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The Age of the Nontroversy

A useful word for the proliferation of useless stories. I'm mystified by the harsh treatment of Washington Wizard Gilbert...


A useful word for the proliferation of useless stories.
I'm mystified by the harsh treatment of Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas, whose only crimes appear to be bringing unloaded guns to work and having an overactive sense of humor. With all the athletes who have actually assaulted people, I don't see why this guy needs to be banned indefinitely and crucified in the media. What's the big deal?

It turns out there's a word for this: nontroversy. I spotted it in that new-word banquet The Word Spy. This nifty negation of "controversy" is the most useful neologism I've seen in donkey's years. Like "truthiness," it is a versatile word that encompasses a boatload of bullshit.

Word Spy curator Paul McFedries traces the word back to at least 1998, when Tom Keegan wrote in The New York Post of slugger Mark McGwire: "It's not a controversy; it's a nontroversy. The pills Mark McGwire pops to increase the pop in his bat are over-the-counter substances that are not banned by Major League Baseball. He is not, repeat, not cheating." That's a bad job of guessing McGwire's true drug regimen-the big guy recently admitted to longtime steroid use-but an excellent job of word-coining.

"Nontroversy" has a less-catchy sibling/synonym, the "manufactroversy." Though quite a mouthful, manufactroversy does add a level of meaning by highlighting the cooked-up-edness of contemporary kerfuffles. A 2009 quote about autism and vaccines nails the spirit of this word, as Harriet Hall wrote in Skeptic: "During a question and answer session after a talk I recently gave, I was asked for my opinion about the vaccine/autism controversy. That was easy: my opinion is that there is no controversy. The evidence is in. The scientific community has reached a clear consensus that vaccines don't cause autism. There is no controversy. There is, however, a manufactroversy-a manufactured controversy-created by junk science, dishonest researchers, professional misconduct, outright fraud, lies, misrepresentations, irresponsible reporting, unfortunate media publicity, poor judgment, celebrities who think they are wiser than the whole of medical science, and a few maverick doctors who ought to know better." That last sentence is about the best definition I can imagine: Think Tom Cruise pooh-poohing medication or Sarah Palin inventing death panels. It just takes one loud and famous naysayer to spread misinformation. Whammo: A manufactroversy is born.

In one of many humbling moments in my own life, I kept writing "notroversy" instead of "nontroversy" while drafting this article. I spotted the goof before turning this in, but I feel a little better in knowing I'm not the only one who thinks that version sounds more natural. "Notroversy"-sometimes written "NOTroversy" for emphasis-is used here and there; I found examples that pooh-poohed various stories about evolution, the birthers, and the army reserves. On a message board, David Bradbury used the word in a discussion about fossils and Christianity: "This is what I like to call a ‘NOTroversy.' You know, making a controversy over nothing." Maybe I'm just embracing my own idiocy, but I think this version sounds best.

However you spell it, "nontroversy" has the virtue of being a bipartisan tool. Most of us can agree that the extravagant claims of truthers and tenthers are both nontroversies, but on other topics, mileage varies. Many people disagree with me about the Gilbert Arenas situation. Tiger Woods harem-gate may be a nontroversy to his most true-believing fans. Joe Biden's Bidenisms could be considered controversial or nontroversial. When the Obamas' fist bump was labeled a "terrorist fist jab," that was a nontroversy for the ages, but not to all. Like beauty and obscenity, nontroversy is in the eye of the beholder.

A use from about a year ago gets very close to the meat of the word, as T.M. Lindsey wrote in the Political Fallout blog: "Unfortunately a number of gotcha moments only became controversial when the media, like blood-deprived leeches, clung to the nontroversy and spun it through its continuous loop of 24-hours news, which only contains an estimated 30 minutes of new news according to a recent Political Fallout study." It's that blood-sucking quality of the media that causes nontroversies: You've got to feed the beast, and nothing feeds the beast like a bogus brouhaha.

Illustration by Will Etling

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