Are we inured yet?

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The December 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek contains an article called, “Desperate Housewares”, a catchy title that plays off the name of a popular television program called “Desperate Housewives” (full disclosure: I’ve never watched this program but I do subscribe to Newsweek). In the article was this sentence:

Shoppers seem inured to the relentless Christmas spirit.

From this I’d guess that most readers understand that shoppers are accustomed to and even accept this relentless Christmas spirit and that it’s not a good thing– except perhaps for the retail trades. Inure, that is, conveys something negative here. Hold that thought while I describe a very different use of inure.

Recently I’ve been helping the Montana Department of Revenue revise the thousand or so letters the tax people mail to taxpayers. It’s been an interesting experience, about which I intend to post more at some other time. But for now, let me cite the following sentence that appears in a number of letters sent to corporations about their tax status:

No part of the net income of a Montana tax-exempt organization can inure to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.

So now we see two somewhat dissimilar meanings of inure (both are given in MWCD, by the way). Inure conveys something bad when shoppers are inured to the relentless Christmas spirit. On the other hand, to the tax people inure can convey an advantage or benefit that stockholders or individuals might get in their business lives. But this positive advantage for these stockholders can also be judged to be bad (not legal by Montana law), making this good thing a non-acceptable bad thing, at least in the context of corporate taxation. Are we confused yet?

I challenged the use of inure in this letter, but the lawyers in the tax department strongly objected. I argued that these tax letters are replacing a word with one meaning that lay people know with a word that has another meaning known only to lawyers (probably) and accountants (possibly). But the lawyers informed me that inure is one of those magical words that is absolutely necessary for legal reasons. Still, it seemed to me that it would be clearer to readers, even corporate readers, if the letter would say:

No part of the net income of a Montana tax-exempt
organization can financially benefit any private stockholder or

To my thinking anyway, if we would replace “can inure to the benefit of” with the simpler, “can financially benefit,” the letter would covey the same thing and avoid the possibility of confusing readers with the apparent dual meanings (one positive and one negative) of inure.

I didn’t win this battle. The lawyers prevailed as they usually do and inure remains in the letters. But am reminded of how confusing it can be to have one word with two or more fairly different meanings, like sanction, for example, which is used to mean both “to agree” and “to criticize or condemn.”

Maybe corporations aren’t confused by this use of inure, but I’ll bet a whole lot of people are.

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