Sunday, March 20, 2011

Troublesome Words, Part 1

Cover of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome WordsBill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words makes a great bathroom book. I've read my way through half of the alphabet, so it's time to share the entries that surprised me.

Before you assume there's a lot I don't know (even though you would be correct to assume that), I want to point out that there are over 600 A - L entries, so my list of 18 is a pretty small part of the total.

affinity -- "denotes a mutual relationship. Therefore, strictly speaking, one should not speak of someone...having an affinity for another but should speak of an affinity with or between." So it would be wrong to say "I have an affinity for chocolate," since chocolate cannot have an affinity for you. But I have a feeling Gabe at Motivated Grammar would disagree with this distinction, and Bryson does acknowledge that "many dictionaries no longer insist on this distinction."

anxious -- should connote a sense of being worried or fearful. So think twice before saying you're anxious to meet someone.

appreciate -- If you appreciate something, you value it or feel sympathetic toward it, so usages such as "I appreciate what you are saying, but I don't agree with it" are a bit inept.

barbaric vs. barbarous -- The first is about crudity, while the second is about cruelty and implies moral condemnation. I confess I probably won't be able to keep that distinction clear. I do love the etymology of the term barbarian, though. The ancient Greeks used it to describe anyone who didn't speak Greek, since "bar bar bar" was what those other languages sounded like. And now we have the amusing phrase "It's all Greek to me," which does the same thing to the Greek language.

begging the question -- I've been meaning to write about this one for years. I see it misused all the time, to the point where I was starting to think I didn't know what it meant. It means "to present as proof something that itself needs proving" but is usually used to point out a question that hasn't been dealt with. As Bryson notes, the more common usage indicates we have a need for just that type of phrase.

burgeon -- means to bud or sprout, not just expand. "For something to burgeon, it must be new."

careen, career -- The first means to sway or tilt dangerously, the second means uncontrolled movement. Careering vehicles probably also careen, but careening ones don't necessarily career. And yes, this meaning of career is related to the job-oriented word career, which dates from 1803, in the sense of "following a carriage track" (going back to the Latin carrus, chariot).

condone -- "The word does not mean to approve or endorse, senses that are often attached to it. It means to pardon, forgive, overlook. You can condone an action without supporting it." Well, that may be correct, but I think this is one language battle that has been lost to the more common connotation.

crass -- is not just coarse or tasteless (which is what I thought it meant), but also "stupid and grossly ignorant, to the point of insensitivity." I first used crass as an 8th grader in a school Christmas play, written by my English teacher. I played a vocabulary nerd, who decried the commercialization of Christmas.

culminate -- not just any outcome, but one that marks a high point. So, for instance, a company's financial troubles should not culminate in the CEO's resignation.

factitious -- I already knew this means artificial (having learned it while studying for the SATs), but it never made much sense to me. Checking its etymology, I see that its root is the same as the one for the French workhorse verb faire (to make, to do), but because factitious sounds like it should be the opposite of fictitious, I think it's a word to avoid.

florescent vs. fluorescent -- The letter "u" transforms the meaning from flowering to radiating light. A plant that could do that on its own wouldn't need the sun for photosynthesis.

frisson -- means a slight shiver or shudder, according to Bryson. Or thrill, according to Webster's. I wrote about this word in the earliest weeks of Daughter Number Three, but the definition still surprised me when I saw it on Bryson's list.

gild the lily -- is misquoted Shakespeare, who wrote in King John: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.../Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

imply vs. infer -- This is a usage confusion that drives me crazy, but Bryson tweaks me with this: "The distinction is useful and, in careful writing nowadays, expected. However, there is not a great deal of historical basis for it. Many great writers, among them Milton, Sir Thomas More, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, freely used infer where we would today insist on imply."

its vs. it's -- I generally have no trouble with these two, unlike most of the writing public, partly because my 5th grade teacher made me write them both out 500 times as a punishment. But I do think the lack of an apostrophe in the possessive form is a bit illogical. Why shouldn't it be treated like all the other possessives that do have apostrophes?

just deserts -- not desserts. "The expression has nothing to do with the sweet course after dinner. It comes from the French for deserve..."

languid vs. limpid -- The first means limp or listless, while the second means calm and untroubled.

Bryson eschews the prescriptivist point of view on many of the most common contentious usage issues:

data as a plural -- He wants to keep media as a plural, because it is a useful way to indicate multiple distinct information outlets, but is willing to let data go. "Just as we see a bowlful of sugar as a distinct entity rather than as a collection of granules (which is why we don't say 'Sugar are sweet'), we tend to see data as a complete whole rather than one datum and another datum and another."

healthy vs. healthful -- "There is no harm in observing the distinction, but also little to be gained from insisting on it." Hurray!

hopefully -- Bryson approves of most common uses of this word, and points out the illogic of the many grammarians who condemn it.

like vs. as -- While generally describing a preference for as when followed by a verb and like when there is no trailing verb, Bryson allows that the rule can be ignored in all but the most formal writing. (Examples of the proper form: "He plays tennis as if his life depended on it" vs. "He plays tennis like an expert.") Even though I was young at the time, I still remember the battle over "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." (Or maybe I remember it because I was young at the time.)

Now on to M - Z, and more things I don't know about grammar, meaning and usage.


Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Interesting list. At some point I learned not to use "hopefully" in the common way, but "it is to be hoped" is definitely an awkward substitute.

Carmella said...

I could never remember its and it's - until it dawned on me how very sad it is that its does not even possess its own apostrophe.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I love this book! After two-three years of owning it, though, I'm only on the E's. Maybe I'll put it in the bathroom. :)