In an issue (2/9/08) of his always entertaining and informative weekly ezine, World Wide Words, Michael Quinion replied to those who ask him about his day job. “Insofar as I have one,” he says, “it is as a freelance field worker for the Oxford English Dictionary, always on the watch for new or interesting words [and terms].”
Among those he listed in this issue was “strategic incompetence,” defined as “a sudden inability to do a job as a way of avoiding undesirable tasks.” Well, the term itself may be new, but, as I reported to Michael, it’s a technique a good friend of mine named Leo Chiolero has been using for years – a technique he calls “planned incompetence.” He finds it handy when he wants to go fishing, which is most of the time.
His wife, Carol, is much too sharp to be taken in by this not too subtle ruse, but is good-natured enough to let him get away with it – most of the time.
Just as I was ready to give Leo full credit for inventing this ploy, I came across an Ogden Nash poem which was new to me. Titled “The Joyous Malingerer,” it includes these lines:
“Who is the happy husband? Why, indeed,
’Tis he who’s useless in the time of need…
If faced with washing up he never gripes,
But simply drops more dishes than he wipes.
She finds his absence preferable to his aid,
And thus all mealtime chores doth he evade.
He can, attempting to replace a fuse,
Black out the coast from Boston to Newport News,
Or, hanging pictures, be the rookie wizard
Who fills the parlor with a plaster blizzard.
He’ll not again be called to competition
With decorator or with electrician…”
We don’t often hear the word “malingerer” these days, but it has long been used to describe the person who feigns physical and/or mental illness for a particular purpose, such as avoiding work. Nash, however, has broadened its meaning to include those who use premeditated incompetence rather than illness to achieve their goal.
Some two hundred years ago, Jane Austen, the famous English novelist, wrote: “If there is anything disagreeable going on, men are sure to get out of it.” So, let’s face it, guys, they’re on to us. However, lest this be seen as a subterfuge used primarily by those of us of the male gender, be aware that we’re not alone. Wikipedia notes that, “Malingering is more common among women than among men.”