Being couth

The word choice in this lead from Sunday’s paper drew a call from one reader to our public editor:

The American Kennel Club is trying to make coonhounds couth.

The reader wondered if “couth” is a word. He couldn’t find it in his dictionaries. He had heard “uncouth,” but not “couth.”

This is sort of a wink-wink word. The word is a back-form from “uncouth,” the dictionaries say. The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary notes that the word is facetious and means “refinement.” Back in the late 19th century, some funny person decided to make a joke and create a word that was the opposite of “uncouth.” It stuck. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s entry on “couth” quotes writer S.J. Perelman, a noted humorist from the 20th century: “I expected kindness, gentility and couth, but there is such a thing as too much.”

But Bryan Garner notes in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” that the word “has never been accepted by authorities as a proper word.”

In the lead of the coonhound story, I read “couth” as humorous. It is not a “proper” word, but if you read it with a wink, you’ll get it. I wouldn’t use “couth” in a serious news story or in an academic paper, but it seems fine for feature stories. Unless, of course, it distracts the reader to the point that he or she stops reading.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.