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.
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.