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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

unclear on the concept

(1990’s | journalese (comics) | “missing the point,” “failing to grasp the situation,” “obtuse”)

Such a mild way to call someone an idiot, this expression imputes a genuine doltishness, a stark inability to understand the simplest processes or cause-and-effect relationships, which is strange, because on the surface it doesn’t sound so condemnatory. “Unclear” suggests nothing worse than temporary befuddlement, and “concept” lends a faintly professorial air to the whole affair. The phrase is not intuitive, but instantly understandable; one does not ask, “what concept?” Its rhythm and alliteration give it a rough poetry that has helped perpetuate it in our ear.

Not many new expressions have an easily identified source, but this one does: cartoonist Joe Martin, creator of “Mr. Boffo,” a comic strip that started showing up in the late eighties and had a running gag titled “people unclear on the concept,” illustrated each time by some species of magnificent cluelessness (examples here). Neither LexisNexis nor Google Books shows any instances of the phrase before Mr. Boffo came on the scene, but afterwards it popped up all over the place, so I think Martin gets credit for it. Only a select few expressions — factoid, glass ceiling, hot-button, irrational exuberance, tiger mother, trophy wife are all that come to mind — can be safely credited to a specific person. This one hasn’t become as widespread as it might have, but it turns up in numerous contexts: politics, computers, sports, arts, you name it. A notable feature: It’s most unusual to call oneself “unclear on the concept”; we use it about other people. The need for such an expression is obvious, as our fellow human beings continue to plumb new depths of stupidity. Our habit of believing the worst of those we disagree with, which I noted recently, has created fertile ground for any locution that helps call attention to the treacherous folly of others, sedulously contrasted with our own forbearance and rectitude.

There seems to be a sub-category of new expressions that deal, like this one, with varieties of denseness. “D’oh” starts at home — it’s what you say when you’re hoist by your own petard — but most of these expressions rely on the “dumbth” (word by the, alas, largely forgotten Steve Allen) of others. “Hello?!” and “didn’t get the memo” tend to cover small-scale, interpersonal situations; “dumb down” and “special needs” have a larger, more civic role. It is an oddly heterogeneous group, ranging from personal to political, from desirable to pejorative, from jocular to confrontational. We forget sometimes how complex a concept stupidity can be.

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