It occured to me that I should put together a list of commonly misused or misunderstood words or phrases to hand out to my class. What prompted this were the ones I seem always to be running across:
Immaculate Conception – Does not refer to the pregnancy of Mary. It refers to her having been born free of original sin in seminaliter. As in the old joke in which Jesus preaches, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” A stone comes sailing out of the crowd. Jesus says, “Come on, Ma, I’m working here.”
Negative Reinforcement – Not the same as punishment. It involves taking away an undesired stimulus to reinforce a behavior.
I thought perhaps other people had words and phrases they’d like college freshmen to be straightened out on. So, please, I welcome your suggestions.
1.) “Manger” does not mean a stable or a place to keep the livestock. It’s an animal-feeding trough, made of wood or stone. Jesus was “away in a manger” because Mary and Joseph used the feeding trough as a crib. Mary and Joseph were not in a manger – they wouldn’t have fit.
2.) “Livid” does not mean “red”. It comes from a word meaning “leaden” (as in the metal), and implies that something is the color of lead. “His face was livid” means “He was purple with rage”, not “He was red with rage”. I’ve seen a guy who’d stopped breathing, and the weird, unnatural purple color his face took on is clearly what this phrase implies. That’s damned mad.
“Escalate” does not mean “tell your boss”–except, perhaps, as verbal shorthand for “I’m going to escalate the level of concern about this by informing my boss.” “Escalating the problem” would mean “intensifying the problem.”
“Fulsome” does not mean “fuller.” It means “overly effusive, cloyingly insincere.”
“Hone in on” is a mistake for “home in on” —although you can “hone (sharpen) an argument,” metaphorically speaking.
Thanks to Weird Earl’s for the Business Jargon “Bull***t Bingo” Cards link the other day! I laughed MAO.
“The exception that proves the rule” doesn’t mean that an example of something that goes against a rule proves the rule is correct. It means that an example of something that goes against the rule throws the rule into doubt.
What it means is that the explicit mention of an exception proves that there is a rule to begin with – otherwise it wouldn’t be an exception. This is covered in one of Cecil’s columns. After a bit of a back-and-forth on the subject, one helpful reader points out the relevant passage from A Dictionary of Words and Phrases in Current English:
Could you give an example? I always thought “positive reinforcement” meant rewarding desirable behavior to encourage it, and “negative reinforcement” meant punishing undesirable behavior to discourage it.
Beadlin – partly correct. “Begging the question” does not yet mean “bringing up the question” (though it it moving in that direction). It means that the point assumes it’s own truth, or what we’d call “circular reasoning.” E.g., “The bible is true because it’s God’s word, and God’s word is always true.”
While true, I’ve never heard the word used except to mean “angry” or to descrive a “livid” bruise; since the OED gives the definition “a. Of a bluish leaden colour; discoloured as by a bruise; black and blue,” that is correct.
For now. But the OED recognizes that this is becoming a legitimate usage. I’d say they were slow – no one confuses the two. See this for a reasonable discussion of the issue.
No, it’s a legitimate idiom. It’s also sarcasm. The fact that it’s illogical is irrelevant: everyone knows what the meaning is. See this.
Actually, the rate of error is pretty good so far in the thread. Usually everyone is wrong about what words they think are used incorrectly.
Positive reinforcement – A rat in a cage presses a bar and receives a treat as a reward. His behavior is strengthened by the reward.
Negative reinforcement – A rat in a cage receives a shock through the floor of the cage. He presses a bar and the shock stops. He stops pressing the bar and the shock returns. He presses it again and the shock stops. His behavior is strengthened by the removal of the shock.
Negative here isn’t a judgment of the reinforcement. It just means that something has been taken away.
The true meaning of “oxymoron” is much more subtle and refined than “contradition in terms”. It refers to the deliberate apposition of contrasting or words; the classic example is “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Unfortunately, the new, dumbed-down meaning is overwhelming the original, and the value of this once-interesting word is rapidly disappearing (if indeed it isn’t already gone).
A very commonplace one is the use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively.” This has become remarkably widespread; “I missed lunch! I was so hungry! I was literally starving to death!” You were? You were actually suffering from malnutrition to the point that your body’s internal organs were shutting down, because you missed lunch? Don’t think so.
I read somewhere - it might have been Bill Bryson’s book on the origins of English - that this happens sometimes, where a word starts to be used to indicate the exact opposite of what it used to mean.
“Enormity” does not mean just really, really large. It means immoderate, monstrous or outrageous. A typical correct use would be to discuss the enormity of a serial killer’s crimes, for example. I’ve heard newscasters speak of the “enormity” of some neutral but huge object like a mountain or a building, which is silly.