Thursday, September 1, 2011

Six misused words that WON'T make you look foolish

Not long ago, I posted ten words that can make you look foolish. Some of them didn't exist, but many of them were words with a more precise meaning than the writer often realises.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever use words figuratively, and sometimes it's quite acceptable to use words wrongly. Often a word has a technical meaning that goes far beyond what any colloquial user could need, or sometimes it's closely tied to a belief system. A good example of the latter is antediluvian, which literally means 'before the flood'. You don't need to believe in the story of Noah to use this word. The colloquial meaning is of something so old-fashioned that it belongs in an era long before the modern age, so you don't need to be a Creationist to use it.

Here are some others that many people use wrongly but don't need to correct.

A subject close to my heart. In fact, the alcohol in alcoholic drinks is ethanol. But you won't find chemists in a pub, bar or restaurant asking for ethanolic drinks, so why should you? One of my maxims is: "Tell it like it is." In this case, carry on telling it like it isn't. 

Because forensic scientists are the cops who do science, the word forensic is often taken to mean 'scientific', which is ridiculous if you stop to think about it. If that were the case, they would be called forensic police. However, lawyers and scientists both study things in minute and irritating detail. The correct meaning is so close to the intended meaning that it doesn't really matter.

In American political circles, the word liberal is often used as an insult: a liberal is effectively a communist who lacks the courage to admit the fact and who loves criminals and wants to help them kill your children. In Britain, it's basically a shorthand for someone who believes in freedom generally and a laissez faire approach to economics (if you're on the right) or society (if you're on the left). Most British politicians, even those outside the Liberal Democrat Party, would happily describe themselves as liberals and would be insulted if someone said they weren't.

Michael Dukakis was memorably pilloried in the 1988 US presidential election for being a closet liberal. I would have liked him to stand up with a dictionary and say something like, "Merriam-Webster defines liberalism as, 'a movement emphasizing intellectual liberty; a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition; a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.' Of course I'm a liberal. Aren't you?"

Essentially, liberal means what you want it to mean. If you're a right-wing, Fox News attack dog, carry on using it as an insult. Your audience will understand it the way you mean it.

The word American covers everyone from Alaska to Patagonia, but most people use it to refer to just one country. While the pedants are undoubtedly correct to say that Guatemalans are also Americans, I'm going to ignore them till someone comes up with a decent adjective to describe things and people from the USA. USians won't do. Some Canadians seem particularly aggrieved by this, but, if the performances I saw by Tom Stade and Tony Law at this year's Edinburgh Fringe are anything to go by, the Canadian sense of humour is in very good shape.

Plethora is an illness caused by too many blood cells. Colloquially, it came to mean an abundance, but the real meaning suggests that it shouldn't be used unless the surfeit is unhealthy. Thankfully, it seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years after even the most hardened cliché lovers got sick of it. It seems that we finally suffered from a plethora of plethoras. You're probably safe to use it again, and you can even ignore the fact that, technically, it's a plural.

Priapic or priapism
Priapism is another medical condition, and one that roughly half of the world's spammers believe every man would pay good money to have. Essentially, it's a prolonged and unnatural erection. This can have disastrous consequences, as this early recipient of a Darwin Award discovered.

So, while priapism isn't a simple synonym for 'erection', we do sometimes need a euphemism for a concept that isn't discussed in polite company. Personally, I found it a useful tool (so to speak) for side-stepping Amazon's obscenity filters when posting a review of a dreadful book on business management, where I described how the authors "yearningly stroked the priapism of the executive's ego". A plainer description would not have got past the bots. Mind you, Merriam Webster's definition of the medical condition is "an abnormal, more or less persistent … erection", so perhaps my use of it to describe the egos of CEOs wasn't colloquial after all.

Moral: It's not always wrong to be incorrect.


  1. There's always a fine line between "correct" and "appropriate". Most of these I use without even thinking about it. Thanks for the eye-opener on plethora though.

  2. I wish there were a real word for the citizens of the United States. Whenever I try to be "politically correct" by avoiding "American" I end up with long, tortured prose. So, I guess I'll just accept that American means those folks in the U.S. (Is it OK to use U.S. to mean "United States of American"?)

  3. Nothing wrong with "US" as an adjective, as in "the US government".

    I never use the dots between capitals for abbreviations. Technically incorrect, but spattering your prose with dots is regarded as a bit fussy nowadays.

  4. How about word Myriad?
    You can use it like in this example - "Once on the sand I passed a myriad of sun loungers and umbrellas to reach the shore."
    It’s an adjective meaning countless and infinite. As it’s an adjective, it’s actually incorrect to say myriad of. If there really were myriad objects to pass in order to reach the shore, it would be an endless journey. You can stand on a shoreline and count umbrellas and sun loungers, so you can’t use myriad to describe them. A correct way to use it would be “there are myriad stars in the universe”.