judging judgment

Are You Judging Me

Go to thesaurus.com and type in judgmental. Your list of synonyms will include arbitrary, personal, irresponsible/frivolous, unreasonable/irrational, and, my favorite of the bunch, injudicious.

Judicious and judgmental both come from the root jud-, which relates to making decisions and forming opinions. From a linguistic standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense for the word judgmental to be synonymous with injudicious, the negation of judicious.

Now, I understand that language evolves. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands in the face of synonyms like inflammable and flammable. No one wants English to be subject to the council of les immortels telling us how to speak and adjudicating the proper English vocabulary, or end up a dead language like Latin, killed by overregulation.

For instance, “judgment” might go the way of gentleman and lose all useful meaning. My father is fond of sardonically noting that news reports will often refer to a suspect being arrested or pursued by police as “the gentleman.”

This is a far cry from the precise usage Jane Austen makes of the word gentleman when Lady Catherine casts shade on Lizzie Bennet’s station. She retorts, “I am the daughter of a gentleman,” a phrase packed with cultural significance and relevant information in the way the former instance is certainly not.

Or perhaps judgmental will go the way of temper and become something totally other than it was. Depending on context, English speakers can use temper to mean either someone’s emotions and expressions of anger, or the control he has over those, as in the phrases to have a good temper and to be ill-tempered.

We still have the phrases lose your temper and the more archaic hold your temper that reference temper’s derivation from the virtue temperance in everyday English. The comparatively nonsensical he has a temper or what a temper! are still far more commonly heard, however.

It is because Thesaurus.com goes by the more colloquial usage of the word, that this particular word paradox gives me pause. If judgmental and injudicious are now synonyms in the mind of the average English speaker, I think it reveals something more than a fun linguistic contradiction — really, it points to our society’s moral confusion.

The other day a girl told me that she feels like people are “judging” the mentally handicapped children she works with, for something they can’t control. I couldn’t figure out what she meant. “Judging” how? Expressing discomfort? Pitying? Disapproving of their behavior in public? Whatever the case, she was certainly “judging” the inferred thoughts of those other people.

Moral judgment and prudence were once intertwined as part of the complex and unique thing called man’s Reason. According to Dr. D’Andrea, Shakespearean scholar, the great men of the European Renaissance believed that the act of “judging developed the powers of Reason.”

Today, people tend to associate judicious with making prudential decisions and judgmental with forming moral opinions. The two became dissociated when the culture began to favor relativism and to reject adopting universal stances on moral questions. Now, when people say that others are “judging you,” they mean condemning.

What a fall for judgmental: from the necessary companion of wise decisions and mature reason to the target of baseless hostility. Any Renaissance man would find the idea that judgmental could be synonymous with unreasonable and irrational, let alone injudicious, akin to the meaningless babbling. 

I for one mourn that such associations seem natural and right to today’s English speakers. Languages must grow and change like all living things, yes. The sad case of judgmental reminds us, though, that change can be not growth, but decay.

Author: Stephanie Helmick

Stephanie Helmick studied Economics, History, and Mathematics at George Mason University. She began her academic career investigating libertarianism, proceeded to church history, dallied in Shakespearean literature, and currently revels in graphic novels and all things Disney.

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