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March 25, 2012

In today’s Indie on Sunday I read the following line in Robert Chalmers’ interview of Alain de Botton: ‘…in his latest book… his capacity to enervate has never been more effectively demonstrated’. What did he mean?  As anyone who’s troubled to look it up in a dictionary will know, enervate means to weaken, debilitate, drain the spirit out of, literally to remove the nerve from (e-nerv-ate). Can Chalmers have this meaning in mind? It doesn’t seem to fit the context, which is all about how de Botton’s work polarises readers and can be annoying. It’s possible that Chalmers was making the common mistake of thinking that enervate means energise, because it sounds similar; but again that doesn’t quite fit the context.

My theory is that Chalmers used enervate to mean annoy or irritate; there is a French verb, enerver, which means just that, and Chalmers seems to know French (at least he quotes Camus and mentions a French expression  in the interview). But it doesn’t mean that in English. Still, it would be an original misuse.

The interview, by the way, was a strangely testy affair. It’s clear the two men didn’t get on and at times it reads as if Chalmers  went round to de Botton’s house with the purpose of  having a go at him. He also doesn’t rate de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which I think is very good indeed. (I reviewed it two years ago and gave it 5 Stars; see )

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