purpose, especially by the use of cunning or craft; artificial."

One wants "artful" to mean simply, innocently, "full of art," as in "an artful arrangement of flowers at the restaurant." There certainly seems to be a need for such a word. "Artistic," a possible alternative here, sounds too precious for this kind of "art in daily life." But "artful" has a dark side, too, a sense of cunning, of sneakiness, of disingenuousness, even if it may also have a certain appeal: in the case of Dickens's Artful Dodger, for instance. (When I was a kid, and the Dodgers were one of our local baseball teams, I thought maybe the Artful Dodger was one who had managed to stay behind in Brooklyn when the rest of the team moved out to California.)

"Craft" has a similar dual life, describing both the honest labor of the craftsman and the guile of the clever lawyer who knows how to sow doubt in a juror's mind. The related adjective, "crafty," has gone over just about completely to the "dark side," although a more positive meaning, that of "skillful, dexterous" lives on as a dialectal variant.

Both the high art of painting and the low art of political dealmaking grow from the same etymological root, which meant "joined or fitted together."

For an example of something that is artful in both senses, I need go no farther than our Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Dutch painter Jan van Huysum's splendid 18th-century "Vase of Flowers in a Niche" is certainly artful in the sense of "full of artistic merit." But the painter was being artful in another sense, too. The flowers he depicts would not all have come to bloom at the same time to share a vase together - and he was at work before there were daily air connections between South Africa and Schiphol. And so his painting may be enchanting - but it is deceptive, too.

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