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Watch your language: Common usage isn’t always correct usage


February 1, 2011

Several years ago, when I was coaching my oldest son’s youth baseball team, one of the team members fretted about facing a wild pitcher.

“I don’t like this guy. He almost beamed me last time,” he said.

“Beaned,” I replied. “Not beamed.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a bean ball,” I said. “Bean is a slang term for head. It’s not used so much anymore, but that’s where it came from. If a pitcher threw at your head, then it was a bean ball. If he hit you, then he beaned you — even if he didn’t hit you on the head. It’s not beam, like a laser beam.”

“No, it’s beam.”

The pregame degenerated into a debate over usage, etymology and culture with a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds. I lost the argument when the boys unanimously proclaimed that the correct term was indeed beam, as any fool in the fifth grade knew. I clearly did not know what I was talking about.

The term “bean ball” is just one victim of a culture in which metaphor and symbolism are often passed on through images and sound rather than through reading.  Although people have always learned much of their vocabulary by listening to others, reading allows you to see a word or expression, thereby putting it in context both in the cultural sense and in terms of meaning.  This prevents people from just repeating words in what appears to be the appropriate situation. In English, we have so many words that sound similar that it is easy to make nonsense out of a perfectly good turn of phrase.

Like bean ball, many of our expressions come from the past and might contain words or objects that are rarely used today. People often mishear these metaphors and substitute words that seem to make at least some sense — if not total sense — in the context of the present day.  And some of them are just plain misunderstood.

What follows is my list of today’s 10 most commonly misused and misunderstood terms and metaphors in the media. I have seen these errors in print and heard them on television, and I’ve heard educated professionals misuse them in formal settings.

And, of course, these mistakes — and many more — proliferate on the Internet. Communications professionals should be aware of these so that they can keep them out of their clients’ mouths.

  1. Assuage [a person]. Assuage means to lessen the intensity of, ease or quench. Only feelings and conditions can be assuaged. People can be pacified, mollified or appeased. Hunger, anxiety, fear or loneliness can be assuaged.  You can assuage the boss’s anger, but you can never assuage the boss. Try mollifying him instead.
     
  2. Chomp at the bit.  The correct term is “champ at the bit.” A bit is normally made of metal or some hard synthetic material, and any horse that chomps on it would pay dearly. Now, horses’ teeth grow throughout their lives, but a horse wouldn’t want to break its teeth on a bit. “To champ” is “to show impatience of delay or restraint,” so horses that are ready to race would champ at the bit until the gates opened and they could run.
     
  3. Hone in. The correct term is home in.  To hone means to sharpen, as a knife or ax blade. But to home is to find or return to the source, as a homing pigeon or a homing device, which is used to find the source of an electronic signal. When you home in on something, you zero in on it.
     
  4. Jerry-rigged. The correct term is jury-rigged, which means erected, constructed or arranged in a makeshift fashion. On a sailing ship, a jury-mast is a temporary mast built to replace one that has broken or been carried away.  Jury  then came to apply to other parts of a ship that people built or arranged for temporary use, such as jury-rigging.
     
  5. Jive. How often have I heard reasonably educated people say that something just doesn’t jive with known facts? They really mean to say  jibe, which is to be in accord.
     
  6. Pawn off.  The correct term is palm off, which means to pass something by concealment or deception. Imagine a card game in which the dealer conceals a low card in the palm of his hand and then surreptitiously deals it to an unsuspecting player. It doesn’t have anything to do with a pawnshop.
     
  7. Slight of hand.  The correct term is sleight of hand. Sleight is related to the word sly and means “deceitful craftiness or dexterity.” If you’ve ever played three-card Monte on a street corner, then you know there’s nothing slight about it.
     
  8. Staunch the flow.  The correct phrase is stanch the flow, although dictionaries now accept staunch as a variation of stanch. To stanch means to stem or stop bleeding or leakage.
     
  9. Straight-laced or straightjacket.  We really mean strait-laced or straitjacket.  Strait means narrow, so anyone who laced their corset tightly would be pretty strait laced — and probably more than a little cranky.  A person in a straitjacket certainly would lie straight, but the jacket is characterized by the fact that it restrains the limbs in a very — well — straitlaced way.
     
  10. Take a different tact. The correct phrase is take a different tack.  The metaphor comes from sailing.  To tack is to change the direction of a sailing vessel by turning the bow into the wind and shifting the sails. It has everything to do with changing tactics, but the metaphor is about sailing tactics, or tacking.

English is a living language, and we don’t have a royal academy to dictate proper usage.  Terms change as the culture — people, that is — changes them.

Back in 1965, my punctilious ninth-grade English teacher told us that harass was properly pronounced HA-r?ss, not h?-RASS — accent on the first syllable.  At that time, Webster showed that this was the preferred pronunciation, but 30 years earlier,  Webster showed it as the only pronunciation —  it was simply incorrect to stress the last syllable.  Today, h?-RASS  (stress on the second syllable) is Webster’s first pronunciation. It changed through common usage.

Mr. Harris (yes, really) must be horrified.

So it may be that in time, ESPN announcers will be talking about beam balls, psychiatric workers will put patients in straightjackets and Webster will indicate that home in is an archaic use of the phrase hone in.

Until then, however, I’ll stick with my original tact and refrain from any slight of hand about words and their true meaning. There, I feel assuaged already.  And by the way, I still follow Mr. Harris’ rules.

Gregory Lagana Gregory Lagana is a founding partner of LaganaHamilton, a consultancy in Northern Virginia. He had a 21-year career in the Foreign Service and served in White House communications for three years.
Email: lagana at laganahamilton.com



Comments

Chris says:

The incorrect usage that bothers me more than any other is when people say, "I could care less," when they mean "I couldn't care less." Saying the one could care less implies that they must care at least a little. It may not be much, but in order for them to be able to care less, they have to care. Someone who couldn't care less cares nothing at all. I realize there's nothing I can really do to change people's usage, other than pointing it out to them, but it bothers me nonetheless.

February 14, 2011

Tom Rodgers says:

It is amazing how language changes with time. I remember an article on TV that said the Queen's English is becoming much less formal. How did I measure-up? Two of them I don't use at all, 6 I don't use correctly and will continue to do so, and 1 is a spelling error that I'll never get right even if I tried. Surprisingly, I got one right.

February 14, 2011

Bitchomper says:

The term "champ at the bit" may be correct, but the author's logic is faulty. Horses do indeed chew and chomp with a bit in their mouth when they are impatient (ever been to a horse pull?), and without "paying dearly" with their teeth, either, since bits fit into a wide, toothless gap between their front and back teeth. This is one phrase that I think makes more sense the "incorrect" way.

March 1, 2012

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