Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Imminent vs. Incipient

There has been an interesting and sometimes amusing debate in the past two days, taking place at several blogs and originating at The Washington Note, concerning the difference between incipient and imminent (a debate in which I play a very minor role). A few days ago, Brent Scowcroft warned that we may be witnessing an incipient civil war in Iraq. Cue David Frum of National Review, warning of the dangers of Scowcroftian cynicism and misquoting Scowcroft as having said "imminent" civil war.

Steve Clemons of The Washington Note, who had chaired the gathering at which Scowcroft spoke, quickly took issue and demanded a correction. Steve's issue was about more than merely a misquote, as he believed that imminent is a more forceful, and perhaps fatalistic, term than incipient; in other words, Steve was calling it blatant mischaracterization.

Well, the comment threads started filling up pretty fast. Here was my contribution, though I was admittedly unsure:

I don't agree with Bertignac's characterization of Scowcroft, but I do have to say that 'imminent' would probably have been more of a cautionary word than 'incipient,' as the Cambridge dictionary lists 'imminent' as meaning "coming or likely to happen" while 'incipient' means "beginning."

Incipient: 1. Beginning; commencing; coming into, or in an early stage of, existence; in an initial stage.

That is from the OED. The definitions from both Cambridge and Oxford certainly make 'incipient' sound less cautionary than 'imminent'. Scowcroft would be suggesting that the Iraq Civil War had begun, rather than suggesting that there was a danger of civil war as was his intention. On the other hand, 'imminent' is usually used in a point-of-no-return sense, so using either word is quite strong in this case.

So, I understood that Scowcroft was warning of the danger of civil war, but I took issue with Steve's interpretation of imminent being a harsher assessment. Another commenter then assured me that in oncology and war incipient has a special meaning:

In warfare (much like in oncology), "incipient" has the special connotation of the formation or presence of detectable precursors or conditions precedent, perhaps bounded by embryonic initializing at the latest. In any event, it implies advance warning, and that the potential event or outcome may or may not materialize.

That seemed to satisfy most people, but then a particularly grumpy David Frum awoke:

Clemons accuses me of accidentally or purposely sensationalizing Scowcroft by substituting the word “imminent” for the word “incipient” in my paraphrase. You might think that’s a rather flimsy basis on which to build 500 words of scolding and sneering. But look again at those dictionary entries that Clemons pasted into his piece, and you’ll see the truth is rather more embarrassing for him even than that, which is that Clemons jumbled the meaning of the two words he lectured me on. Even with a dictionary open in front of him, he still managed to tumble down the linguistic stairs and end up, as the saying goes, with his head where his tail should be, thus:

The word “imminent” in English describes something that is about to happen. The word “incipient” describes something that actually has commenced

Frum went on to be quite rude to Clemons and Sully. Even Josh Marshall looked up from his Social Security crusade to take note.

Steve consents to leave the debate up to the linguists, but ends with a mightily painful jab for Frum.

Where do we stand now? I thought incipient meant something like "early" or "embryonic" (and Steve assures me that his significant other agrees), but if we can find some oncologists who will attest to this special meaning then I am open to being convinced. And I am already convinced that Frum is a dick.

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