Language – Going Through a Phrase

By Mordechai Schiller

(Getty images)

That Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means

Pardon me while I hyperventilate. I’m coping with a bout of catachresis.

Not to worry. You don’t need to pray for me, thank G-d. Catachresis isn’t some dread disease, Heaven forbid. Garner’s Modern English Usage defines it as “the mistaken use of a word or phrase for another that is similar but does not have the same meaning.”

Sometimes editing feels like clearing a field from shells that didn’t go off. The official term is unexploded ordnance — ammunition that was fired but did not function and can still be dangerous. I’ve seen words like that.

I’m not talking about typos (I have Type O blood; I’m convinced that’s why I’m a lousy typist). And I don’t mean who’s whom (a dying distinction); or which-hunting (how many people really care about that?).
I’m talking about misused words like one in the first article I ever edited. The writer referred to a heart-rendering tragedy. It was heart-rending to read.

“The verb rend (= to split, tear) has nothing to do with the verb render (= to make, perform, provide). The errant phrase is particularly unpleasant because one definition of render is ‘to boil down (fat)’” (Garner).
(This evokes the image of an extreme case of heart rendering — extracting schmaltz from a fat-clogged heart; you shouldn’t know from it.)

I keep seeing presently (soon) when the writer meant to say currently (now); or bussing (kissing) when the writer meant busing (transporting by bus). Save bussing for kissing children goodbye at the bus stop.
When someone writes in regards to instead of in regard to, I can’t help but wonder to whom they’re sending their regards.

I should admit that catachresis isn’t part of my working vocabulary. I’m more familiar with malapropisms — the often-humorous misuse of a word when the speaker actually means a similar word. The word comes from a character in a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775, Mrs. Malaprop, who kept saying things like “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”

A client of the advertising grand master David Ogilvy told him, “Mr. Ogilvy, you have here the mucus of a good idea.” With a clearer nose and clearer mind, the client might have said, “…the nucleus of a good idea.”

I’m going to beat the holiday rush on confession here and say I’ve been guilty of the sin of jargon — censured by Sir Ernest Gowers in his guide The Complete Plain Words:
“The proper meaning of jargon is writing that employs technical words not commonly intelligible. Catachresis, for instance, is grammarians’ jargon for using a word in a wrong sense. When grammarians call writing jargon merely because it is verbose, circumlocutory and flabby, they themselves commit the sin of catachresis that they denounce in others.”

Heaven forgive me.

In my own writing, I can be obsessed with finding the mot juste — “the unique right word.” How important is the right word? Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
In describing William Dean Howells’ writing, Twain said, “A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer … but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when the right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words … the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry.”

Often, when I think I’ve come up with a really good new word or title, I find it’s already been used. The title of this column is a good example. So a hat tip to the brother-and-sister team of Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, who wrote That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words and Their Tangled Histories.

A word I always have to look up is comprise. It’s probably used more incorrectly than correctly. “So what’s the problem?” ask the Petrases. “Well, it goes against the traditional correct usage — and logic. Traditionally, comprise is defined and used in the active sense to mean ‘to constitute, to consist of.’ … The whole comprises the parts.”

So, the Petrases explain, you would say, “The house comprised five rooms,” not, “The house is comprised of five rooms.” That’s the passive, and it’s a big no-no to some who say we should use “composed of” or “consists of” instead.”

(If you don’t have toddlers running around looking for trouble, “no-no” is the parental equivalent of Mayor Ed Koch’s street signs warning: “Don’t Even THINK of Parking Here.”)

One pet peeve of word nerds is begs the question, when the writer actually means raises the question. (What do you feed a pet peeve? You don’t need to feed it anything. It eats you up.)

“Begs the question is a formal logic term, a translation of the Latin petitio principii. … In logic, this means you are trying to prove something based on a premise that needs to be proved itself.”

The last time a writer I was editing begged the question, I put a quarter in his cup.
He was pretty surprised, especially considering the fact that his cup was full of coffee.
When he protested, I said, “Keep the change.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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