John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, July 6, 2009

They're so ignorant they bore me to death

One of my correspondents is irked by the word ignorant as it is used in Baltimore:

People in Baltimore, and perhaps elsewhere, have a habit of using “ignorant” when they mean “mean” or “rude”. I don't know if you have ever addressed this. It drives me crazy.

Example: Monica slapped her in the face. That was just ignorant.

I content that Monica knew what she was doing and ignorance was not a factor.


I can’t speak to the Baltimore version, but I can describe a parallel regional usage.

We expect our pejoratives to carry a good deal of freight on board. They have to work for a living. In Kentucky, when my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early, remarked in one of her characteristic expressions that someone was “just as ignorant as a hog” — what, you thought I got to be captious apart from family influences? — she did not mean that the person was uneducated or stupid. Or rather, not merely uneducated or stupid. “Ignorant as a hog” came with class connotations as well. It suggested a lack of initiative or responsibility. It suggested lack of respectability. It suggested “not our sort.” It suggested, without quite specifying, “poor white trash.”

Another of my grandmother’s regional expressions in which a pejorative shifted its root meaning was “bored to death.” But “bored me to death” had nothing to do with tedium. It meant public embarrassment: “When Danny Ray let out that belch in the middle of the pastoral prayer, it just bored me to death.”

To round things out, the use of just in such cases as an intensifier of emotion, meaning “certainly,” is also common in the Commonwealth.

9 comments:

  1. Humpf. I never thought that "ignorant" was a perjorative. "Ignorant" simply means that you haven't learned something. Now, "stupid"...that's a perjorative. It means you can't learn it. "Ignorant" is a correctable condition; "stupid" is permanent.

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  2. A current slang term is to use "ridiculous" to mean wonderful, awesome, excellent, etc. It still throws me a bit when someone says, "Ridiculous!" in a moment of praise. Of course, I still say, "Cool!" when I mean "I like that" rather than to describe the temperature....

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  3. "Ignorant" to mean "rude" or "ill-mannered" is also occasionally found in Utah, especially among older generations. Interestingly, it's cognate to "uncouth," which literally means "unknown" or "unfamiliar," and parallels its semantic development to some extent, too.

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  4. The 'rude, discourteous, ill-mannered' sense of 'ignorant' is pretty standard in British English.

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  5. Maybe "bored" doesn't refer to ennui but rather to the idea that the offending behavior "went through" them? When something affects us emotionally, there's usually a visceral reaction of some kind.

    I'm just spitballing, here, but it makes a little bit of sense, doesn't it?

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  6. "Ignorant" in that meaning is very common in Tennessee, too. (It's parallel, it seems to me, with the use of "illiterate" in Russian (negramotnyj) to mean "uncultured".)

    And of course note the "content" for "contend". Correcting grammar is a dangerous thing!

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  7. theridger,
    I've read quite a few books about Russians and I came to believe the word they used was "nekulturny", meaning uncultured. Perhaps I'm missing something.

    But the Professor is correct, the usage of "ignorant" to describe rude and/or mean conduct is quite prevalent in Baltimore.

    And Bucky is correct too. Ignorance, in its proper connotation, is correctable. Stupidity is not.

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  8. What such people are ignorant of, of course, is manners, and the implication is that that's because their mamas never taught them any. In principle, an ignorant person (in this sense) may learn better some day; in fact, this rarely happens.

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  9. This is all very anal - however is interesting.

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