Defining Mushy


New York Times, Feb 11, 2001

 New lovers embrace old term of endearment.

With Valentine's Day bearing down on us, you need to know the difference between the pronunciation mooshy (with the first syllable rhyming with whoosh) and mushy (with the first syllable rhyming with hush).

The mooshy locution does not concern lovers. In current usage, the adjective means "pulpy, mealy," an onomatopoeic alteration of the noun mash, a thick, boiled cereal. Mark Twain, in his 1880 "A Tramp Abroad," used that mooshy sense in writing of "mushy, slushy early spring roads."

That meaning, metaphorically extended, landed -- plop! -- in the middle of political terminology as a derogation of moderation. Theodore Roosevelt in 1900 derided "the mushy class" with its "wild and crude plans of social reformations." Nearly a century later, Gov. George W. Bush said, "I'm skeptical about a national test which the federal government could use to promote a feel-good curriculum or mushy curriculum."

Senator Chuck (what kind of name is that for a serious senator?) Hagel said approvingly of Senator Joe Lieberman's partisan oratory in the 2000 campaign that his was "not a faint-of-heart, kind of mushy middle role." Afterward, Senator John Kyl predicted that the Bush cabinet would include "a lot of nominees from the mushy middle."

That's how mooshy developed from "a soft mass" to "soft on the masses" -- undefined, imprecise, fuzzy-edged.

On the other hand, mushy, pronounced with an uh, is back in vogue among lovers. It means "romantic, sentimental, tender." After an explosion that introduces potential lovers in the 1994 movie "Speed," the female character says: "You're not going to get mushy on me, are you? . . . Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last." In 1998 grand-jury testimony, Monica Lewinsky said that she gave an antique book to the president along with "an embarrassing, mushy note." Last year, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard described the conclave that nominated George W. Bush as "a lovey-dovey, mushy convention." Time magazine writes that in the current movie "What Women Want," Mel Gibson, a star who often plays tough-guy roles, "learns to get mushy."

The romantic sense of the word can cross the border into sloppy sentimentality. The novelist Henry Miller wrote in 1927 of "mushing it up in a corner," and a character in Saul Bellow's 1952 "The Adventures of Augie March" spoke of "the kind who'd never . . . let you stick around till 1 a.m. mushing with them on the steps." Rob Long, a screenwriter, reviewed a Fox Television "reality" series last month and asked, "How gooey-mushy could they really be, deep down, if they're willing to head off to Temptation Island to test-drive their monogamy?"

One who overdoes tenderness is called a mushball, which has replaced the earlier mushhead. In the Arctic, husky sled dogs that hear their drivers urge them on with a shout of "Mush!" know that the command is not an endearment but a corruption of the French "Marche!" -- meaning "Move on!"

Those poets and pundits tiring of the voguish mushy in its meaning of "excessively sentimental" might try the Briticism soppy, which means "dreamily silly" or "emotionally overboard," as in this recent Times of London assessment of "canine and feline transition" in Washington: "Mr. Bush genuinely seems to be as soppy about animals as any of his predecessors."

The synonymy of such lovesick sappiness: mawkish is unpleasantly insipid; maudlin is teary (an alteration of the weeping penitent Mary Magdalene); gushy is prone to pour out torrents of flattery; schmaltzy is cornball; gooey implies a substance or emotion both sticky and slithery; squishy-soft is moistly weak; bathetic, from the Greek bathos ("depth"), coined on the analogy of pathos to pathetic, connotes both triteness and insincerity.

Does this mean we should treat the sweetly sentimental mushy with scorn or cynicism? Of course not; we should never forget the gentle quality of romance long attached to the word, at least when pronounced with an uh. But let's not overdo the sentiment; a touch of tartness helps the saccharine go down. As Al Capone's men said to the members of Bugs Moran's gang before lining them up and letting them have it in a Chicago garage, a Happy St. Valentine's Day to all.


"Bush has been minimized and diminished by Hollywood liberals," said Lionel Chetwynd, a Hollywood conservative, about the new president, "and it's reflected in all those 'Saturday Night Live' sketches, which depict him as a doofus."

The derogation doofus popped up in the 60's and is usually thought to be an alteration of goofus, the noun form of goofy. However, the German doof means "dull-witted," and there is this file entry in the Dictionary of American Regional English, harking to the 50's: "As a boy growing up around adults who used German words, I heard 'doofus' a lot . . . to mean something like 'you dumbass.' "

The synonym dumb-ass made its third appearance in The New York Times two months ago when President Clinton was reported to have told the Rolling Stone interviewer Jann Wenner, "And it was only then that I worked out with Colin Powell this dumb-ass 'don't ask, don't tell' thing."

The magazine immediately issued a correction, saying that its stenographer had erred in transcribing don't ask as dumb-ass, which suggested that the president had repeated the phrase. The White House's recording of the interview had been taped over, perhaps in a fit of frugality, and a Clinton spokesman was pleased to accept Rolling Stone's apology.

Apparently the sensitivity to the possible use of the term stemmed from a notion that dumb-ass is a mild vulgarism referring to the posterior. More likely, it is a variant of jackass, the name of an innocent animal that bears the burden of frequent disparagement for stubbornness or stupidity.

Both as a modifier and as a noun, dumb-ass should be hyphenated as an aid to avert pronunciation of the silent b. Caution should be exercised in applying dumb to a person who is mute, because of the second sense of the word, meaning "unintelligent," but as a noun, dumb-ass can be used without shame as a suitable synonym for doofus.

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