dubious

One of my colleagues reported having heard, yesterday, a politician introducing her boss (the premier) with the words “and so now it is my dubious honour to present…” – and saying it in such a way as to give the sense that she was not making a joke, but actually seemed to think it was a positive thing to say.

Well! That’s a dubious introduction. Was she smoking something doobie-ous? Of course, she might have grabbed the wrong word en passant. But I suspect she had picked up the phrase at some point without actually knowing the word dubious and had made an incorrect inference about it. Sort of like the veteran I once heard at a school assembly in the 1980s referring to World War II as “four score years ago” – he knew four score but didn’t know it meant eighty, not forty.

I do like the word dubious. It’s one of those words, like nauseous or doubtful – that can refer to the subject or object: you are dubious about something that is dubious. It doubles up! It goes two ways in the mouth, too: lips forward on the /u/ and back on the /i/, with tongue in counterpoint, and the consonants bounce between tongue-tip and lips. Likewise, the d and b seem like someone looking both ways, either dubious about something or up to something dubious. Perhaps an IOU is involved.

Dubious may put one in mind of a singer with dubious lyrics – doobie-doobie-doo – or perhaps of someone called Dubya. For me, it brings to mind an early encounter with it in – can you guess? – an Asterix comic. There was a Roman (naturally) character named Dubius Status. He was one of two centurions in Asterix the Legionary – the other was Nefarius Purpus. (I mean in the English translation by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, of course.)

Dubious does come from Latin, of course: dubiousus, dubium, dubius, all “doubtful”. (That b in doubt, by the way, was stuffed in by certain Englishmen who found that doute had come from dubitare and so added the b – as they also did in debt – just as a little reminder of the Latin origin.) In modern English, dubious is a word that most often tends to pair up with a short list of common words.

Status isn’t actually high on the list. But dubious most often modifies positive words that it is there to undermine: distinction (first by a long measure in the Corpus of Contemporary American English), honor (or honour outside of the US), value; less frequently, proposition, claims, assumption, reputation, character. And some more past that, in dwindling number.

And there are also some other teams you will see our questionable word du jour in. For instance, if a Wikipedia article contains claims that seem a bit iffy, it may have the admonition “[dubious – discuss]” put on it. Well, that’s lovely: we have just discussed dubious. Does that mean that Wikipedia is now fully reliable?

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