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What terminology from “The Guardian” newspaper’s list of 35 misused word definitions do you often use wrong?
Ah, I see we have an instance of that special being we call in Greek the glōssamyntōr, the “language defender”.
Harold Evans, Fleet Street editor, eh? Of the Street that gave us Lynne Truss? And in turn the immortal book review of Lynne Truss, Bad Comma? (“An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces.”)
I will make like John Gragson Esq., and comment on these and how I came to know of them.
- Affect/Effect: when I was in high school, I did Music Literature. And part of my study of the Baroque was a (diluted, as it turns out) introduction to the Doctrine of the affects. That consolidated in my mind that affect gets to be a noun, even if it is an archaic noun, distinct from effect.
- Alibi/Excuse. I’ve watched enough police procedurals to know what an alibi is, even if I didn’t know that alibi is Latin for “somewhere else”. Like John says, surely everyone knows this.
- Alternative/Choice. “If there are two choices, they are properly called “alternatives”. If there are more than two, they are choices.” Sod off.
- Anticipate/Expect. “To expect something is to think it may happen; to anticipate is to prepare for it, to act in advance.” I see it, but I don’t bother with it.
- Blatant/Flagrant. “It’s best to use “blatant” for offence that is glaringly obvious, without care, brazen. Best use “flagrant” to emphasise a serious breach of law or regulation.” Huh. Again, I see it, but I doubt I use flagrant at all. Then again, I’m not a lawyer.
- Chronic/Acute. I’m Greek, I know chronic is ongoing.
- Compose/Comprise. “Compose means “to form” or “constitute”. Comprise means “to contain, include, be made up of”. The US comprises 50 states; 50 states do not comprise the US.” Really? I know that compose isn’t about inclusion, but I’ve only said or heard is comprised of.
- Continual/Continuous. A pedant’s favourite, and my English teacher got to me with this one before I stopped being so fussy. I may have caught myself making the distinction once or twice.
- Crescendo/Climax. I get this one right too, having a music background.
- Decimate/Destroy. Oh come on. Noone uses decimate to mean “kill 1 in 10”. It is applied only to human casualties though.
- Disinterested/Uninterested. I learned disinterested in its original meaning, and the “uninterested” interpretation never made sense to me.
- Entomb/Trap. “The trapped miners may be alive; entombed miners are dead, ie in a tomb.” What, noone gets buried alive in your world, Evans?
- Flotsam/Jetsam. I read about the distinction when I was 6, and forgot all about it, because I neither throw things overboard, nor pick things up from the sea. Cute distinction if you care about property rights. Irrelevant to anyone else.
- Forego/Forgo. Um. I certainly understand the difference; I’m not confident I’ve always spelled it like I do.
- Gourmet/Gourmand. I’m not familiar with gourmand, so I’m off the hook.
- Inchoate/Incoherent. Inchoate things are often incoherent, but yes, I rather like inchoate, and I am aware of the distinction.
- Incumbent/*Former incumbent. “As a noun, the current holder of an office; a “former incumbent” is nonsense. But when you hold an office, it is incumbent (adjective) on you to perform your duties.” I don’t particularly see why “the former[ly] current holder of an office” is nonsense. It is incumbent on Evans to take a chill pill.
- Inflammable/Flammable. Yes, I know they’re synonyms. I just avoid using inflammable. Or being around anything inflammable.
- Insidious/Invidious. I was aware of the distinction without reflecting on the etymology, but once you do, it’s obvious: the Latin for ‘trap’ vs ‘evil’.
- Judicial/Judicious. I call lots of people judicious that have nothing to do with the legal system.
- Less/Fewer. You know, I’ve been corrected on this on Quora itself. To which all I will say is: Stannis Baratheon is noone’s idea of a good stylist.
- Litigate/Argue about it. “In January 2017, while telling ABC why Trump would not keep the off-and-on promise, Conway said: “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.” Wrong verb.” Not that I welcome the opportunity to defend Kelly Ann Conway, but Harold Evans has clearly never heard of figurative language.
- Luxuriant/Luxurious. I know this one, thanks to a million hair shampoo ads.
- Momentarily/For a moment. Only Poms use momentarily to mean “in a moment” anyway.
- Prescribe/Proscribe. Prescribe is what Harold Evans does. Proscribe is what I want to do to Harold Evans. Simples.
- Refugee/Migrant. Come on. Why is this even in this list.
- Refute/Deny. Yes yes, refute is something that you prove, deny is something you can just say.
- Regalia/Regal. Regalia is something I know most about from Frank Zappa. And regalia is not just what a king has: words do broaden. You’ll be saying paraphernalia can only describe dowries, next. (Look it up.)
- Replica/Reproduction. “A replica is one recreated by the original creator, so there is no such thing as “a virtual replica”.” Didn’t know, didn’t care. I think this one’s gone.
- Sceptic/Denier. Outside of climate change, scepticism retains its meaning, particularly as sceptical. Within climate change, it’s dead.
- Transpire. My apologies to the Magister and Andrew Marvell both, but yeah, this one was lost in 1700.
- Viable/Feasible. Noone says a foetus is feasible. Plenty of people can say plans are viable, because figurative language. You should try it some time, Evans.
- Viral. Evans seems to object to viral going viral. He must be great at parties.
- Virtually. “Incorrectly used to mean “nearly all”; eg: “Virtually all the chocolates were eaten.” “Virtually” is useful for an imprecise description that is more or less right, close enough, as good as. “He’s virtually the manager.”” Oh, you’re funny, Harold.
Harold Evans. Editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981; 88 years old and retired, now dedicating his time to writing. Writing lists like these. God help us all.