Monday, September 29, 2014

Master Mind

A critic praised the director’s work in a recent play, calling it “masterful.” Since the primary definition of masterful is “imperious, domineering, bullying,” it might be supposed that the word should have been masterly.  Masterly means “demonstrating a thorough knowledge, a superior skill.”

This distinction between the two words is insisted upon in the Oxford English Dictionary. Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage upholds that view, suggesting the words are often confounded because of the awkwardness of saying masterlily, when the word is used adverbially.  It sounds much better to say the play was “masterfully directed.”

But wait!  Merriam-Webster says this hard-and-fast distinction between the two words is a recent innovation, and that historically masterful and masterly both had two meanings: “domineering, like a master,” but also “skilled and knowledgeable, like a master.” Both –ful and –ly (as well as –ous and ­–ish) are suffixes that can be attached to nouns to form adjectives indicating likeness. Sometimes as with masterful and masterly (or wonderful and wondrous), adjectives with similar meanings develop with different suffixes.

Both masterful and masterly developed by the fifteenth century with the same double meanings. Somewhere along the way masterly lost the primary meaning of “imperious” and came to mean only the second, i.e.  “skilled and knowledgeable.”

According to the folks at Merriam-Webster, an unnamed twentieth-century grammar Nazi decreed that since masterly had lost one of its meanings, it would be only fitting that masterful should also lose one.  Therefore, this pundit concluded, masterful henceforth could mean only “domineering,” not “skillful.”

So go ahead and call the director “masterful” if you like. She may be skillful, but chances are, being a director, she's probably pretty imperious, too.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou qualifies as a master—of cognitive chaos, philosophical incoherence, and verbal dreck.  A case in point:

            A masterly Master of Arts
            Was renowned for the sound of his farts.
                        Each time he was goosed,
                        The effect it produced
            Was greater than the sum of his parts.

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