Q&A: Incumbent

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we felt it was incumbent on us to discuss the cucumber crisis…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about the word “incumbent”.

A: Oh okay. But only if you first ask a question that involves Benedict Cumberbatch, a cummerbund and a cucumber.

Q: Well, I believe you mean “cumberbund” if you’re talking about that belty fabric thing men wear!

A: It’s a common mistake, but you ‘re actually wrong there. It is indeed spelt “cummerbund” and not “cumberbund”.

Q: Well that’s stupid.

A: English is often stupid.

Q: So it is.

A: Anyway, it’s not as stupid as the question you’re about to ask…

Q: Sigh. Okay, um, let me see… can TV’s Sherlock really solve crimes while balancing a cucumber on his head and hula hooping an extra large cummerbund?

A: Of course he can. He’s a genius. What a silly question.

Q: Right. Finished now?

A: What would you like to know about “incumbent”?

Q: Well I’ve always thought that it means the person who is currently holding a position. Like the president or mayor.

A: Or Benedict Cumberbatch as TV’s Sherlock.

Q: Right, yes. But then I also hear those same politicians saying it in another way.

A: Ah okay. Do you mean like “It is incumbent upon the government to act on the cucumber crisis”.

Q: There’s a cucumber crisis?

A: That was just off the top of our head. Or Benedict’s.

Q: So there ARE two meanings then?

A: Oh yes. “Incumbent” is like many hardworking words in the dictionary. It must be tough being listed so close to “income” only for “incompetence” to get in the way every time. So it was forced to take on two jobs just to make ends meet.

Q: Oh, my uncle Shane once had a job like that. He worked on the Sydney Harbour Tunnel back in the ‘90s and was in charge of making sure the ends met.

A: Right, well, this wasn’t–

Q: He actually hasn’t really worked since then. You see, he never planned for his future after that job. Serious case of… tunnel vision.

A: Oh dear.

Q: Coincidentally, “Tunnel Vision” was the name of his short lived TV channel he tried to start up in 1992. It would have beamed images of the tunnel 24/7 into people’s homes.

A: The sad thing is that it would probably do quite well these days.

Q: Doesn’t matter anyway. After all the data entry to set up the channel, he got Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. And he hasn’t worked since.

A: We really have gone off topic.

Q: Yes but that’s only because you’re about to wrap it all up.

A: Well, yes. Macquarie Dictionary is rather clear with two definitions for “incumbent”. The first is the noun and adjective meaning the holder of an office.

Q: Examples?

A: “The incumbent won the election.” (noun) Or “the incumbent member won the election” (adjective).

Q: Okay.

A: The second meaning, an adjective, Macquarie Dictionary describes as resting on one; obligatory: for example “a duty incumbent upon me.” It also talks about “incumbent posture” in a similar way – meaning pressing on something.

Q: So the sitting member for parliament is the incumbent, but the slouching member has an incumbent posture!

A: Indeed.

Q: English is weird. So one meaning puts a lot of pressure on. And the other meaning says “relax, you’ve already got the gig.”

A: Elementary my dear Q…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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