Trend Watch

Clinton Says Half of Trump Supporters Are in a 'Basket of Deplorables'

Lookups for 'deplorable' spike following comments at a New York fund-raiser

Hillary Clinton’s use of the word deplorables when describing “half of Trump supporters” sent many people to the dictionary to look up the word. At a fund-raiser in New York, on Friday night Clinton said:

To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.

Donald Trump’s campaign demanded an apology for the remark.

One reason some people may have looked up the word may be that it seems unfamiliar: deplorable is defined as an adjective meaning either “lamentable” or “deserving censure or contempt,” a synonym of “wretched” or “abominable.” But Clinton’s use in the plural, deplorables, marks the word as a noun—and deplorable is not defined as a noun in Merriam-Webster dictionaries. (Deplorableness is given as the noun form.)

Clinton’s use of deplorables is ambiguous: the word could be defined here as “people who are deplorable” or “qualities or characteristics that are deplorable.” Part of the ambiguity comes from the novelty of the usage, since deplorable is rarely used as a noun in this way. The Oxford English Dictionary does include a rare use of deplorable as a noun dating to the early 1800s, defined as “deplorable ills,” as in “rheumatism and other deplorables.” There's another example in the February 8, 1838 edition of the Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY): "You have already been informed of all the steps taken by the government to put a final period to these commotions, and I trust that the authors of the deplorables committed in New Mexico, will meet their just reward."

Deplorables has been used as a noun more recently, but it's rare:

Secretary Robert H. Finch of the Health, Education and Welfare Department, announcing the final wording of the statement, conceded it was a compromise--"a delicate balance" between a "list of deplorables" and their ratio of incidence.
The Omaha World-Herald, 8 April 1970

A 1996 letter to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle offered a "list of personal deplorables" in which the author bemoaned everything from child abuse to the burning of churches, "one deplorable after another."

Adjectives are often used as noncount nouns: “the beautiful,” “the sublime,” “the just,” and even “the unemployed.” When used as count nouns they can draw attention to a particular quality exhibited by a group: “the ancients,” “the dailies.”

Deplore ultimately comes from the Latin word deplorare, from plorare meaning “to wail” or “to lament” with the prefix de-, used in this case to underscore or intensify the meaning of the word (just as de- is used in words like declare and declaim).

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