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Words sometimes pop up out of nowhere, startling one into a brief voyage of discovery. This one appeared in a recent speech by the Republican US Senator Arlen Specter on the Homeland Security Bill. Presumably it had been coined from problem on the model of troublesome.

In following it up I first gained the impression that the senator had created it, since 11 of the 14 examples I found in newspapers and magazines were quotes from him. Nick Shearing, one of the OED’s editors, kindly searched out the earliest instance in a newspaper, which was in the Washington News of February 1982. This also quoted the Senator: “I think it has a very problemsome potential for Republicans”, so seeming to support my theory. But, alas, Fred Shapiro of the Yale Law School then found an older one in a court report from 1979 and so brought the whole edifice of surmise tumbling down.

The story actually turns out to be rather more interesting, since it looks as though it may have been independently invented by many people. Searching more widely, I found about 700 examples in Web pages and Usenet groups, which come from a wide variety of American sources going back 20 years. A couple of examples have also turned up from British newspapers. However, it isn’t in any dictionary I know of. It’s yet another example of the way that terms can exist in the language for years without drawing mainstream attention, no doubt because newspaper sub-editors and publishers’ copy editors blue-pencil it unless it’s a direct quote.

Views on it will vary from dismissing it as an illiterate mistake to regarding it as a valid and intriguing form. My feeling tends towards the latter: there’s nothing about it that renders it odder than bothersome, clamoursome, grumblesome, lonesome, shuddersome, or any of a couple of hundred others you can find in big dictionaries. What holds us back from embracing it is our preference for the more familiar problematic, which has been around for 400 years.

Page created 18 Jan. 2003

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 18 January 2003.