Thursday, September 21, 2017

Precision from the Heart

Zestful Blog Post #230

One of my dearest friends had trouble with language. She couldn’t pronounce ‘hierarchy’ properly; the best she could do was ‘hyarchy.’ The word ‘weaponry’ became ‘weapondry.’ There was something about the mid-word ‘r’ sound. She would occasionally use words she’d picked up without being entirely clear on their meanings. She wanted to be thought of as a literate person. And therein lay danger.

One night she invited all of her top friends to a party at her house. I got there in the middle of the evening, grabbed a glass of wine, and went to find my hostess. She was standing with a circle of half a dozen friends, talking. When she saw me come up, she smiled and opened her arms and said—loudly, clearly: “Everybody, this is Elizabeth!” And then, in a very serious, approving tone, “Elizabeth is a pseudo-intellectual!

I stood there silently, as did the crowd. Then I realized that, very possibly, my friend did not understand the term. I murmured, “You just called me a phony.”

“Oh! That’s not what I meant at all!”

“The prefix pseudo means fake.”

“Oh! Everybody, that’s not what I meant! Elizabeth is very smart! She writes for the paper! I’m sorry, hon.”

“That’s all right.” And it was, because I loved my friend, and everybody understood.

However, it does bug me when somebody uses a word in an attempt to be linguistically impressive, especially in print. Not long ago, I read an essay in a magazine about a distinguished, prizewinning novelist. The writer of the piece referred to the author as “prosaic.” Instantly, I knew the writer meant “prolific.” But the writer probably thought about “prose,” and figured, vaguely, yeah, a lot of prose. Prosaic. Yeah, put that in.

This kind of mistake, passed over, I must painfully emphasize, not only by the writer but by the editor of the magazine, and possibly a copy editor and proofreader, in a literary magazine, makes me sigh deeply. It does not make me want to set my hair on fire or throw a hatchet through a window, but it does make me sigh deeply.

Prosaic means commonplace; literally like prose, with the implication that there is no poetry or artistry there. “My wardrobe is pretty prosaic: just jeans and polo shirts.” To be prolific is to be abundantly productive. “He’s prolific, having written ten books in five years.”

Another error I’ve noticed from time to time is the use of ‘ascetic’ for ‘aesthetic.’ They are different words. Ascetic, pronounced ass-HEH-tic, means to practice severe (usually religious) self-denial. Aesthetic, pronounced ass-THET-ic, means having to do with beauty, or the appreciation of it. “The aesthetics of the building will be important, as it will be situated on a promontory for all to see.”


Now you understand. One more for today: the increasing practice of using ‘discomforting’ to mean ‘disconcerting.’ The word that’s mixing them up is ‘discomfiting,’ which they’ve heard somewhere, and they want to use it, but at the last second they bail out to ‘discomforting,’ because they’re not really sure about ‘discomfiting,’ and ‘disconcerting’ is entirely beyond them.

To be discomfited is to feel uneasy or embarrassed.

To be disconcerted is to feel more deeply uneasy; disturbed.

To be discomforted is when somebody steals your pillow.

I am, as always, yours in the love of precision.

What do you think? Any linguistic lapses bugging you today? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [amazing sketch by ES]

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