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A congressional innocent

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican of Georgia, was quoted this week as saying of Barack and Michelle Obama, “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity.”

No one expects spoken language to hold to the standards of written language. People start sentences in one direction and switch to another, or they get tangled in pronoun referents, or assemble syntactical fragments. That’s the way we talk, and spoken language has vocal inflections, facial expressions, gestures and other accompaniments to help the listener comprehend. It would be idle to expect of conversation the reflection and organization that produces a text.

Even so, you’d think that a member of Congress might display a little more skill in managing singulars and plurals and pronouns. The sense is a little challenging: The Obamas are members of an individual that thinks that they are uppity?

But the pivot in that little discourse is the word uppity. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted an article — thank you, Editrix, for the link — to the minor brouhaha over Representative Westmoreland’s use of that word, with its unpleasantly racial overtones.*

No, no, Representative Westmoreland meant no such offense. He used the word in the dictionary sense of snobbish. In fact, the congressman said in a statement, “I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense.”

So to the other historic elements of this year’s presidential election — the first African-American nominee from a major party, the first female vice presidential nominee from the Republican Party, etc. — we can add this specimen: a grown white man from the Deep South who had never heard uppity used with any racial connotation.


* The Journal-Constitution provides a gloss: “For decades in the segregated South, ‘uppity’ was a word applied to African-Americans who attempted to rise above servile positions.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)


I will often define cultural terms to my three sons who were born in the 1980s.

Each if them has explained to me, at different times, that knew the meaning of the archaic (cultural terms from the 1930s through the 1970s) term because they watch Nickelodeon. When the term has a basis in literature, they are less often familiar with it.

Perhaps the congressman needs more leisure time to learn some local cultural history. It sounds like he gave the electorate some incentive to provide him with some free time.

I wonder if Westmoreland meant to use "member of an elitist-class" as a phrasal adjective on "individual". Similar to 'elite-class type'.

I only wonder. I certainly wouldn't argue the point.

And his understanding of "uppity" is a little more confused than his naive belief that it simply means 'snobbish'. Because he says they 'think' they're "uppity" it looks like he believes there's some actual superiority in the word -- not just an air of superiority.

Your understated humor is one of my favorite things about this blog, and here you've done it again. Too many writers, me included, wouldn't have resisted the urge to say something like "Yeah, right" after that final observation. You realized that you'd made your point without that unnecessary addition. Well done, sir.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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