Eleven language mishaps that Doug finds curious and wanted to point out...

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Summary: I've done some research on some weird whoopses and such in the English language and figured I would share a few of them with you, and discuss some characteristics of them. Yes, things like "moot point" and "Having and eating your cake". That sort of thing.

Monday, 19 October 2009

(15:43:04 CDT)

Eleven language mishaps that Doug finds curious and wanted to point out...

I am not, to oversimplify two terms, a Grammar Nazi (more on one of these in a second). I appreciate using words to mean other things, eliding bits of one word which forces a portmanteau into another word, causing a malapropism full of creative typos, and so forth. English is a language of play, not of rigidity; but I must point out two important facts. First, playful language suffers when you soften the lines all of the time. If Tom says that he is "literally about to die" he probably means that he feels like he is about to die. It is hyperbole, which is acceptable except, now, literally is used to refer to an exaggeration so much, that its literal meaning is becoming lost. Pun intended. Secondly, throughout history words have had rather specific meanings that carried a lot of specific information. There was a difference between "this thing", "that thing", "that weak thing", "this important thing" and so forth, despite each being single words, say, in a language like Latin. By trying to come up with a hodge-podge English that melts the concept of synonym down from "the exact same meaning" to "close enough to call it", and then from "close enough" to "who cares?" we are making an easier to speak but harder to speak well language. We have to use more, bigger, and rarer words to make exact points; and so we often lose the exact point of many things.

While compiling this list, I decided to cut it off short (11 was a chosen number before the list was started). You can Google "misused phrases" all day long (did you see what I did there?) and you will come up with list after list of hundreds of failures of communication. Ambrose Bierce, of Devil's Dictionary and "Owl Creek Bridge" fame, wrote a collection of, then, common semantic errors. If you look it up, it is worth reading. Some of them are still in place, but most of them have lost out to the incorrect, generally less specific and easier meaning.

I decided to avoid what is generally thought of as mispellings and typos: except and accept, or effect and affect, or then and than. I have avoided a handful of mistakes that are becoming general usage, because within ten or so years, no one will care any more: who and whom, lay and lie, and irony. I hear the word irony used to describe "coincidental" and/or "tragic" more than anything ironic. When a word is used wrong maybe 90% of the time, it is going to change. "Fewer and less" are in that same boat. People have stopped caring. Or, maybe, I could say that fewer people every day couldn't care less everyday.

I have also decided to avoid, at the last minute, those mistakes caused by a failure or refusal to understand Latin and Greek roots of words. People who assume "i.e." means "in example" or that bi- somehow means "half" or that pseudo- somehow means "partially". These are all wrong and you should know better. Just to clarify, you mean "e.g." for the example one ("i.e." can be best thought of as "in other words"), "bi-" means two (as in biweekly=two weeks), semi- is the one that means "half", and pseudo is always "fake". We do not call them pseudopods because they are kind of have legs. "Quasi" is the prefix you are looking for if you want to say "kind of" or "partially" (semi- also works). I could possibly describe the difference between proscribe (forbid) and perscribe (like medicine), but that can be saved for a later time.

Here are my vote for the eleven most interesting whoopses and some notes about them:

#1 Grammatical v. Semantic: First off, let's get this out of the way. Grammar is about the structure of things. Semantics are about the meaning of things. In other words, most mistakes involving words, say "mute point", have nothing to do with being grammatical mistakes. They are semantic mistakes. Many so called grammar police, Nazis, or what have you are actually semantic police, etc.; which does introduce a delightful bit of irony to their pedantic whining. In fact, the term grammar is so misused it is actually changing to include the definition of "semantic" right inside of it. Blowhards are screwing up the word because they do not think semantic, which seems more complicated and less friendly, sounds as good as grammar. Cute, huh?

#2 Moot- v. Mute-point: Speaking of "moot point", we do know what one is, right? A point to be discussed by the group. Does that sound wrong to you? I think we have actually pulled some sort of double whoopsie, here. A moot is a group to discuss things. A moot point is a point to "moot". We now use the phrase to mean "a point not worth discussion" which is vaguely like calling fish that we deep fry for three hours "raw". Any moot point is going to be discussed in length and hard (the penis obsessed amongst you just giggled, right?). Either we allowed the concept of a point that is "mute" to bleed into it, or we have decided anything to be decided and discussed by moot later is not worth talking about now. This is the second dose of irony for today, that we normally use the term to mean something much closer to what the term "mute point" would describe.

#3 A and An: In slightly less controversial territory, now, we have "a" and "an". Just wanted to point out that these are phonetic, not alphabetic, conventions. It is "an RPG" and "a one" (no, that's not a steak sauce joke). This can change based on regional and even personal dialects, but the important thing to remember is that the "n" is there to keep the vowels from running together. If you start the word softly, but the "n" in. If you do not, then leave it out.

#4 Will and Shall: the fact that these words have melted together to a degree that we think of "shall" as only the old-timey "will" is kind of a sad one, and this is a perfect example of what I am talking about. "Will" implies that you bring it about with your, yes, will. "Shall" means that you are forced to do it by law or duty. You can see the difference most in the uses of "would" and "should", which are themselves warping. "Would" almost implies a negative statement: "I would go, but...". "Should" makes it sound more chore-like. What is interesting is that the two terms led to some really complicated usages. You could not "shall" someone else, usually, so you tended to say that "You will go" or "He will go". Likewise, it was most polite to accept the duty in your future by using "shall". "I shall go" implied that you felt it was only right that you did. You could reverse them for emphasis. "You shall go" had the flavor of a command while "I will go" would mean that above and beyond your duty, you will personally accept the future.

#5 Enormity: This word actually means "wrong" (as in, "Child-raping pederasts are wrong, though arguably less wrong than those pederasts who are also pedagogues.", not as in "I would have won on Jeopardy, but I was wrong.") and does not involve size, kind of. The only "large" in the definition of enormity has traditionally been the largeness of sin: exceedingly wicked and outside of all boundaries of morality. The reason I say "kind of" up there is because we are letting the word shift meaning, fast. Both enormity and enormous derive from Latin roots meaning "outside of the normal" in the sense of monstrous (think abomination, or an extreme version of abnormal). The latter word has come to mean "beyond normal size" or "monster sized" in the friendlier sense of the word "monster". Enormity has recently been assumed to just be another version of enormous, which it kind of is in the cousin sense of the word, and so has lost most of its meaning. Reading even relatively recent discussions of events has lost impact. When they were describing the enormity of the situation, they did not mean it had a lot of people inolved.

#6 Irregardless: Not actually a word in the formal, proper sense, despite being used, you know, irregardless.

#7 A Stitch in Time Saves Nine...: For some reason, at least down in Alabama, this is somehow assumed to mean "be hasty". As in, skip time and you can save...nine? It, of course, and apologies if this is really obvious to everyone but a few, means that if you fix the first stitch before it has time to tear more, you also save the next nine stitches. While haste is a part of it, it is more about taking care of problems as they arrive and avoiding procrastination.

#8 Having Cake and Eating It: Thanks to George Carlin, none of us can take this phrase seriously. If you reverse it, you get more of the correct meaning: "eat your cake and have it, too". Part of the problem comes from our blurring "have" to include things like "make use of", "consume", "contain", and "possess". Just keep in mind, if you eat your cake, you can no longer have it, and it should make sense. Another version might be "You can't have your cake after you eat it." Does that make more sense?

#9 Tenterhooks (not Tender-): I've heard the word "tenderhooks" used a lot. "Tenterhooks" is the correct term. They had something to do with hanging or stretching cloth. I have no idea what "tenderhooks" would be, but I bet they were not happy.

#10 Bated (not Baited) Breath: The phrase means to stop your breath (think: "I abated my breath."). Holding your breath. Not sure how "bait" would fit into it, but more and more seem to use it as such.

#11 Sodomy: Always end it with sex, right? Sodomy does not mean, especially in the legal but also in the more traditional sense, anal sex. It means, or meant, "non-reproductive sex". Everyday usage is more in the "anal" camp, sure, but on many/most/some/all legal books, sodomy is sex thinking outside of box. Pun intended. While it could include things like bestiality, it mostly involved oral sex or digital manipulation and, in some places, sex while using some sort of birth control. The word's double meaning (the legal definition versus the most commonly used one) gets used disingenuously because sodomy in the non-penetrating sense is considered worse than coitus, legally, despite being a few bases short of a home run (foul balls nonwithstanding). A teenage boy receiving a blowjob or handjob from a underage girlfriend can find himself in more trouble than if he actually had sex, because sodomy has stiffer penalties (hush it) and longer sentences (quit!) attached. This really happens. Just recently, a boy was put on the sex offenders list for not having sex with his girlfriend (he got a quick oral job instead). Had he risked teenage pregnancy, he would have legally been fine since they were only a year apart in age. Welcome to legal Hell, people. Just keep in mind, next time you have that sex-offender registry pulled up, or you reading Roman Polanski's Wikipedia entry, sodomy does not mean there what you mean by it. Not necessarily. Sure, some outright buggery is going on, but probably not all that commonly.

Si Vales, Valeo


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