Words: Suspicious

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SINCE English has the biggest vocabulary of any language, it is odd that we so often use the same word for different things. For example, the death last week of the MP Stephen Milligan was described as having been 'in suspicious circumstances', a formal police phrase. Whatever the cause, it wasn't a natural one. If, on the other hand, we say a person is suspicious, the word might well mean something else altogether. Either case implies some sort of doubt, but they are travelling in opposite directions: a suspicious person is getting a disturbing message, while a suspicious thing - package, circumstance or whatever - is what transmits the message. One is to do with the thing described, the other with the person describing it.

The rhetorical term for this sort of thing is hypallage, or transferred epithet, and usually it works fine (as in 'he had a sharp tongue'). But this time it doesn't. The police meaning of 'suspicious' can be used about people too. So what are we to conclude when we hear of 'a suspicious person'? That there is something fishy about them, or merely that they are the mistrustful type? Could be either.

The ancient Romans, from whom English took the word, were even more ambivalent about it, since suspicere also meant 'to admire'. But the Romans, with their smaller range of words, had more excuse. Such confusion should never have been necessary, because there was a good alternative in another word from Latin - 'suspect'. It is already used as a noun by police about those they want to question. If we were logical, we would reserve 'suspicious' for people's feelings and 'suspect' for the cause of them.

But we aren't, so we don't, and now we never will, because 'suspect' has gone its own way. It can be used of the smaller irritations, such as milk that might be sour, or a possibly defective machine. It lacks the sense of deep unease we get when we hear of a man dying 'in suspicious circumstances'.