Advertisers and politicians latch on to fashionable words to sell their products – remember vision, excellence, and mission statement? The 2000s have seen a plague of the word passionate, particularly in the more liberal leaning newspapers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), its main senses are “marked by anger, easily moved, dominated by intense emotion, vehement, moved by deep sexual love.” All of these are fairly negative in tone. Being passionate means feeling a strong, uncontrollable emotion.
A quotation from John Donne is typical:
Art is the most passionate orgy within man’s grasp.
Or W. B. Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So in what sense should we take remarks such as:
I’m absolutely passionate about the Middle East.
The speaker is angry about it? He’s vehement? He’s one of Yeats’s worst?
How about a hospital that is:
Passionate about patients
Do they love them sexually? Are they extremely angry with them?
The Web soon locates further examples:
Passionate about: concrete … plants … travel … punctuation … pedaling … pashmina … sustainability … cannabis … the au pair … London … penstemon … purple … soft condensed matter.
Just what strong uncontrollable feelings do people have for these diverse objects?
Of course none of these uses are close to the traditional dictionary meanings. They mean something like “people who care about something.” The adjective passionate has been back-formed anew from the noun passion, stripped of a thousand years of negative meanings. The writers seem unaware of any negative possibilities, otherwise they would hardly confess to being passionate about the au pair. This does English more of a disservice than any of the usual sins decried by newspaper letter-writers and media presenters, such as abuse of the apostrophe or the splitting of infinitives – the deliberate use of a word that sounds vaguely positive with all specific meaning drained from it.