Word for the Occasion

Most everyone knows a malapropism when they see it, even if they don’t know it’s called a malapropism. Here are some malapropisms (followed by the correct form):

  • After ten years you pass the statue of limitations (statute of limitations)
  • Better times are in the offering (in the offing)
  • His behavior was incompensable (incomprehensible)
  • He cut off his nose despite his face (to spite his face)
  • He was inflammable and never lost a case (infallible)

Besides these obvious errors there are not-so-obvious misuses that occur all too often. Subtle word misuse passes unnoticed even in well-educated people’s conversations, in office meetings, on TV news. One commonly misused word is “misnomer,” e.g., incorrect usage: “Thinking economic benefits will trickle down is a misnomer.” Misnomer does not mean a misapprehension, or a wrong conclusion. Misnomer means wrongly named or inappropriately named, e.g., correct usage: “Calling the US a democracy is a misnomer, it’s actually a republic.”

Another example is “literally,” e.g., incorrect: “The song’s remake made the original artist literally roll over in his grave.” This increasingly common abuse of literally is literally draining the impact of the word’s proper usage.

Then there’s the popular misuse of “disinterested,” e.g., incorrect: “Let’s all be attentive in this meeting, I don’t want to see any disinterested looks.” Disinterested, of course, means without bias, as in, “We’ll bring in a disinterested party to help resolve the disagreement.”

Another unfortunate trend is to use refute to mean deny or argue against, e.g., incorrect: “She refuted allegations of misconduct by pointing to her many years of service and self sacrifice.” Refute, remember, means to demonstrate logical necessity or produce evidence that disproves an allegation or theory. Denial and counterargument do not constitute refutation.

Anyone would be averse to false accusations; unfortunately, people nowadays are too often “adverse to false accusations.” The word “adverse” is often used as a wrong substitute for “averse.” Used correctly, “I am averse to leaving jobs unfinished, and unfinished jobs have an adverse effect on my state of mind, which might affect people around me (bonus correct usage of effect/affect).

I call these “word approximations” and I’m getting used to hearing them, which is sad. If you would like to be part of the solution, look up any word you are not absolutely sure you’re using correctly. Flout the sloppy usage trends and flaunt your word awareness. I would go even further and recommend choosing the best word, not just a not-wrong word. Some examples: More physical distance is farther instead of further, as in farther down the road. The US comprises fifty states, instead of “comprised of” fifty states. I ensure high quality, I insure my car, and I assure my friend that things will work out OK.

My wallet contains less money than yesterday, but it doesn’t contain less dollar bills, it contains fewer dollar bills. I chose the alternate plan and was glad I had alternatives. Don’t call bad treatment maltreatment until the mistreatment gets very bad. One’s culture does not inculcate people with its values, it inculcates values into people. But it might indoctrinate people with its values.

A lot of words with different connotations are often used interchangeably. But that depletes meaning in life as well as the meaning of words. Connotations expressed accurately color conversation, speeches, arguments, and life with uplifting poignancy. Hearing the right word or the right phrase for the occasion improves meaning and happiness for everyone. You can contribute to the improvement of the human condition by being the person uttering the right word and the right phrase.

Getting back to the lighter side of word-fail, if you think malapropisms are entertaining, you might also enjoy searching the Internet for “mondegreens” and “eggcorns.” If you search on the phrase “word usage” you’ll also find a lot of sites eager to help you get it right. Happy word hunting.

Reference Note: The most fun and informative word-analysis blog I’ve found is James Harbeck’s Sesquiotica, or “Word Tasting Notes.” He has analyzed words in more than a thousand playful and erudite entries which you can peruse in his handy Word Tasting Note Index.

This entry partly from my book
Potential of an Active Mind: How to Recapture the Magic of Everyday Life
© copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2009, 2011, and 2012

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