When school busing to achieve racial balance was a big issue in 1985, John Roberts, arguing for judicial restraint, wrote to a fellow Reagan White House aide, "It strikes me as more than passing strange for us to tell Congress it cannot pass a law preventing courts from ordering busing when our own Justice Department invariably urges this policy on the courts."
This summer, defending the Bush White House from criticism of its prewar intelligence evaluation, Missouri Republican Senator Kit Bond told the Senate, "It is more than passing strange that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle would bring out Joe Wilson as some kind of credible witness for their cause."
Passing, in these usages, is an archaism -- one of those delicious old adverbs preserved in the amber of our tongue -- with its meaning flickering confusingly in modern discourse. Its original meaning was "exceedingly," and the novelist Henry Fielding, in his 1749 Tom Jones, narrated that a character swore "'twas strange, 'twas passing strange," a wonderment taken verbatim from Shakespeare's Othello. John Milton in his 1671 Paradise Regained used the adverb "passing" to intensify the adjective for brightness: "passing fair/As the noon Sky." Applied to women, passing fair became a poetic expression of admiration for a damsel's beauty. Along the way, formal writers gave the plain passing a prefix of sur- and the adverbial ending of -ly to fashion surpassingly, but the root word with that meaning held its own.
Then, in the 20th century, something strange and unfair happened to passing. It lost a lot of its power, as evidenced by its need for an intensifying crutch: The phrase "more than passing strange" implies that passing alone is less than "exceedingly" strange and needs the boost of "more than." Perhaps because of its confusion with passing's use as an adjective in the transient "passing fancy," or with the mediocre nature of a "passing grade," the original passing lost its intensifying power. The poet and essayist Dorothy Parker helped undermine the original meaning in a 1925 poem about a pretty and virtuous girl that focused on that phrase, concluding: "Alas, no lover ever stops to see;/The best that she is offered is the air./Yet -- if the passing mark is minus D -- /She's passing fair."
When the young Elizabeth Taylor was asked about her beauty, her friend Roddy McDowall reported that she modestly replied: "Oh, I don't think I'm beautiful. I'm passing fair." Taylor's idea of beauty, according to McDowall, was Ava Gardner.
Fifty years or so ago, as a corporal in the Armed Forces Radio Network, I interviewed both actresses. Taylor was a genuine beauty; Gardner was excitingly attractive and really knocked me out. Believe me, both Liz and Ava were far more than what we would now call passing fair, which -- in the emerging meaning -- would be derogating with faint praise. And writing this paragraph, with delectable memories bestirred, has been a kick.
The lexicographer Barbara Ann Kipfer thinks "that is the way of English -- to recycle words and phrases to fit into new contexts, like picking up `passing strange' and using it in a new way." The adverbial passing is an archaism whose lofty meaning is in transition, being morphed by today's newsmakers to fit the modern language. Strange, isn't it?