per se

A crowd-sourced reference such as Urban Dictionary is not altogether reliable per se, but it certainly can give you bits of insight that you won’t get in more authoritative references. Look, for instance, at some bits of its several definitions of per se:

A Pretentious term, often used both out of context and too often by people who would like to sound more intelligent than they actually are.

Frequently used improperly by persons who think it makes them sound educated.

a phrase that allows some flexibility in the topic at hand, so you can talk about something without being very specific

“as such” or “by” but really it seems to be used as a pause in a sentence. It is an overused phrase by Neanderthal wannabes incapable of speaking or writing clearly.

Trenchant thoughts about its pragmatic place in communication. But its meaning? Here are some versions you’ll get from Urban Dictionary:

on the face of it
generally speaking
on average
inherently

Synonym for “exactly” or “quite.”

Hmm, what? That’s not quite it per se… But you see how those might come to be seen as definitions. It is, as the best definition at Urban Dictionary says,

typically used with a negative to indicate that a term being used is understood to be imprecise or off-the-mark (i.e., not accurate ‘per se’) in a case where the term is nevertheless useful to an explanation. Usually followed by an explanation or justification for the use of the term indicated.

So what is per se, per se? In itself? “In itself”. That’s the Latin: per se is Latin for “in itself” (or “by itself”, “of itself”, or “for itself”, or “intrinsically”). When you say, for instance, “He’s not attractive per se,” you can follow it up with, say, “but his bank account does draw attention.”

It thus allows you to be a bit catty: a subtle undermining, a Parthian shot. There’s a little purr in what you say. Or it can simply allow you to be circumspect: first you thoughtfully purse your lips, then you say… for instance, “It’s not well written per se, but it makes some very important points.”

But, oh, watch out! Don’t get purr say or purse say stuck in your head. Many people write this phrase as per say. Why? Well, that’s not so hard to guess: they aren’t used to seeing it written down, they don’t know Latin, and that’s what it sounds like – two English words, per and say. Even if the sense of the phrase doesn’t match the combined sense of the two words per se, that’s not a big issue; English is loaded with idioms that have scant surviving relation to the senses of their parts.

Still, better to think of something that will help the proper spelling stick. I’m put in mind, for instance, of Perseus – the Greek hero who slew Medusa and saved Andromeda from a sea monster, among other things. How did he slay Medusa when the sight of her would turn anyone to stone? He had to look at her, right? Well, not per se. But did he then slay her without seeing where she was? Well, not per se. He used his shield to see her reflection. (A mirror may be a visual prosthesis, but it’s an imperfect one – perhaps the gorgonizing properties were carried only by wavelengths not reflected by his shield.) So he’s per-se-us… sorta. Or not.

You could also think of perse, which is a very deep shade of purple or bluish-black. It’s pronounced like “purse,” so be careful, but you could always say it’s not black per se… It’s more the colour of smoke on the water. Really deep purple. (It seems to come from an alteration of the Latin word for “Persian”.)

By the way, there is another usage of per se, one that is more common in the positive: as a legal term meaning, well, yes, “in itself”, but more strictly “by law” – as in “Exceeding the speed limit is an infraction per se.”

It’s really not a difficult term per se; it’s just loosely used and a bit confusing for some people. I’d have to say it beats the Aristotelian Greek phrase it was pressed into use to translate: kath’auto, which looks like a woman’s car and sounds a bit like catheter.

2 responses to “per se

  1. Is there any basis for the notion that the ampersand is so called because of something nineteenth-century children were required to say when reciting the alphabet? “…and per se ‘and’,” to indicate that “&” was included?

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