Nothing sweet about the growing use of ‘confected’

Let’s talk about made-up stuff. Not “fake news,” whose existence has been in the “real news” lately, but other stuff that’s made up.

Here’s one usage, from The Washington Post, speaking of the “Infowars” purveyor Alex Jones: “Hence, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, in Jones’s telling, was confected to thrust gun control on America.”

Here’s David Stockman on the election’s economic aftermath: “Any notion of a Trump economic revival program–even if it could now be confected–will be stillborn in the financial and fiscal chaos ahead.”

And here’s an article about a sheriff who spent half a million dollars renovating a work-release center before turning over operation of it to children of friends: “The structure of the Slidell deal is much different from the one Strain confected with the other work-release program that operated on his watch.”

If you see the word “confected” and an image of Willy Wonka or Candyland pops in your head, it’s understandable. But these three uses can leave a bitter taste, because they imply something not as tasty as the usual “confections.”

Merriam-Webster defines “confection” as “something confected,” as “a fancy dish or sweetmeat”; “a medicinal preparation usually made with sugar, syrup, or honey”; a work of fine or elaborate craftsmanship”; and “a light but entertaining theatrical, cinematic, or literary work.”

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Those are all good things, as is a “confectionery,” which can either be the sweet stuff itself, or the store where it’s sold. (The store can also be spelled “confectionary.”)

Literally speaking, something “confected” is “put together from varied material,” as M-W defines it. The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjectival form showed up in 1552 to mean “Compounded of a number of ingredients, made into a confection, etc.; constructed, made up.” That “made up” just meant put together.

But in 1699, the OED says, “confected” gained another “made-up” usage: Counterfeit or faked.

The Washington Post piece implies that Alex Jones thinks Sandy Hook was faked; David Stockman implies that a Trump economic plan would be cobbled together; the sheriff’s deal seemed merely put together. Three uses of the same word, three possible connotations, from negative to neutral.

The San Francisco Chronicle seems very sweet on “confected,” especially in its wine section, where there’s been a “confected hint of Pez candy” in a Riesling, some Napa Cabernets that “seem confected more than made,” and an observation that “supermarket Chardonnay” is “a confected and mass-produced drink that frankly is responsible for the overwhelming share of that popularity.” But other stories said that someone had “confected” a water nozzle from a plastic bottle, that Antonin Scalia had “confected a contemporary interpretive doctrine that wouldn’t be recognizable to the founding generation,” and that Charlotte Brontë had “confected an anodyne image of herself.”

A single word with so many meanings must have a clear context to be properly understood. That’s particularly true if, at its heart, that word evokes an image opposite of the one the writer is trying to paint. Why use “confected” if so many people will have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads instead of the intended dark images created by a “confected” Sandy Hook shooting?

“Confected” may be the kind of word writers reach for while attempting to find something new or different. But in the wrong context it can turn saccharine, sounding fake and made up, if not misleading. It might be better to find something less chewy.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.