It’s charming, though not conducive to speedy reading, to come across an older, semantically more transparent, use of a word that you’ve encountered only in its current idiomatic sense. So it was this morning with this passage from the NYT Week in Review, “Is It Hot in Here? Must Be Global Warming.” (by Tom Zeller Jr.):

For Eric J. Johnson, the director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School and a co-author of the study [on the “correlation between a participant’s stance on global warming and how he perceived the outdoor temperature” at the moment], the findings highlight the pitfalls of policymaking by poll, gived that opinions on such a complex issue appear susceptible to highly impertinent data.

That’s impertinent ‘not pertinent, not germane’.

This sense of impertinent has a long history. OED2 has it —

2. Not pertaining to the subject or matter in hand; not pertinent; not to the point; irrelevant. Now rare exc. in Law.

from Chaucer on. But all the cites from the 18th century on are in legal sources.

Instead, after some development from earlier senses, we eventually get, in the 17th century, the sense in general use for some time:

5. Of persons, their actions, etc.: Meddling with what is beyond one’s province; intrusive, presumptuous; behaving without proper respect or deference to superiors or strangers; insolent or saucy in speech or behaviour. (The chief current sense in colloq. use.)

Don’t know who was the source of impertinent in the global warming story: Johnson the Columbia researcher, Zeller the NYT reporter, or an editor who changed the wording in Zeller’s copy (perhaps from “susceptible to highly irrelevant data”). But it looks like someone in this chain had experience with legal language.

For the rest of us, the effect borders on the poetic. Indeed, poets sometimes exploit the crowd of associations that come with words’ earlier histories.

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