I’m Curmudge-only Sayin’
OK, I’m an old fuddy-duddy, or perhaps a practising peevologist (which is not, by the way, anything to do with urinary specialisation in medicine). I’ve reached an age which entitles me to claim that label.
I’m allowed to admit that language is mutable and inevitably changes over time, and yet express my frustration with — and pursed-lips disapproval of — neologisms that (in my fuddy-duddy, pedantic view) unnecessarily vandalise my native tongue. I might even schedule just a few moments each week to clutch my pearls (if I had any, that is).
Or perhaps I’m just mourning (not “grieving,” please) some old friends I’ve loved for most of my long life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for some kind of Academie Anglaise to enforce a flies-in-amber Official Standard of written English. I love the zillion transcultural borrowings that make English such an adorable mongrel mutt. I love the shifting terrain of generational slang and argot and jargon, I love the creative portmanteaux that my fellow Anglophones spin off like sparks from the grindstone of history — a new viral meme every few weeks, what fun! My life would be so much the poorer without cyberchondria, wannapreneur, affluenza, mockumentary, gaydar, anacronym, wasband, and so many other lovely, creative coinages.
But then there are certain neologisms-of-ignorance or -misuse or -accident that trouble my compulsive copy-editor’s eye every time I see them. I’m finally riled enough to make a list; maybe list-making — pinning the damn things to a board, with labels — will be some kind of catharsis, enabling me to feel less irritable when I see them flutter by in the wild. Of course this taxonomy is a WIP and will be updated over time… as I net, bottle, and annotate more specimens with a satisfied Harumph.
Relish vs revel… Frequently of late I come across “He relished in the misfortunes of others.” Nope. Relish is a transitive verb meaning to savour, or enjoy the taste of (as in “Gentlemen’s Relish,” a condiment, or ‘pickle relish’, both intended to make food taste better). One can definitely relish the discomfort of a rival, or one’s own competence, or a luscious Bundt cake. Revel, on the other hand — with its connotations of frolic, capering, and party time — can take a preposition (in) and mean something rather similar (hence the confusion). One can revel in another person’s misfortune (or one’s own good fortune), much as one can dance on their grave. However, one cannot revel good fortune or relish in it. At least, not in my day.
Reign vs rein... How many times in recent months I have read that someone or other “reigned in” an impulse, or a wayward faction, or whatever. No, folks. To reign is to rule over, whereas reining in is an equestrian reference — the act of pulling hard on the reins to stop a moving horse. I understand the semantic bleedthrough here: a monarch who reigns, in a sense holds the reins of the nation. But no, one does not reign in, unless one is regally ruling in an indoor setting rather than reigning out — like dining out? — in some less private spot.
Genius… is not an adjective. It’s a noun. Nikola Tesla was probably a genius, though it seriously vexed Thomas Edison to hear him described as such. Both Tesla and Edison were authors of many ingenious designs for technological gizmos. However, while Tesla’s designs may have been the inventions of a genius, or a genius’ inventions, they were not genius inventions, a back-formation equivalent to calling a car a mechanic contraption rather than a mechanical contraption. Again, the crossover point is self-evident: many adjectives end in -ious, phonetically indistiguishable from -ius, and there are precious (ahem) few nouns ending in -ius to serve as counterweights. So by a kind of gravitational attraction, genius is sliding towards a new career as an alternate spelling of a brand-new adjective, genious… which makes me fear that ingenious may shortly share the dreadful fate of inflammable (next on my list).
Inflammable… means easily inflamed. As in, an ear inflammation. There’s a large family of Latinate words in English for which the prefix in- does mean “not”, very much like un-. Inarticulate, for example; intemperate, inconclusive, insipid. Inflammable is not one of these. It’s one of a different family in which the in- prefix indicates directionality or approach, like infusion, inclusion, intention, inherent, influence and so on. However, gravitational attraction (with some help from commerce) has pushed inflammable out of its natural orbit and into the other family. I believe this is mostly due to product labellers who, some decades ago, feared that an illiterate public might mistake inflammable for non-flammable and hence not take proper precautions; so they started using the ugly neologism flammable instead. And it stuck. What further ghastly retoolings await?
Shall we soon be referring to a fiance(e) as one’s tended rather than one’s intended? Will a newly-coined clusive come to mean elitist or snobby, to explain its apparent negative inclusive? Will an inscribed volume be one with no writing in it, and an indented paragraph one whose first line has no extra whitespace? Shall we be debted, rather than indebted, to a benefactor? And (oh dear) will ingenious itself someday come to mean dull, pedestrian, lacking in cleverness? Who knows, maybe for some future speakers of an English-descended dialect indentured will mean toothless. But not, I hope, in my lifetime.
Grieve… is not a transitive verb. And here I would be tempted to raise my voice, were it not for the grave subject matter. It takes no object — or at least its object is not the dearly departed. One may grieve over something, or grieve for something, but one does not grieve something… until the last couple of years, that is! I see this usage shift more and more frequently, and what can I say: it grieves me (the only construction in which this verb can take an object). The transitive expression of sorrow is to mourn: we mourn our dear departed. However, it’s a most obliging and flexible verb: one can mourn over or mourn for one’s loss as well. However, please note that a sad and regrettable event does not mourn me. It can only grieve me.
Reticent… is not a synonym for reluctant. Reticent means restrained in expression, not forthcoming, cautious about revealing one’s feelings or opinions, inclined towards privacy rather. It’s the opposite of over-sharing and TMI. Again the point of crossover — the switch where the lexicological train jumped the tracks — is pretty obvious. A reticent person’s reluctance to spill their guts to all and sundry led to a conflation of the two words, so that in recent years I have more than once choked on my morning cuppa when reading that So&So was “reticent to speak to the media.” No, the Honourable So&So was reluctant to speak, or was reticent when questioned. To be “reticent to speak” is superfluous, like being “humble to deprecate”.
Fulsome… does not mean “complete” — though I fear it’s now too late to herd this stray sheep back into the lexical corral of my vanished youth. Its primary meaning is “excessively or embarrassingly flattering.” A fulsome compliment is one so over-the-top that the recipient squirms a little. Admittedly, a secondary meaning is “generous, abundant, large in size or quantity.” However, I’ve been hearing it ever more frequently in the jargon of office fauna and bureaucrats, almost invariably associated with a formal report or explanation, to mean “complete or exhaustive.” Sample “I’ll have a more fulsome analysis for you by Tuesday.” (To which I am always tempted to respond, “Oh dear, will it make me squirm?”) Presumably this avoidance of the obvious comparative fuller is due to a kind of brand-name free association? Perhaps modern speakers find the phrase “a fuller report” makes them think inappropriately of hairbrushes? For whatever reason, the secondary, far more boring and less deliciously specific meaning seems to be clawing its way back into the number one spot. How shall we replace the perfect aptness of fulsome? Smarmy comes close, as does unctuous, but neither will console me for the loss of the original.
Flout vs flaunt… To flout is to defy, as in defying authority or law. You can flout the municipal authority, for example, by repeatedly jaywalking while casually whistling the Marseillaise or any other revolutionary anthem of your choice. (Indeed, the word derives from a Dutch verb fluiten, to whistle; it connotes whistling derisively at authority, daring it to come after you for your transgressions.) To flaunt, on the other hand, is to display conspicuously — you can flaunt your wealth by draping yourself in bling or driving a collector car in immaculate condition. Its primary meaning at one time was in reference to flags or banners: to flaunt was to flutter bravely or gaily in a fresh breeze. Metaphorical aptness extended this literal meaning to cover the act of waving anything about, especially something colourful, with the goal of attracting attention or envy. It entered the popular lexicon again, after languishing a while in the refined altitudes of Literary Language, when Mel Brooks’ unforgettable character Max Bialystock shouted out of a window, “”That’s it, baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!” Occasionally I run across a confused bit of prose in which someone is accused of “flaunting authority”, which of course would mean exactly the opposite of what the author intended. Menacing border guards in black uniforms with holstered weapons and mean eyes do indeed flaunt their authority… while travellers at the checkpoint sit quietly and refrain wisely from flouting it.