Words, Words

The rich and content-free educational jargon is not included here; these are words used by those desiring to express meaning, but failing.


Troubles with words like affect/effect, principal/principle, who/whom are common signs of the language-challenged individual. The more educated have different problems with vocabulary when they exceed their linguistic grasp, and sometimes it makes it difficult to understand what they mean. An unfamiliar word will be seen in context, and the context will be misunderstood, or the form of the word will suggest the wrong meaning. There is often confusion with a similar-sounding word. By whatever process, an intelligent person assigns an incorrect meaning to a word or phrase. Here are some words that are often misused in the United States by those of low word power trying to appear more erudite, like newspaper writers, the military, or government officials. All of these self-important people generally possess an exalted view of their limited vocabulary. I do not presume to tell people how to speak, I only observe what they say. These aren't the usual grammar bickerings, but concern words used without knowledge of their meanings, something quite different. Incidentally, I use Fowler's The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 4th edition, as a standard for current spelling and meaning.

O.K. was first used in the Boston Morning Post on 23 March 1839, according to the word sleuth Allen Walker Read. It means "Oll Korrect" in the alleged spelling of the uneducated who were always targets of American humor, which relied largely on personal insults. It was picked up the next year by the presidential campaign of Van, Van, the Used-up Man, who had a house named Old Kinderhook. It was not enough to overcome the threat of a Log Cabin and Hard Cider, the slogan of the Whigs for the distinguished man who lived in a mansion at North Bend, Ohio and was a teetotaler.

I have noticed lately more trouble with the relative pronoun who/whom. There is a good reason why the case is distinguished here. The object is generally pointed out in English by word order, but at the beginning of a relative clause the object may come first. Compare "I saw the man who I believe is the one you are seeking" and "I saw the man whom I believe you seek." In the first, it is "who is" and in the second "you seek whom." The relative takes the proper case for its clause. This is a clue for those who appreciate the case difference, but probably makes no sense at all to one who does not. I read today: "...goes after whomever is in office," which jars the word sense. A teacher might say "I shall give a prize to whomever spells the most words correctly." These words are being attracted into whoms by the main clause, both seeking an object, but the whole dependent clause is the object, not the relative! They sound like someone trying to be smart, but failing utterly. It is probably best to stick to "who" if in doubt, since this sounds more colloquial than erroneous, and is more often right than not.

The American Heritage College Dictionary editors made a list of 100 words every college student should know (Denver Post, 16 October 2002, p. 6F). It's a good list, of uncommon words that can be used to express shades of meaning, and the editors even got 93% of the definitions correct. The ones they missed are these: (1)hubris-"overbearing or arrogant." It's a noun, not an adjective, and means a proud attitude inviting divine retribution. (2)bowdlerize-"to shorten a book by skewing its content." This is actually removing unseemly material, usually sexual or referring to the underworld or underwear. Otherwise, it might refer to the Reader's Digest. (3)epiphany-"a revelation." Well, one of a kind--the appearance of a god in physical, or at least visual, form. (4)fatuous-"smugly foolish." No smugly, just foolish, unintelligent, or naive. (5)homogeneous-"the same or similar in kind." No, that's "same" or "similar." Homogeneous means uniform. (6)parabola-"the curve formed by slicing a cone." The curve formed by slicing a cone is usually an ellipse, unless one is very careful to make the slice parallel to a generator. The definition is too ignorant to make it useful. (7)yeoman-"a servant or dependable worker." Originally, a small freeholder, later extended to the members of the middle class, a dependable person worthy of civic duties and responsibilities, between servile workers and the rich.

Love's Labour's Lost: the title of this Shakespeare comedy may surprise because of the apostrophes. They are quite correct, however, though the play's title has been spelled variantly over the years. Recent newspaper ads in Denver have had Love's Labor's Lost, a rather barbaric respelling of labour to the American form labor, where it might be given the respect of retaining its original spelling. However, what the title says is that "love's labour is lost," so the second apostrophe is for an elided "i", not a possessive.

A word with a possibly interesting etymology is the term "bigot." This is now used pejoratively to describe a person with prejudiced views of other people or their activities. In past times it generally meant, however, a person who holds certain views irrespective of good evidence and maintains them with vigor (not an uncommon characteristic today). The word was borrowed into English from the Continent, a word related to the Spanish bigote, a distinctive kind of beard (like that worn by Asterix). If so, the word is a modified version of Visigoth, the handsome, blond and illiterate Gothic warriors who were assigned the rule of Spain in the fifth century. The part -goth is, of course, pronounced "got" in Spanish, while the "v" is sounded like "b" and s's tend to disappear, as in French. Hence, Visigoth becomes Bi-got without much difficulty. But why should they be so distinguished? It was not the beard; the beard became known as a "bigote" by the same process, like a "Mohawk" haircut. The Visigoths were, however, strong Arians, a creed anathema to the Orthodox Spaniards, and in the normal Christian way, the two groups contested with sword and fire and murder. Visigoths stoutly resisted conversion in spite of heated argument: hence the use of their name to describe such obnoxious persistence. Later, the Visigoths were converted to Orthodoxy anyway, not too long before they were expelled by los moros in 711. This is, at least, my interpretation of the story.

An interesting word site with a completely different purpose is Word Spy, which presents new word coinages. Most of these seem to me of rather low value, but there are some interesting and even useful entries. There is no overlap with this site, of course.


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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 26 January 2001
Last revised 13 June 2008