Saturday, May 26, 2007

natty = naughty

John McIntyre, assistant managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, ran slightly afoul of the evolving definition of a word that, as far as he knew, was just fine. He recounts:

An article came to the copy desk with a phrase about nattily
people. And a couple of copy editors came to me wanting to change it to smartly dressed. Why? I asked. Natty is a perfectly innocuous word, usually applied, with some condescension, to people who wear bow ties.

No, they said; it means gross and dirty. Huh? I shrewdly asked.

And indeed, it seems that natty is a term that means different things to different generations. McIntyre was invited to visit, where among the many (different) defintinions, he found this:

Something gross, low-class or unclean. Originally meaning neat in apperance, the word natty ironically became its an antonym for itself over time, thanks in large part to its adoption by Rastafarian slang.

McIntyre is editing for a wide audience. Maybe a lot of people still recognize natty as having mostly positive connotations, but if the term is evolving and some people -- indeed, of some of the paper's younger editors -- react negatively to the term, then ok. He changed it.


James Boone Dryden said...

I read the same article this week. I found it interesting that within one newspaper there could be that broad a gap in editorial staff to have two completely different connotations to the same word. I'm of the younger generation, but honestly I would never have thought to put a negative meaning on 'natty'. Then, again, I can't think of ever having used the word 'natty'.

Grant Barrett said...

I can't find anyone besides the author of that UD post that sees "natty" as negative. As I wrote in the comments, I'm surprised that McIntyre accepted Urban Dictionary as a source. There's that single negative use on Urban Dictionary and then...nothing. Nobody else defines it that way, even on Urban Dictionary. In fact, Urban Dictionary visitors rate that entry poorly, giving it 22 thumbs-down and 5 thumbs-up. If you do a search on blogs, news, or any other kind of recent text, all you'll find is positive "natty," one use after the other. I find no negative uses in my daily word-hunting and none of the three dictionaries I have of Caribbean or Jamaican English define it that way. In fact, none of the dictionaries I checked (I have hundreds, but checked only a few that specialize in slang) define it negatively. It's possible that it's some burgeoning slang among 22-year-olds in Baltimore, but if so, that negative "natty" is an outlier that can safely be ignored.

WordzGuy said...

Interesting. McIntyre is in the position, perhaps, of not being able to determine from available evidence (in his newsroom, anyway) whether the term is in fact apt to have the wrong denotation for a subaudience, so he opts for the safest approach. I can see his dilemma, and I can also see that lexicographic research might not be that useful for his purposes; if he's got (presumably trusted) editors telling him he shouldn't use a word, then dang, let's not use it. Though I take your point that is an unusually poor source of definitions.

In a sense, this seems like the reverse of the pimp/suck situation, where a term that probably would give John the willies might in fact be ok with a younger audience, who might not even know that there is an offensive connotation to those terms, dunno.

On a kind of side note -- maybe I should have an entry on this -- we had a dust-up at work the other day about the verb execute in such contexts as execute the command. (I'm in software.) The term had been flagged by the terminology watchdogs as "potentially offensive," with a recommended substitution of to run. Quite a few people pushed back on this, both noting that in the programming community, to execute was an extremely common term, and secondarily, where are the legions of allegedly offended readers who have complained about this term?

The term was allowed.

zara said...

Actually, I had always thought "natty" was a pejorative term, not because I actually knew what it meant (English is my second language) but because the sci-fi show "Firefly", known to use expressions from ancient west times, used it in one of its episodes and from the context, I got the feeling that it was not a good thing. For reference, see Act One of the "Out of Gas" script.

Brendan said...

I wonder if "natty" came to have negative connotations because of an initial confusion with "nappy."

As Wemus know by now, "nappy" is considered offensive by many.

This also calls to mind the effective banishing of the word "niggardly," which still has only one definition (stingy), but almost no one dares use it anymore. For obvious reasons.

morinn said...

your blog is very helpful. thanx

Adam Freedman said...

Maybe people are confusing "natty" with "tatty" or even "nasty."

In the event of confusion, we lawyers would invoke the doctrine of "mitior sensus" (the mildest sense). The meaning of this doctrine is that if you sue me for slander for having called you "natty," the court would opt for the non-slanderous definition of the term. Here it would be, as they say, a no-brainer, since the slanderous interpretation is shaky at best.

But courts do take the mitior sensus doctrine very seriously. Until 1996, Illinois law held that the word "slut" was not slanderous because one could interpret it "mildly" to refer to someone who is just a little untidy -- or un-natty.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in England in the 1960s and 70s. The first thing that jumps into my head when I see "natty" written is the Bob Marley song "Natty Dread", and the LP named for it, which have entirely positive connotations.

BUT, I don't instantly connect "natty" in that name with "nattily". "Nattily" is something I'd probably never say, or even hear, but it does exist as an almost fossilised and unproductive form "nattily dressed". (i.e. if I see "nattily" written I'd assume the next word was going to be "dressed" or something similar)

I'm not sure it has entirely positive connotations. It does mean neatly dressed but it has overtones of trying too hard. Also it sounds rather old-fashioned. I'd imagine a small, possibly old, man in an out-of-date suit.

It had never before occurred to me that the "natty" in "natty dread" was the same as the nickname "Natty" for Bob Marley's rasta. And certainly not that anyone would use it to mean dirty or unpleasant.

Maybe things are different in Baltimore. Over here in London Bob Marley was, and is, a huge star. So something that reminds people of his songs is likely to acquire a positive feel, not a negative one.

dhd said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sd said...

natty dread... (person with) knotty dreadlocks