Speaking of Which | The Suspicious Object

10 May,2013

By Vidya Heble


How many times in the recent past have we heard “If you see any suspicious object, please inform…” When there is absolutely nothing else to occupy the funny zone, my mind sometimes conjures up the image of a package lurking behind a potted plant, peering out suspiciously at oblivious passers-by.


Because, although it is a battle already lost, suspicious means that one feels suspicious or one suspects (v) something, and suspect (adj) means that one is under suspicion. Which, if one is a person, makes one a suspect (n). (But if one is a suitcase, it makes one an object of suspicion.) Suspicious implies cognizance, the ability to question the integrity or trustworthiness of a person, event or thing. To put it simply, a package can’t suspect something. Only a living person (or sniffer dog, come to think of it) can.


But almost no one is fighting this battle any more. Terror threats have made all packages, objects, suitcases and bulging black bags suspicious, and it is too huge an Augean stable to even start cleaning up. Although I have to note this: In Singapore, the announcements on one of the train lines use “suspicious-looking” instead of just “suspicious”. (Different companies run different train lines in Singapore, so the uniforms as well the announcements differ.)


If you search for an answer to this question, the most common result is a reference to grammarian Wilson Follett’s comment (under transitive/intransitive) in Modern American Usage (1966): “‘Suspicious’ should designate the persons harboring a suspicion and ‘suspect’, the person who is the object of it.”


Another word that falls into this category of animating the inanimate, is “vexed question”. I’ve been very pleased to note that some publications have been using the correct word, that is “vexing” (or “vexatious”). Because, of course, it is the reader who is vexed, not the question.


Post a Comment 

Comments are closed.