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What does this phrase mean?

It is not the illegality that she is accused of, but the illegality she refused to oblige

It's from a recent article in The Times of India.

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What specifically don't you understand? – snailplane Dec 18 '13 at 13:52
just confused with the phrase. – Devendra Dec 18 '13 at 13:53
First part says that she is accused of violating some law but the second part is somewhat confusing. – Devendra Dec 18 '13 at 13:57
If I understand the phrase correctly, I think I mean: she is accused because she denies (to be bound by) some law, not because of breaking any law literally. (If she accepted that law, it would be as if she would admit that she really did something illegal.) – Damkerng T. Dec 18 '13 at 14:07
Yes this sounds on the line.Thanks Damkerng T. – Devendra Dec 18 '13 at 14:19
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think this is a misuse of the word oblige.

I suspect that Mr. Khurshid was thinking of the adjective obliging, which is what is called a ‘deverbal’—that is, a word which derives from a verb and retains a verbal form, but has evolved away from the meaning of the verb. Mr. Khurshid has back-projected the meaning of obliging, “helpful, willing to help”, onto its parent verb, as if oblige could mean “be willing to help”; and he has then generalized that meaning towards something like “cooperate, acquiesce‘.

I think what he meant was “the illegality in which she refused to acquiesce”. And I think the “illegality” which he had in mind was not the crime Ms. Khobragadi was charged with but her detention by the NYPD, which many in India feel was both gratuitously demeaning and a violation of her diplomatic status. He is suggesting that Ms. Khobragadi was subjected to unwarranted indignities because she refused to cooperate with the authorities.

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Three points need to be noted before attempting to "interpret" this one...

a: This particular sentence isn't normal English, so the meaning is inherently uncertain
b: The speaker (Khurshid) is a politician (so he's probably looking for a "sound-bite")
c: The situation being described is complex (Khurshid said there is a "history" behind it)

Also note the common English construction typified by...

It's not what you know, it's who you know
It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it
etc., etc.

...where "it" refers to the thing which the speaker thinks is most important.

In light of that background, we see that Khurshid is saying there are two different illegal act(s) involved. Those which "she" (Khobragade) is accused of, and those which she refused to oblige. And there are three credible interpretations of oblige there. The first two are listed as "obsolete" in EOD...

3b. To agree, commit to (a promise, a course of action). Obs. rare.
13. To make imperative; to necessitate. Obs.

The third (which I think is most likely), is uncommon and incorrectly used...

10a. To be indebted or grateful to a person or (occas.) a thing. Chiefly formal in later use.

So it's feasible Khurshid is using one of those obsolete senses - the important thing is either that she agreed to or caused to be unavoidable some other illegal act(s) in addition to those she's formally accused of. But probably he's misusing the third sense above...

The illegal acts Khobragade is accused of are relatively minor. More serious are those in respect of which she refused to oblige other people (i.e. - she wouldn't do what they wanted; she refused to allow them to commit those more serious crimes).

In case it's not clear from the definitions, to oblige in this sense means to do what someone wants (in principle placing them under an obligation of gratitude). It's not a usage you'd come across often today, but you might still occasionally hear the "mock-formal"...

"Could you oblige me with a match?" (to light my cigarette, for example)
"[I am] much obliged! Thank you!" (said after being given whatever it is you wanted)

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I think StoneyB has the right sense of it, but the wrong application: It's not that she committed a criminal act, but that she refused to participate in some criminal scheme, and thus is suffering a reprisal. (And I disagree that it's a misuse of the word.)

If you read farther down in the article, there's a quote that says

"[Khobragade] (later) received a phone call from a lawyer who refused to identify himself and offered to settle the matter that would result in grant of permanent citizenship to her and a huge compensation...."

Khobragade refused this settlement offer, and (supposedly) as a result of that refusal, was later arrested, strip-searched, and thrown in jail.

That settlement was the "illegality" which she "refused to oblige" (in the sense of to do something that someone has asked you to do).

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+1 For the secondary cite. But this is still a misuse of oblige: one obliges persons by doing what they ask, one does not oblige the action. Literally, you put the person under an obligation: they "owe you one". – StoneyB Dec 19 '13 at 12:37

I'm no wordsmith, but it sounds to me like this:

"Its not just that she is accused of breaking a particular law, but she refuses to acknowledge that what she is accused of is even illegal."

My $0.02

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Thanks Brian for your quick reply +1. – Devendra Dec 18 '13 at 14:21

This is some sort of Indian English construction which possibly may be intended to mean:

She is innocent. The only real illegality in this matter (that anyone should care about) is not the one she was accused of (lying on a visa and paying a housekeeper less than minimum wage), but the one she { complied with unwillingly / was subjected to } (the detention and strip search).

"To oblige" means to do something as a favor to someone, when someone has a choice; the concept of refusal is not applicable to this verb, but of course one can "refuse to comply". "Refused to comply" does not apply here because this person did in fact comply, since arrest took place.

Rather, "refuse to oblige" seems to be used in place of "complied with reluctantly" which is an interesting semantics, but not one that "refuse to oblige" is understood to have in mainstream English dialects, in which "refuse to oblige" is nonsensical.

The logic that the speaker applied is clear: if "to oblige" means "to do willingly" (which is not exactly true: it means to do something as a favor), then "refuse to oblige" means "refuse to do willingly", by naive word substitution.

The problem is that we cannot substitute words like this; language doesn't work that way.

The phrase "refuse to willingly" does mean "to do, but only unwillingly". However, it only functions this way because it is an open phrase in which the adjective explicitly appears. If we apply the verb "refuse" to a verb which by itself "to do willingly" without any adjective, then it doesn't have this effect.

For instance "to comply" means, roughly speaking, "to do willingly", but "refuse to comply" means not to be willing and not to do it; it does not mean "refuse to do willingly".

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