The Grammarphobia Blog

Problems, problems

Q: Many people use “problematic” to mean “posing a problem,” as Frank Luntz did when he told a group of college students that Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio were “problematic” for the Republican Party. Isn’t this usage problematic?

A: Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster, made his comment on April 22, 2013, to students at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

He said Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and other conservative radio personalities were “problematic” for Republicans and “destroying” their ability to connect with more voters.

Is this usage problematic—that is, questionable? We don’t think so.

Luntz was using “problematic” as an adjective meaning “presenting a problem or difficulty,” a usage that’s been around since the early 1600s.

In addition, “problematic” (or “problematics”) has been used as a noun since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s how the OED defines the adjective: “Of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty; difficult to resolve; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.”

And this is how the dictionary defines the noun: “A thing that constitutes a problem or an area of difficulty, esp. in a particular field of study.”

English adopted the adjective “problematic” from the French problématique, which was derived via Latin from the Greek problematikos (pertaining to a problem).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that problema, the Greek word for “problem,” combines the prefix pro, or forward, with the verb ballein, or throw (source of the English word “ballistic”).

“Things that are ‘thrown out’ project and can get in the way and hinder one,” Ayto says, “and so problema came to be used for an ‘obstacle’ or ‘problem’—senses carried through into the English problem.”

If you’d like to read more, we discussed “problematic” and the older adjective “problematical” in a posting five years ago.

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