A nation of Limbaugh enablers?

« previous post | next post »

A couple of days ago, Gail Collins asked ("Just Steele Yourselves", NYT 3/6/2009):

So is Steele the de facto leader of the Republican Party? Anybody who announces “I’m the de facto leader” probably isn’t.

Then who is? Rush Limbaugh? He sure is enjoying the attention. “The administration is enabling me,” he told Politico. Honestly, “enabling” is not the perfect choice of words for a guy with Rush’s background.

Ms. Collins' source for the Rush Limbaugh quote is Jonathan Martin, "Rush Job: Inside Dems' Limbaugh Plan", 3/4/2009:

Limbaugh is embracing the line of attack, suggesting a certain symbiosis between him and his political adversaries.

"The administration is enabling me,” he wrote in an e-mail to POLITICO. “They are expanding my profile, expanding my audience and expanding my influence.

I agree that enabling is an odd word for El Rushbo to choose, given his well-publicized struggles with drug addiction. The new negative sense of enable and its derivatives has so nearly overwhelmed the older positive or neutral meanings, at least in the construction he used,  that Ms. Collins doesn't even need to remind her readers about it.

William Safire wrote about this development last year ("Empowering Out, Enabling In", 6/21/2008):

Especially in its noun form, enabler, this word has made a quantum jump from hero to villain. […]

Some people still use the word in its positive sense […] But many are substituting facilitator for that positive sense of "helper" and are using enabler to mean "one who by ignoring, appeasing or condoning makes possible the continuance of wrongdoing."

This sense has its origin in the group therapy that is now called the recovery movement. Bill Pittman of Alcoholics Anonymous, co-author of the 1989 "AA, The Way It Began," says that its use of "the word enabling first appeared in Al-Anon literature in the early 60's." […] A 1965 book reads: "There are many occasions when we all engage in enabling destructive or inappropriate behavior in other people.. . .Most instances are not so obvious or dramatic as the enabling that may have gone on with the alcoholic."

Wendy Kaminer, author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," defines enabler as "someone who makes it easier for another to pursue an addiction, one complicit in bad behavior — like the wife of an alcoholic helping him hide the bottles from the kids." She says: "The word enable can be contrasted with the word empower. You empower a person to do something good, and you enable someone to do something bad."

Though a lexicographer would disagree (a dictator can be empowered to invade a neighbor and a surgeon enabled to save a life), usagists understand that latest connotation.


William Safire sometimes makes it hard on those of us who defend him.  His idea here seems to be that lexicographers are not allowed to document the development of connotational meanings, either directly or (as is probably appropriate in this case) by defining new senses. And since lexicographers are insensitive to the facts of usage, there's a different job category, called "usagists", for the people like him who look after this aspect of things.

Not for the first time, I'm wondering whether Mr. Safire might have been swapped with his counterpart from an alternative possible world. But there's more plausible (though not simpler) explanation for his periodic displays of deadpan twilight-zone discourse. When this sort of weirdness strikes, it's usually because he's trying to step diplomatically around a somewhat embarrassing point.

In the case under discussion, he's reached a place in his column where the logical thing for him to do would be to tell us what the dictionaries say. But, I conjecture, he looked, and found that they don't get it. Neither the OED, nor the American Heritage Dictionary, nor Encarta, gives us the meaning for enable (and enabler) that he's talking about. Here's the AHD's entry for enable and enabler:

TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: en·a·bled, en·a·bling, en·a·bles

1a. To supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity; make able: a hole in the fence that enabled us to watch; techniques that enable surgeons to open and repair the heart. b. To make feasible or possible: funds that will enable construction of new schools. 2. To give legal power, capacity, or sanction to: a law enabling the new federal agency.3. To make operational; activate: enabled the computer's modem; enable a nuclear warhead.

OTHER FORMS: en·a'bler —NOUN

And here's Encarta:

1. provide somebody with means: to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something

2. make something possible: to make something possible or feasible

enabling legislation

3. give somebody or something legal authority: to confer legal power or authority on somebody or something

4. cause something to start to operate: to make a piece of equipment or computer system functional

  • en·a·ble·ment noun
  • e·na·bler noun

And here's the entry for enable in the Merriam-Webster online Collegiate:

1 a: to provide with the means or opportunity <training that enablesb: to make possible, practical, or easy <a deal that would enable passage of a new law> c: to cause to operate <software that enables the keyboard>2: to give legal power, capacity, or sanction to <a law enabling admission of a state>< people to earn a living>

Instead of saying that the lexicographers have collectively dropped the ball on this one, however, Mr. Safire (I conjecture) spun out the previously-quoted nonsense about lexicographers vs. usagists.

But if he'd looked a bit futher, he might have found the M-W definition for enabler (assuming that it was in place last June):

one that enables another to achieve an end ; especially : one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior

And it would have been fair for him to say that the rest of the lexicographers have, in fact, dropped the ball — or, perhaps, completed their entries before the new enable became prominent — rather than to excuse them on the grounds that they're not members of a non-existent category of "usagists".

Raw material for their revisions is not hard to find, but here's a random pre-Limbaugh example from the New York Times a decade ago, which I used as the pattern for this post's headline ("'Enabling' is now a political disease", 9/27/1998):

"A NATION of Clinton Enablers?" a headline in The New York Post queried. "We have all been enablers for Bill Clinton," declared Time magazine. Last week, an editorial in this newspaper spoke of Mr. Clinton's "documentably dysfunctional personality" and warned that "we must not become a nation of enablers." In a recent speech, the television evangelist (and sometime Clinton counselor) Robert Schuller asserted that "we all share part of the shame" for stubbornly high public approval ratings that have enabled President Clinton so far to avoid confronting the problem of his sexual behavior.

A couple of years before that, Gina Kolata asked ("The Fat-Enabling Culture", 12/1/1996) "Has America become an fat-enabling society, akin to the alcohol-enabling families that assist heavy drinking even while condemning it?"

Moving back in time again, we find "Curbing the Urge to Give; Where the Beggars Meet the Begged", 1/16/1994: "And the growing recovery movement and its 12-step programs made some residents feel that giving money to those who suffer from an addiction is only 'enabling' their illness."

Surveying fifteen years of examples, I also see a shift away from the emphasis on self-destructive behavior (like addiction) to destructive behavior in general.  Thus there are several pieces criticizing the role of Thabo Mkeki and other African leaders  in "enabling" Robert Mugabe.

On the whole, it seems pretty clear that "enabling" Rush Limbaugh, in this sense, is exactly what the national leaders of the Democratic party want — they hope he'll do to the Republican party what Mugabe has done to Zimbabwe.  It's interesting that Limbaugh recognizes their motivations, or at least their actions, and uses the word "enabling" to describe them.

I'll close with a quantitative note justifying my claim about the relative frequency of the new sense of enabling. This word occurred 233 times in the NYT between 1/1/2008 and 1/1/2009.  Of these, 26 (11%) were clearly used in the negative sense of "make continued wrongdoing possible".  However, the senses were split  according to the syntactic frame — the pattern "enabling <noun phrase> to <verb phrase>"  was 100%  the old positive meaning, while the pattern "enabling <noun phrase>" (i.e. a direct object without any following infinitive) favored the new sense, 22 to 17 (by my count).  When the direct object referred to a human being, the statistics favored the new sense even more strongly.


  1. Jan Freeman said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    OK, Safire says some weird stuff, and the contrast between lexicographers and "usagists" here qualifies, but I have to defend the word itself. First, let's note that Safire has been using "usagists" since 1983; it was quite familiar by the time I started my Globe column in 1997, and I've used it since then. I don't love it — but what's a good alternative?

    Safire also uses "maven," as Steve Pinker does in that well-known chapter of "The Language Instinct," but that seems a bit offhand once you expand the category of language commentator beyond the noodges and kibitzers in the press. All those 19th-century philologists, editors, amateur scholars like Fowler? Then the 20th century's Evans, Follett, Bernstein? What do we call these people as a collective body of, essentially, fashion critics whose field is "proper" language? MWDEU uses "commentator," but that's a lot of syllables; I find "usagist" quite useful (and I hope transparent), if not especially lovely, to mean simply "person known for issuing opinions on usage."

  2. Posts about Politico as of March 8, 2009 » The Daily Parr said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    […] Hillary Clinton will be is to remember what she did after coming to the Senate eight years ago. A nation of Limbaugh enablers? – languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu 03/08/2009 A couple of days ago, Gail Collins asked (" Just […]

  3. bianca steele said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    It perhaps wasn’t wise for Limbaugh to say “expand my profile” either, but being a Democrat, I certainly am not the de facto leader of the Republican Party! (I was amused when Jane Swift gave a press conference in support of Sarah Palin, a couple of days after I commented on Crooked Timber about some similarities between the two, though I fondly hope there was no connection between the two events.)

    myl, I was intrigued by the idea that there is a definite job description for “usagist,” as for “lexicographer,” and that they have definite rights and responsibilities, respectively. Is your idea these job description is “out there,” and that individuals must discover and instantiate this if they’re to be effective – or is this “merely” a metaphor?

    [(myl) There are certainly job descriptions for various categories of lexicographers, and they certainly include catching things like the new sense of enable that means something like "to facilitate destructive behavior while disapproving of its results". As for "usagist", it's a neologism due to William Safire himself. You might gloss it as "someone who writes about (linguistic) usage for a popular audience", perhaps with the connotation that the focus is more on the facts of the usage than on displays of individual taste — see Jan Freeman's comment and my response. Whatever exactly it means, there are not very many people who would describe their job using that word, and I suspect that their job descriptions are self-created, individually unique, and not explicitly defined. ]

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Jan Freeman: I find "usagist" quite useful (and I hope transparent), if not especially lovely, to mean simply "person known for issuing opinions on usage."

    With all respect due to the highly relevant observations of consigliere Freeman, I need to point out that there's a difference between describing patterns of usage (as Safire is doing here), and offering advice about usage based on personal taste (as he sometimes also does).

    For those who describe patterns of usage, there are plenty of words available, depending on what sort of usage and sort of description we're talking about: lexicographer, linguist, scholar, and so on. I agree that there's no word for those who write about this sort of thing for a popular audience, and perhaps "usagist" would be a good choice.

    But it risks confusion to use the same word for those whose focus is not on how the language is used, but rather on their own reactions and their own opinions about how it ought to be used.

    There's a hybrid meaning — people who give evidence-based usage advice — and perhaps that's the group that ought to be called "usagists".

    But it's still bizarre to let the lexicographers off the hook for enable on the grounds that they're not usagists.

  5. Picky said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    How did Fowler become an "amateur" scholar?

    [(myl) It wasn't easy. First, he quit his job teaching Latin, Greek, and English at the Sedburgh school, and went to London to try his luck as a free-lance writer. Then he moved to the Isle of Guernsey, where he and his brother produced a translation of the works of Lucian of Samosata. Then they produced The King's English, a writing guide that was an enormous success. OUP then commissioned them to produce an abridged version of the OED.

    At some point along the way, you could certainly say that the Fowler brothers became "professional scholars", in the sense that they earned their living from scholarly activities. But they were different from their academic contemporaries like Otto Jespersen or Henry Sweet or William Dwight Whitney, and also from the somewhat earlier giants of amateur scholarship like Hermann Grassmann, in that (as far as I can see) their goal was always to educate the public (and make a living doing it), not to discover new things about the history, structure or use of a language.

    Jan Freeman can speak for herself, but that's how I'd interpret her phrase.]

  6. bianca steele said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    Anyway, the AHD definition of the software usage of "enabled" seems (to my understanding) more accurate than the other two. Encarta, interestingly, gives both an active and a passive usage for the non-software uses of the word, then chooses the wrong one for the software use (definition 4). The MW Collegiate gives the wrong definition but groups it with the correct sense. I guess the "correct" definition — cause to become operable — sounds passive — where "cause to operate" apparently does not. Any number of software engineers and computer scientists could have corrected this (assuming one could be found who hadn't been tech-writered into submission).

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    I have never considered 'enable' to have negative connotations before. Is it solely a trend in American English.

  8. Robert said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Possibly off-topic, but was that the same Hermann Grassmann who invented exterior algebra?

    [(myl) Absolutely. He was also responsible for Grassmann's Laws of Color Vision (basically equivalent to the fact that whole-field color matching works on the basis of projecting the visible spectrum into a three-dimensional linear subspace), the Grassmann's Law that refers to dissimilation of aspiration in Greek and Sanskrit, and a dictionary of Vedic Sanskrit that is still relevant today. The Wikipedia article has some good discussion and links on the mathematical side, but is somewhat skimpy on his philological work.

    For an amusing argument that mathematical physics would have been better off if Grassmann's approach to linear algebra had prevailed, see Stephen Gull et al., "Imaginary Numbers are Not Real — the Geometric Algebra of Spacetime".]

  9. bianca steele said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    Also, the novel Infinite Jest suggests that "addiction" might be used to cover behaviors that aren't actually self-destructive in the natural sense, but just are wrong, immoral, sinful. However, the book is science fiction, set in an indefinite future.

    [(myl) Well, caffeine is highly addictive, and I believe that the jury is still out on whether drinking coffee and tea is helpful or harmful, in the end. As I understand the "recovery movement" (which is not very well), the key issue is the destructiveness rather than the addictiveness. The people in AA meetings, as described in novels anyhow, are traditionally heavy consumers of tobacco and coffee. ]

  10. bianca steele said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    ". . . according to some hard-line schools of 12-Step thought, yoga, reading, politics, gum-chewing, crossword puzzles, solitaire, . . . religious zeal, relentless helpfulness, relentless other-folks'-moral-inventory-taking, the development of hard-line schools of 12-Step thought, ad darn near infinitum . . ." (998)

    It sounds a lot like original sin to me because I've studied AP European History versions of the Reformation, but I know there are other ways it could be interpreted — maybe even in a way that permitted Rush Limbaugh to make sense.

  11. mollymooly said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    I agree with Stephen Jones that this appears to be a purely American sense. I guess 12-step programs are more common there, possibly a vestige of Prohibitionism.

    I do recall from history class one negative resonance of "Enabling".

  12. Picky said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:42 am

    @ Mark Liberman (cc Jan Freeman):

    I think your note on Fowler is nicely done, and your judgement absolutely right. I am ashamed of myself for bridling in such a fashion! Must have been a bad day.

RSS feed for comments on this post