From Rebecca Mead, reviewing the unfortunate David Brooks, in The New Yorker: “Even if Brooks is the kind of writer who makes you want to preface your sentences with the phrase “Brooks isn’t wrong to point out,” Brooks isn’t wrong to point out that the examination of what comprises a moral life, an examination that came as second nature to his subjects, has fallen out of cultural favor, at least in the overachieving circles of the meritocracy.”
The New Yorker, please, The New Yorker. (You’d have to know their old ad campaign to get that construction.) But we’ll come back to The New Yorker.
First I want you to know this is an elegy and a tearful one, metaphorically, now that we can fully say goodbye to a word that used to mean (and quite elegantly served to mean) the opposite of what it seems by popular consent to mean now. That word is ‘comprise’. ‘To comprise’ means (sorry, meant) ‘to include or contain or be made up of”, and was, like include or contain, a strong assertively transitive verb insisting on an object, that object being invariably one or more entities or notions included in the realm of the sentence’s subject. The federal government of the United States comprises three independent branches of authority, decision-making, and power. It is not “comprised of” them; it comprises them.
When in the late 1990s Adelphi University dramatically changed management the new leadership appointed a committee of worthies to construct a new, meaningless mission statement to supplant, importantly, the previous, meaningless mission statement. After the committee was at work some months, its chairman sent the new text over to me, head of the propaganda arm of the institution. It began, “Adelphi University is comprised of….” etc. I told the committee chair that such would not be printed by us until it was fixed — to say Adelphi University comprises or Adelphi University is made up of, consists of, or something else along those lines. On account, I said, of us being a university, see? I felt it behooved us not to lead our mission statement with an error. He agreed.
But he needn’t have done so because soon enough the digital version of The Oxford English Dictionary, available in the school’s library and by web access to the library databases, listed a new, at the time 7th definition of ‘comprise’ — not its usual “consists of” but instead, “constitute”, or, essentially, the opposite of its traditional meaning. At the time the folks at Oxford just slipped that baby in there but now if you look online you’ll find they try to explain this theological mystery, this Miracle of transubstantiation:
Comprise primarily means ‘consist of,’ as in the country comprises twenty states. It can also mean ‘constitute or make up a whole,’ as in this single breed comprises 50 percent of the Swisscattle population. When this sense is used in the passive (as in the country is comprised of twenty states), it is more or less synonymous with the first sense ( the country comprises twenty states)….
Here, let’s repeat: ‘The country is comprised of twenty states‘ is “more or less” synonymous with ‘the country comprises twenty states‘…
More or less synonymous. As my name is ‘more or less’ synonymous with ‘genius’ and ‘hottie’. Okay, thanks lads and lasses. It is bread AND it is flesh. Now move along.
The mystery of how these two usages are ‘more or less synonymous’ is one the dictionary needs politically to stay away from because it makes traditionalists so angry, and Oxford, well, has a lot of them to contend with. As happens in English, which has no academy to oversee usage, a completely erroneous usage became so common that it was simply, perforce, no longer erroneous. That’s how English works, and we have to live with it. What’s funny and so annoying about this new version of ‘comprise’ is that it’s a kind of magnet word now, akin to ‘surge’, it’s everywhere, always used incorrectly. This usage has obliterated any knowledge or application of the original meaning.
And so The New Yorker people have no choice but to allow such a usage (along with Brooks’s quoted misuse of ‘their’: “‘Very rarely did he call anyone by their first name,’ Brooks observes of [George] Marshall…” and very rarely did Marshall, I bet, use the possessive pronoun “their” in reference to the antecedent “anyone.” The New Yorker once would have put a ‘sic’ after that ‘their’ but no more.
It’s just that — I know, I know this is becoming an Andy Rooney routine and you want to throw a can of tomatoes at my head — some words and usages will forever annoy me. And my dear New Yorker: this use of ‘comprise’ constitutes one.