Q: “Inartful” seems to be the word of choice now for excusing comments by public figures that cross the line, especially those by President Trump. However, I can’t find it in my American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Is it a legitimate word?
A: Yes, the adjective “inartful” is a legitimate word that showed up in the early 19th century. But it’s in only one of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “lacking artifice; unsophisticated, unrefined; wanting polish or technical skill. Later also: unsubtle, tactless.”
Wiktionary, an online collaborative dictionary, has only that later sense: “Awkwardly expressed but not necessarily untrue; ill-phrased; inexpedient.” (Merriam-Webster online has an entry for a similarly spelled word, “unartful,” which it defines as “lacking craft” or “lacking skill.”)
“Inartful” is now generally used in that newer sense of being awkwardly expressed, according to our searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.
Although the term was relatively popular in the early 19th century, “inartful” fell out of favor for a century and a half until it was revived in the late 20th century, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.
As you’ve noticed, it’s sometimes used by supporters of President Trump to explain his more controversial comments, though we haven’t seen him use the word himself. Here are a few “inartful” examples from both Democrats and Republicans:
“Do I think some of his verbal formulations are inartful? Yeah” (Ken Blackwell, former mayor of Cincinnati and Trump transition official, on the President’s language, Politico, Aug. 3, 2019).
“I think the president is often inartful, but remarkably effective” (Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker, Washington Examiner, July 16, 2019).
“He said the truth in an inartful way” (Jesse Jackson on former Vice President Joe Biden’s comment that he worked with segregationists when he was in the Senate, Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2019).
“The expression I used the other day was inartful: Of course America is great and, of course, America has always been great” (Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on his saying, two days earlier, “We’re not going to make America great again—it was never that great,” Politico, Aug. 15, 2008).
As for its etymology, “inartful” originally meant lacking artifice—that is, natural. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an early 18th-century political tract: “A Man of plain and Inartful Simplicity of Manners” (from The Life of Aristides the Athenian, anonymously published in Dublin in 1714).
But all of the OED’s examples from the 19th century onward use the word in its negative senses (unskilled, badly done, clumsy, tactless): “lace … clotted together in a very inartful manner” (1831); “inartful language” (1957, describing poor writing); “flawed and inartful drafting” (1986); “this inartful reference to his client’s probable future” (2005).
The word’s origins are simple enough. It was formed, the OED says, when the negative prefix “in-” was added to “artful.” So on the surface, at least, “inartful” is comparable to another “artful” opposite—“artless,” a word that appeared slightly earlier than “artful” in the late 16th century.
Both “artless” (first recorded in 1586) and “artful” (1590) were formed with the addition of suffixes to the noun “art,” which since the 1300s had meant not only skill but also artifice. And these new words formed from “art” reflected its two-pronged meanings.
Consequently, for several hundred years “artless” has meant unskilled, ignorant, inexperienced, clumsy; but it has also meant free of artifice—that is, sincere, natural, without guile. Similarly, “artful” has meant skilled or clever, but it has also meant artificial, cunning, deceitful.
These varied meanings of the two adjectives are still found in current usage, according to standard dictionaries. But in the case of “artless,” the OED says, “the usual sense” now is “without guile; sincere, ingenuous.” And in many standard dictionaries, the leading definition of “artful” is sly or cunning.
Meanwhile, as we said earlier, since the 19th century “inartful” has had only negative meanings—clumsy, tactless, and so on. So while “inartful” and “artless” look like they’d mean the same thing, they’re by no means synonymous as used today.
We borrowed the title of this post from the headline of an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (Aug. 4, 1985). In that column, Safire said “inartful” wasn’t a legitimate word. Even years later, in a 2008 column, he said it was “lexicographically unrecognized” (the OED’s entry for “inartful” was not written until 2009).