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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's an Outrage (but it's not Maddening)

I think mostly in popular parlance people view the word "outrageous" and "maddening" as roughly interchangeable: that's outrageous, or it's simply maddening...

But in fact outrage and maddening have different meanings, and mostly outrageous is superior to maddening in contexts where people (erroneously) use them interchangeably. Here goes.

For one, outrage carries a moral component. You mean, specifically, that something outrageous doesn't just cause YOU to be outraged, but that it's in fact not decent, and therefore outrage is the natural reaction by people in general. By contrast, maddening is much more psychological; if something is maddening, it just makes you mad. You might make the further case that others ought to be mad too, and you might even imbue maddening with the universal quality of causing madness generally. Fine.

But this brings me to my second reason why outrageous is superior to maddening in any context where people will view them as interchangeable. Namely, though "outrage" is, technically speaking, polysemous, it isn't likely to be confused in the linguistic contexts in which it's uttered. Not so maddening, which can be ambiguous, and (as I'll explain) problematic, in the context in which it's uttered.

To see why, consider: "it's just maddening what John does...", when uttered by Mary, might mean that Mary is driven to irrational states of mind by John and his behavior. On the other hand, it might just mean that Mary gets really mad at John. But this is a difference that makes a difference. What if Mary's mad; not angry, I mean, but freakin' crazy? I might want to know. Maybe you might want to know. John might like the info, too.

Now, use of the outrageous adjective brings none of this type of ambiguity. And this is the key to its lexical superiority. "It's outrageous what John does" might be spoken by his teacher, or his friend, or his political opponent. But in any case there's no ambiguity that attaches to our interpretation of the state of mind of the outraged. They're just outraged. They may in fact be mad, too, but that's a separate issue, and there will be no reason for us to be concerned about this within the context of their utterance of outrageousness.

And that's why, in cases where the two adjectives are commonly thought to be interchangeable, it's better to use "outrageous". QED.

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