This ad for Saks Fifth Avenue appeared on page A3 of Monday's New York Times:
I skimmed along until opportunistic brought me up short. Opportunistic? Really?
It's clearly the wrong word. But why? And what should it have been?
Some background: Opportunity, opportune, and opportunist(ic) share a Latin root, opportunus, which means "favorable": it's a contraction of ob portus, "toward the harbor." An opportunity is a favorable time; opportune, the adjective, means "favorable," "timely," or "convenient." Both words came into English around 1400.
But opportunist, opportunism, and opportunistic entered the language much later, between 1870 and 1881, and have very different shadings. They were borrowed from opportunismo, a word used in 19th-century Italian politics to mean "making a profit from the prevailing circumstances." Opportunistic now generally means "unscrupulous" or "taking selfish advantage of circumstances without regard for ethics."
(Opportunistic also has a medical meaning: An opportunistic infection is one that takes advantage of a weakened immune system.)
So when Saks asks customers whether they fall into the "opportunistic" category, is it asking whether they're greedy and unethical?
Why, yes, it is. But I'm pretty sure it doesn't intend to.
I think, but can't say for sure, that Saks means something closer to "Are you interested in a well-timed opportunity?" That's too wordy for a small-space newspaper ad, so the copywriter evident looked for a shortcut. And ended up veering way off course.
According to the newest edition of Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage—a standard reference for writers and editors—opportunistic and opportune are sometimes confused. Garner cites this example: "Now is the most opportunistic [read opportune] time for this type of product." In Garner's Language Change Index, the substitution of opportunistic for opportune is classified Stage 1: Rejected.
(I found an even more absurd example on Twitter: "More grounded, more humble, more selfless makes us more opportunistic." Nope: being more humble and selfless makes you less opportunistic.)
But substituting opportune won't work in the ad. A time can be an opportune; an event can be opportune. Not a person.
Let's take another look at the Saks ad and see whether we can make it more logical and less insulting.
Three categories of shopper are being addressed: the owner of vintage clothing, the overscheduled shopper, and the woman interested in a rare opportunity to meet a pair of jewelry designers. We're looking for a concise, interesting way to sum up the third woman's identity and motivation and to point to the payoff: come to the store tomorrow evening. Unless we want to rewrite the whole ad, we can be relaxed about parallel structure: the first statement leads off with a noun, the second with an adjective. But we need to stick to the question-answer format. And we should consider the Saks brand image: upscale, authoritative, a bit breezy.
A few options:
Time to chat? Meet the Faraone Mennella designers...
Discovery seeker? Meet the Faraone Mennella designers...
An eye for the next new thing? Meet the Faraone Mennella designers...
Connoisseur? Meet the Faraone Mennella designers...
However, none of these substitutions gets at whatever sense of "opportunity" the writer originally had in mind.