Friday, March 23, 2012

Fun with Words: A Wee Rant

"You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

Seems all the time I think similar thoughts, seeing people use words the wrong way.  They're powerful things, words.  Just a single one can make a huge impact on a story, a speech, a conversation.  They can raise you up, and they can cut you right back down to size.

But words, like the character of Inigo Montoya stated so eloquently, do not always mean what one thinks they mean.  We often use words wrong, for wide variety of reasons.  And because we use them wrong, others learn them wrong and perpetuate their wrong use.

Now I'm not talking about words like "then vs. than", or the spectacular failure that seems to be our understanding of "their, there, and they're", or any other malapropism.  I'm not even going to go there, because I don't want to get that worked up.  I can do without the aneurysm.  No, I'm talking about words we mistake the meaning for, those we think we're using correctly but aren't at all.  It's irritating, because the more they're used wrong, the more their wrong use is perpetuated.  And don't give me that lame "but language is always evolving" excuse.  I know how languages work, thank you very much.

And by the way, a hearty thank you to Alanis Morissette, for the wonderful, unintentional lesson on the misuse of irony.  Irony.  That's a very good place to start, don't you think?

Irony.  i·ro·ny [ahy-ruh-nee, ahy-er-] noun, plural -nies.  Several of the dictionary definitions include: The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.  An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.  Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

Good job there, Alanis.  You very aptly described coincidence, not irony.  And the misuse of it here isn't really ironic, either.  It's unfortunate.  It would be ironic if Ms. Morissette were an English teacher instead of a singer.  As to the lyrics, hardly any are the least bit ironic.  The fact you called the song Ironic however, is quite ironic.

If I was afraid of flying and died in a plane crash, that would be a coincidence that fulfilled my paranoia.  If I was afraid of flying and took a bus because it was safer, only to die in a bus crash, that would be ironic.  If I was an aircraft safety inspector and I died in a plane crash, that would be coincidental.  If, as that aircraft safety inspector, I died in a plane crash in an attempt to show just how safe the plane was, after inspecting it myself, that would be irony.

Literally.  lit·er·al·ly [lit-er-uh-lee] adverb.  Dictionary definitions include: In the literal or strict sense.  In a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.  Actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy.

Something literal is "word for word".  It's the actual, really real definition of something.  The way it in fact is.  And it's used in place of the word "figuratively" more often than it's used correctly.  Stop it.  Literally, just stop it.

"I literally died laughing at that joke!"  No, you didn't.  You died figuratively.  If you'd have literally died, I'd literally be on my way to the morgue with your cold corpse.  Or the hospital.  How much I liked you could quite literally affect my destination, if I was figuratively that cold-hearted.

And just now, I mentally threw a book at your face for saying that.  Mentally.  Figuratively.  Not literally, because it would have been impossible to literally throw a book at you, seeing as you're not even in the same room as I.  You could use the word "figuratively" in the example above.  There's nothing wrong with that word.  You could even say "I died laughing at that joke," without any modifier, because that would be simple - and obvious - hyperbole.

Penultimate.  pe·nul·ti·mate [pi-nuhl-tuh-mit] adjective. Definitions: Next to the last.  Of or pertaining to a penult, the next-to-last syllable of a word.

This word is often misused in sports.  "They had the penultimate season!"  No, they had the ultimate season.  The team they beat in the final game had the penultimate season.  Penultimate, in this context, isn't a grand accomplishment, eclipsing all others, it's the agony of defeat, ultimately failing after getting oh-so-close.  The Seahawks won their penultimate game in the 2005 playoffs, resoundingly, only to become the penultimate team of that season.

Proverbial.  pro·ver·bi·al [pruh-vur-bee-uhl] adjective.  And the dictionary definitions: Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a proverb.  Expressed in a proverb or proverbs: proverbial wisdom.  Of the nature of or resembling a proverb.

Again, used heavily in sports broadcasting.  I don't know how many times I've heard about being on "proverbial cloud nine", or throwing the "proverbial perfect pass", or that "proverbial monkey on one's back".  It's uttered about once a game, or race, or match from some broadcaster or another.  We hear it all the time in television.  And in movies.  And it's wrong.  "Idiomatic" is usually the word they're looking for.  When they say the "proverbial perfect pass", what they really mean is the "quintessential pass".

"Cloud nine" does not come from a proverb.  It's an idiom.  And there are no proverbs that speak of throwing a touchdown, or making a daring pass on a race track, or any other sporting events for that matter.  Jesus never spoke about making that hard-to-throw spiral.  Aesop never recounted a tale about the awesomeness of being on the ninth cloud.  And a "monkey on one's back" comes from nature, not parable.  It comes from observing baby monkeys of many species, how they ride on their mothers backs, and don't come off, no matter how the mother jumps around.  It's an idiom for something you just can't shake, no matter how hard you try.

Myth.  myth [mith] noun.  With dictionary definition: A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being, hero, or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.  An imaginary or fictitious thing or person.

We owe at least a little bit of the misuse on this one to the television show Mythbusters.  Now don't get me wrong, it's a great show.  I absolutely love it!  But they're only sometimes busting myths.  Sometimes it's just misconceptions. doesn't always bust myths either.  Mostly they bust inaccurate perceptions and misconceptions, based on rumors and inaccurate information.

And those constant advertorials proclaiming to have the answers for the "10 Myths about Drinking Alcohol", or 10 Myths about Mental Illness", or whatever other misconceptions there are, aren't really myths either.  There is, to my knowledge, no fictitious or imaginary being known for touting the dangers of that demon alcohol.  Say it with me now, people:  those are misconceptions, not myths.  Dionysus was a myth.  Pan was a myth.  And those are the closest things you'll ever find if you're looking for myths about drinking.

Sentient.  sen·tient [sen-shuhnt] adjective.  Having the power of perception by the senses; conscious.  Characterized by sensation and consciousness.

As a science fiction writer, this one strikes near and dear to my heart.  We see and hear it all the time.  "Ooo, a sentient being!"  Well, no shit.  There are a lot of sentient beings besides humans on the earth.  In fact, our world is teeming with them.  Your dog is sentient.  He's self-aware; he knows he exists.  He knows those are his own balls he's licking right now.  That's why he's licking them: they're his, and he can lick them all day if he wants to.

And while sometimes yes, sentience is what someone means when they're talking about a self-aware machine, what they are often referring to is sapience.  It comes from the same root as homo sapiens.  Sapiens, meaning "to be wise", or "to have taste" in Latin, refers to an ability to make decisions based on wisdom, experience and judgment.  Yes, it's very much human-like, a trait we humans share with almost nothing else on the planet.  While some animals can learn, and associate certain events with others, higher deductive reasoning and judgment is peculiar to humans.  At least until we let those mad scientists in the genetics labs go nuts.  Kidding, folks, kidding.  Only a few of us really want to see giant lab rats with super-human intelligence and cognitive reasoning.

Nemesis.  nem·e·sis [nem-uh-sis] noun, plural -ses  [-seez].  In classical mythology, the goddess of divine retribution.  An agent or act of retribution or punishment.  Something that a person cannot conquer, achieve, etc.  An opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome.

A nemesis isn't just an antagonist or an enemy.  He's not the bad guy the good guy defeats in the end.  He's more than that.  He's the one foe that knows and can exploit someone's Achilles' heel; the one thing they cannot conquer.  A nemesis is the unbeatable, that agent of retribution which one cannot defeat.  So chances are, unless the hero dies in the end, it's unlikely they met their nemesis for the last time.  They were probably the antihero's nemesis instead.  In fact, an "agent or act of retribution or punishment" sounds much more like the hero of most stories, meting out retribution to wrongdoers, instead of the villain.

Ok, I'm finished.  That's all I can produce off the top of my head.  I'm sure a few more examples will come raging to the forefront of my mind once I've posted this.   Oh well, it's probably a big enough rant for now anyway.  Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.


  1. "Misconceptionbusters" sounds musical in a deconstructionist way, but I suspect it wouldn't do much for the show's ratings.

    Maybe Fraudbusters, Scambusters or Hoaxbusters would be a more appropriate name for the show.

    I thought of "literally" the moment I started reading. It irks me, the way people misuse it all the time.
    Have you noticed, though, how many of these instances of misuse stem from laziness? It's much, much easier to say literally than metaphorically.

    I believe the misuse of Nemesis stems from a long-discredited hypothesis that the Earth had a planetary twin, sharing the Earth's orbit, but would always be on the other side of the sun. Hence the misconception of "Nemesis" as "opposite number."

  2. That's a very good point about sentience vs. sapience. Maybe the misuse is because humans have a hard time believing in other life's intelligence unless it's overtly displayed? Like how a breed of dog is considered intelligent when it's quick to follow commands.

  3. John, that's a very good point. I think a lot of instances of misuse stem from either laziness or just because it "sounds better" to use the incorrect word rather than the correct one. And however "Nemesis" came to be misused, it's now used in a very ironic sense - as the direct opposite of its meaning. The hero of a story is usually the antagonist's nemesis in the end, not the other way around. There are a few examples of true nemesises... nemesi? but they're rare.

    And Heidi, I think that stems from the fact that people confuse "self-aware" with "thinks like a human". It's also lazy thinking that gets us there. It doesn't help that many folks push certain species as being ultra-intelligent - dolphins, for instance. They seem to confuse intelligence with decision-making and reasoning abilities. This is painfully obvious when watching an artificial intelligence like IBM's Watson completely annihilate Jeopardy contestants on knowledge-based tasks, but fall woefully short with anything involving a further step of deducting reasoning.

  4. Oh God. Don't get me started on the literally/figuratively issue. I may have to poke myself in the eye to take my mind off it. Literally.

    And that penultimate/ultimate cock up is a new one on me. Shudder.

  5. Luke, that literally/figuratively thing wasn't so bad until recently. Now it seems every other usage of it is wrong. It's right up there as one of my top pet peeves. And I could have probably come up with a good half dozen more pretty easily, without even touching malapropisms.

  6. Hey, Jonathan! Because I dig your blog, I've named you as a recipient of the Liebster Award! Check out my entry on the award for more info. :)

    The Great and Mysterious Liebster Award