This Morning’s Nitpick: The Meaning of the Phrase ‘Sour Grapes’

It's fun to learn things.

Today Steve Blow has a column about Casey Monahan, who has been the director of the Texas Music Office for 25 years. Blow writes:

With a new governor making new hires, next week will be Monahan’s last as director of the Texas Music Office.

But no sour grapes. “Oh, gosh no,” he said. “I mean that sincerely. I don’t feel entitled to this job. If the governor wants to go in a different direction, that’s what he was elected to do.”

Blow could have used the help of a good copy editor. The phrase “sour grapes” here has been misused. As we so often do on this blog, let us consult Bryan Garner. From the indispensable Garner’s Modern American Usage:

“Sour grapes” is one of the most commonly misused idiomatic metaphors. It is not a mere synonym of “envy” or “jealousy.” [Ed: Nor, even more erroneous, of “bitter,” as is the case in Blow’s column.] Rather, as in Aesop’s fable about the fox who wanted the grapes he could not reach, “sour grapes” denotes the human tendency to disparage as undesirable what one really wants but can’t get (or hasn’t gotten).

In Monahan’s case, then, it would only be sour grapes if he’d said something along these lines: “Being the director of the Texas Music Office sucks. I didn’t even want to keep the job.” I issue this correction from my glass house. It is a three-bed, two-bath midcentury modern in East Dallas, and I’m quite comfortable in it.

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