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Opening Arguments

Effete to be tied

Any of you know what "effete" really means? I searched Google News for a hint that anybody writing about politics today has a clue:

  •  "As an issue it's nothing, but it shows him as the effete, academic liberal." Nope. That's Charles Krauthammer, for pete's sake, and he seems to think it means aloof and elitist.
  • "It's very confusing trying to figure out what an elitist is these days . . . If you're an elitist-using politician, you're accusing someone of being an intellectual, an out-of-touch wine-drinking effete snob." Not him, either. That's Tom Alderman at the Huffington Post, describing those who have lost touch with the common man.
  • "McCain has been portraying Obama as inexperienced, self-entitled and effete, a candidate coddled by a loving press corps and lacking the judgment necessary for the highest office in the land." Way off. Elite and pampered.

"Effete" is a wonderful, useful word that has been destroyed by its association with politics (and what hasn't been, eh?). It means -- or meant, for a few hundred years -- worn out, used up, exhausted of energy, perhaps even a little decadent or degenerate. It comes from the Latin effeta, meaning sterile or unable to produce for having overproduced, in the child-bearing sense. When Spiro Agnew called Vietnam War protesters an "effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," he was calling them pretenders to intellect, blisfully unaware that their philosophy was spent and lifeless. Both arrogant and ignorant -- it was a $5-word way of calling them high school sophomores.

Perhaps Agnew, in fact, did not know what the word meant, but William Safire certainly did, and he's the one who probably wrote the speech. "Effete" was immediately misunderstood by almost everybody to mean something like "effeminate," and nobody from the White House bothered to correct it. Why would they? In "Nixon vs. The Hippies" America, that was at least as good an insult. You can now find effeminate as one definition for effete, down about three or four into the list. But you won't find elitist anywhere. Yet.

So we now have a new word for elite, which the world didn't need, and we've lost a perfectly good word that expressed something in a way no other word quite matches. So do we tie the language in knots.

OK. Rant over. You may now feel free to use "effete" as a description for the ideas of certain editorial-writing bloggers. 


Khalil Spencer
Tue, 07/15/2008 - 5:14pm

Having not considered this, I checked the OED. You are spot-on! Thank you for the essay.

William E. Sabin
Thu, 07/31/2008 - 9:59am

Obama has a head full of high-flying and grandiose rhetoric, but a startling lack of solid connection to the real and dangerous world and to any carefully enunciated policy on any subject.

He reminds me exactly of Zakaria, the new kid on the political theory stage with "truth" on just about any subject that is worth mentioning.