Word Of The Week: November 14th, 2009.

Recently I was between two groups of co-workers who were discussing a major procedural shift. While no one in the department had the deciding vote (it had to go to people much higher up) there was a group of us who honestly felt both sides had good, reasonable positions. We thought that, whichever way the final decision went, it would be fine. I was in that group in the middle. I wasn’t waffling, I wasn’t trying to appease anyone. Unfortunately, this was a decision in which there was no compromise that would–like most compromises–make both sides equally unhappy, but it seemed to me and to some others that both sides had equal merit.

There’s actually a word for this. It’s called utrality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Tendency to favour both sides; inclination towards either party.” This is not, strictly speaking neutrality. A minister named William Price coined the word in a sermon in 1642, distinguishing it from neutrality, even though utrality was, sort of, derived from that word. Utrality and neutrality both come from Latin. Utrality specifically derives from the word uter, which means “which of the two?”

The reason I’m so keen to specify a difference between utrality and neutrality is neutrality–to me, at least, implies not caring one way or the other. Utrality is something that I think all of us might feel at times–caring about two different sides of an issue and wanting to be part of both. Lacking a word for it can make the feeling difficult to describe. Price’s coining, interestingly, is the only recorded usage the OED has. On the one hand I’m not surprised–it’s a pretty obscure term. On the other hand, though, I’m surprised, because the word can be so useful.