Overwrought about overweight

Overweight, known to most of us as an adjective, also has a medical use as a noun to refer to the condition of having a body mass index of at least 25 (above normal) but below 30 (obese). I don’t altogether enjoy that usage, aesthetically, but I recognize why it’s used.

A fellow editor mentioned needing to stifle a scream whenever seeing overweight as a noun and having to let it stand. Stifle a scream? Well, that’s actually a very common level of response to language that just seems “wrong.” But overweight is very far from being the first adjective to be nominalized through zero conversion (i.e., used as a noun without changing the form). Many of the words we use as a matter of course today undoubtedly would have had our earlier counterparts stifling screams.

Emotional reactions to slight disturbances in the tidily arranged furniture of our minds are common enough – and can result in strident moral condemnation for mere linguistic variation – but it’s hard to come up with a truly suitable excuse for the strength of these reactions (moral condemnation for small variations in usage? really? but you can easily find it, and probably most of use have done it). What’s more, I believe they stem from the same resistance to changing “the way things should be” that has produced some kinds of prejudice that are not so innocuous.

Of course we want to keep our language tidy, coherent, consistent, and effective. And of course it annoys us to see some things presented as right that are just wrong in our universe. But such a strong reaction is a sign of mental distress due to one’s own inflexibility. It gets to be like having a screaming fit because someone’s wearing spats on cowboy boots – or a guy’s wearing a skirt. OK, that’s not the way we’re used to seeing it done, it doesn’t fit with our vision of order, but does it serve a useful purpose? What arguments can be made for or against it?

I really do think that these reactions on language usage come from the same part of the brain that has provoked in some people violent reactions against, for instance, mixed-race marriages. “That’s just not right! It’s not the way things should be!” And, again, I’m speaking as someone who has many times in his life had such strong reactions to things that don’t deserve them. I’ve learned the hard way.

I suspect the first people to use “overweight” as a noun also thought “ugh” – but used it anyway because they couldn’t find any other suitably cogent way of naming the BMI range of 25.0-29.9. Think of it as linguistic Buckley’s. It tastes bad but it works. Or think of it like beer. You may not like the taste at first, but since you like the effects, you’ll come to appreciate the taste too.

And if you find yourself wanting to scream because someone used language “the wrong way,” step back and ask: is it really worth a scream? Can’t the issue be approached pragmatically? This is a question of order and aesthetics in communication, not one of, say, disemboweling infants. Which, reported on the news, would generate less of a reaction from many people than if the newscaster reporting on it made a grammatical error. Sigh.

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One response to “Overwrought about overweight

  1. No, this is simply unacceptable. If doctors were meant to write, they would have come up with “overweightedness” and it just would have put a lot of people at ease.

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