Misnomers, Malapropisms, and other Catachrestic Abominations

I am a liberal. I believe in evolution, artistic license, and new ideas to deal with changing times. But I am a staunch conservative when it comes to the English language. I do not believe in “verbal relativism” - the idea that usage determines the meaning of words. I believe that we have had plenty of time to decide which words mean what and that any further changes are ignorant and irresponsible.

Imagine if we were to arbitrarily change the colors of a Van Gogh, or alter the notes of a Mozart composition? Isn’t that what we do when we change the meanings of words recorded in the works of Melville or Hawthorne or Faulkner?

This thread will deal with the bastardizations of the language that we sensitive folk are assaulted with every day. Simple misuses of words which become the currency of the ignorant by popular repetition.

Let’s begin: the word embattled means “prepared for battle”. It does not mean “under attack”. When a politician or the football coach is being criticized to the extent that his job is threatened he is “beleaguered” or “besieged.” To be “under attack” is not the same as being “prepared for an attack” or “prepared to attack”.

Willy-nilly is not a synonym for helter-skelter or higgledy-piggledy. In fact it means nearly the opposite. Willy-nilly is an alteration of the expression “will ye, nill ye”, which means “whether you want to or not”. To do something haphazardly is very different from doing something by necessity. Yet this is the very misinterpretation that can occur when reading classics of literature.

If I hear one more person use the expression begs the question to mean ‘raises the question’ or ‘leads to the question’ I’ll freak out. Stop being pretentious! Only sportscasters and sophomores should still be making this mistake. “Begging the question” is a term used in the discipline of logic which refers to a specific fallacy also known as “petitio principii”. Tell a friend and help to stop this travesty.

Speaking of sportscasters, recently I heard one describing a fancy exclusive country club as one where the hoi polloi gather. Maybe he meant they gathered in the parking lot.

Feel free to contibute your own pet lexical peeves. I’m not done by a long shot.

Every time I see one of these rants on how words are “wrongly” used, I always do what the ranter never seems to think of doing:

I look it up in a dictionary.

Seems pretty simple, but no one ever bothers before ranting.

Now, let’s see:

From the American Heritage dictionary:

So definition 2 indicates this is perfectly proper.

Once more, the “wrong” meaning is perfectly acceptable.

I will agree that “Beg the question” is wrong when it means “bring up the question.”

“Hoi Polloi” was also misused (rather, used in reverse of it’s actual meaning), but I don’t know what you mean about the “parking lot” comment, since it’s a general term that can stand for any sized group of people.

Now, let’s have a rule for this thread: before you post, look up the goddamn word in a dictionary! :rolleyes:

Yeh and verily my old bird

The point of this thread is that the secondary definitions you cited should never have been added to the dictionary because they are incorrect. They were added because ignoramuses like yourself and Bippy aren’t in a position to question what you read in the dictionary.

Usage should not determine the definition of words and expressions if the words already have an established definition.

Your ignorance only supports my premise, that language is corrupted by misuse. Your assertion that “willy-nilly” and “embattled” mean what they obviously don’t mean is proof in itself that I am correct.

An earlier dictionary would not have included the secondary defintions.

Her’s an idea for Chuck: don’t respond to a thread when you don’t know what you are talking about.

Your quixotic attempt to enforce an immutable language is doomed to failure.


Give it up and find something else useful to do with your time.



So let me get this straight – you’re a better lexicographer than any dictionary and know considerably more. So a word is wrong if you don’t like it. :rolleyes:

It wasn’t my assertion that those definitions are correct. It was the assertion of the American Heritage Dictionary. Mirriam-Webster also concurs. So does Encarta. So does the Cambridge dictionary. In no case was the definition considered substandard or wrong. It is perfectly legitmate English. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not the language’s.

So four dictionaries (and probably more) say it’s proper usage, but we’re supposed to believe it’s not just because you say it’s not. Wow. How did you get all that power? :wally

It doesn’t matter what an earlier dictionary says. What matters is what a modern dictionary says. Would you say that the word “mouse” does not refer to a computer pointing device in a dictionary from the 1930s, and thus that use is “ignorant”? Of course not.

News flash: words change their meaning over time. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of lexicography is well aware of this fact.

Now let’s answer your nonsense directly:

Should never have been added? Who made you the judge of that?

They have been added because they are correct by any sane definition of what is correct: namely, they are used that way. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem. But dictionaries haven’t been proscriptive since the OED was started over a hundred years ago. Whether you like it or not, usage determines meaning. Deal with it.

No, they were added because people used that meaning. Whether it was right or wrong at the in the past is irrelevant. What does matter is that it is correct now. What’s next? Are you going to insist that all current English words should be declined because that was how they were in Old English?

It is ignoramuses like yourself who know nothing about language or how dictionaries are made who stand up pompously and decry usages that have been standard English for decades.

Clearly you know nothing about language. Definitions are established by usage. You could write a dictionary saying “dog” really meant “cat,” but that wouldn’t mean it did. If people are using a word in a particular way, and that becomes part of the language, then that is the definition. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of lexicography knows this.

I can say to you: don’t start a thread if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Not on the SDMB.

Darn straight! And I don’t know why nobody can seem to spell anymore. It’s like everyone’s forgotten how to use ð and þ. Sheesh, Chuck, don’t you know that on February 3, 1909 at precisely 10:23 AM the Supreme Being descended in the midst of assorted pyrotechnics and announced to the English-speaking world that English had finally achieved utter perfection, and henceforth any alteration would be an abomination before the Lord?

Personally, I think He was being too lax about it. If it was good enough for Beowulf, it’s good enough for me.

Checking up ignoramus in dictionary…
L, lit, we take no notice

hmmm, I guess that fits in that myself and RealityChuck might well take no notice of your further twittering in this thread.

As regards “begging the question,” here’s what a certain Perfect Master had to say:


Dear Cecil:

In your column about the Fifth Third Bank, you committed one of my pet peeves, namely, incorrectly using the phrase “begging the question” as a synonym for suggesting a question: “When we contacted Fifth Third Bank, we learned that [it] was formed in 1906 from the merger of the Fifth National Bank and the Third National Bank. This naturally begged other questions . . .” AUGH! No, it didn’t beg other questions. It suggested other questions. Begging the question means that the truth of the conclusion is assumed by the premises. Just because every other damn-ignorant newspaper and magazine columnist uses the phrase incorrectly is no excuse for Cecil to follow suit. --From the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Since we’re getting persnickety, let me point out that one doesn’t commit pet peeves; one commits errors that peeve others. In fact there’s a whole raft of things you can do to annoy others. On the subject of begging the question, it occurred to me to say “invite” or “demand” lest I hear from persons such as yourself. But “beg” had the element of puppy-dog enthusiasm I was after. I was using these words in a manner congruent with their plain meaning, and while they also happen to be the term for a certain logical fallacy, I figured that no one would misunderstand my intent. And no one has. I recognize, however, that people need an outlet for their hostility, and better this than mailbox bombs. So, has your stress been reduced? Good. Now piss off.

Geez, Ex, didn’t you lurk for awhile before posting? Even a few days would have shown you that you would be walking into a buzz saw with a posting of that sort. It would appear you weren’t properly embattled.

I think that there are a lot of people here who do feel much the same way as Ex Machina that the changes to language are often ugly and apparently unnecessary. But since this sort of thread has come up many times it is learnt that this is all part of the process of language’s growth and evolution.
If Ex Machina had seemed to be a dumb or unassertive person, we would have patted him/her on the head, given a few links to old versions of this thread, and said “welcome to the boards”. But since Ex came right in with such poise and assertion we were happy to bundle on him as we might bundle on any seasoned pro on these boards.

So Ex Machina don’t feel bad about the rough introduction, and (a belated) welcome to the boards. :slight_smile:

What Bippy the Beardless said.

One gets the feeling that Ex Machina can give as well as he gets, so he’ll do just fine here…

…which doesn’t prevent me from rolling my eyes at the futility of protesting the inexorable changes characteristic of any living language.




. “There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

"But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

I understand now that your little community here has a reflexive reaction to this subject. But arriving at a consensus on a subject does not mean that you are correct. And you are not correct.

I know that language evolves. But change can’t be arbitrary. If misuses of words continue to be absorbed into the lexicon we will move toward a homogenization of language where anything can mean anything according to the latest fad.

You insulted me en masse as if my position was arrogant and the argument was settled. The truth is that the debate over “acceptability” in the English language is engaged in continuously by lexicographers. The Second College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary included a pair of essays on whether “the prevailing usage of its speakers should be the chief determinant of acceptability in language.” William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote the essay which asserted that those most acquainted with the language should determine correct usage and when official change is warranted.

Buckley related this in his essay: "Suzanne La Follette was always approaching Willmoore Kendall, open dictionary in hand, spectacles perched over the end of her nose, to substantiate the illegitimacy of a particular usage by Kendall. After a half dozen of these encounters Kendall, exasperated, commented; ‘Don’t you see, Suzanne, when people get around to writing dictionaries, they come to people like me to find out what to put in them.’ "

The point is that there are real people who make the decisions as to what definitions are included in dictionaries. And as much as it grates on your fragile egos, there are people who have been put here to tell you when you have gone out of bounds.

Someone posted a response by “Cecil Adams” when he was corrected in the use of “beg the question”. The response was not unlike your response to this subject. Instead of simply acknowledging the correction, Adams launched into an angry embarrassed evasion. (It is typical of the Adams persona that he harps on minutiae but explodes when his own peccadilloes are pointed out.) It is no surprise that you Adams Idolaters are taking on his character traits.

Now back to the lesson: The word accost was recently used in an editorial when the writer was expressing shock at the sight of one student “accosting” another at a bus stop. “What was wrong with that?” I asked myself. “Accost” simply means to approach a stranger and begin speaking to them. That was what it meant to Hawthorne. That was what it meant to Dickens. Writers often wrote of gentlemen accosting other gentlemen or ladies on the street and readers understood the meaning. But later, possibly because of lazy reading and a resemblance to the sound of the word “assault”, and probably by the process of pejoration by using ‘accost’ as a euphemism for sexual solicitation, the simple, clear, descriptive word took on a connotation of aggression or evil intent. The first definition of ‘accost’ in my preferred dictionary is “To approach and speak to first.” Just as it has been defined and used by first rate writers for centuries. Along comes a generation unwilling to accept or give criticism and anything goes. The most recent dictionary I purchased has only one definition for ‘accost’: “To approach and speak to in an aggressive, hostile , or suggestive manner.” What does that do for the new reader of classics of literature? The meanings of phrases are destroyed, the traits of characters are confused, entire works of literature, when all the lazy, unwarranted changes work their effects, are corrupted.

This isn’t about Beowulf or the Canterbury Tales or even Shakespeare. It’s about the modern English language of the 18th, 19th, even the 20th century which should be preserved.

Note to Knorf: change is inevitable…but that does not mean that it should be arbitrary or unaddressed or ignored when its effects are detrimental.

You know, Ex Machina, there are several brands of decaf out there that have the same flavor as regular.

Seriously, if you believe that usage should not define words, then what qualifications do you have to make you an arbiter of correct definition?

For most persons, this sort of thing falls into the category of “pet peeves”. For me, it’s the word ‘momentarily’, which seems to be universally used to mean ‘in a moment’ (I prefer my aircraft to be airborne for a significantly longer period than momentarily). I like your debating style though, Ex, and look forward to seeing you in GD.

Ex Machina said, “William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote the essay which asserted that those most acquainted with the language should determine correct usage and when official change is warranted.”


The dictionary writers are the ones that are most acquainted with the language, and they’re the ones telling us when a definition has changed. You’re opposing your own argument.

My father, the previous King of the Obnoxious Grammar Police says exactly what you are saying. However, being a purist does not an effective communicator make. It’s nice to know what the original definitions were, but it’s much nicer to be understood when you write or speak.


You do realize that Buckley’s point is substantially the one put forth by your opponents, don’t you?

Your choice of a particular dialect that you personally favor is not based on anything more rational than your own personal preference. There’s no more reason to choose that one than any other. Why the 18th century? Why not the 17th? Or the 16th? Why not Beowulf or Chaucer or Shakespeare? What is it about the dialect spoken or written at any particular period that renders it sacrosanct? If “random” change is bad (and I don’t concede that any change you dislike or is unapproved by some official language committee is neccesarily random, but this seems to be your assumption), then certainly any change that occurred before the formal codification of English grammar was random and unofficial. Was there some original, pristine state from which 17th century English devolved? Or was English before then some homogenized mass of words? No? Hmm. Interesting. English managed to thrive, and even eventually attain the perfection of the 19th century English you idolize, with “official” guidance only for the previous couple of centuries. Amazing that it survived after a thousand years of “random” change and heedless use by the unwashed and uneducated!

The name of this group of people is “Native speakers of English.” And interestingly, that group is not only composed of people who agree with you, nor is there any educational or ideological requirement beyond having spoken the language from infancy.


Oh? Who? The Language Cops? The English Enforcers? The Grammar Goons? As much as it clearly grates on your fragile ego, the English Language is the common possession of every native speaker, and can, will, and should be used by them as they see fit, whether you personally like it or not.

Not unlike, say, modern readers who try to read The Canterbury Tales, or Beowulf.

But interestingly, people who wish to can read widely, and learn what those meanings were. In fact, the meaning of “accost” in those older works is clear from context, just as the meaning of “intercourse” is, and “awful,” another one that’s shifted. Knowing as I do that words change over time, I do not, when reading them, imagine assaults or sex. Nor do I giggle when I come across the word “bowels” in, say, Isaac Watts. It’s clear from context that the word is being used differently than it would be in modern, everyday speech, and if it’s not clear, I would likely be better off reading a translation. And if it’s tragedy that Dickens or Austen or Watts would have to someday be translated into English, then I ask you again, why is it not equally tragic that I can’t read Beowulf, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the original?

The fact of the matter is, your position is irrational, and you have no logical basis for it.

Ex Machina :“I know that language evolves. But change can’t be arbitrary. If misuses of words continue to be absorbed into the lexicon we will move toward a homogenization of language where anything can mean anything according to the latest fad.”

This cat is square, dad. A living language is the bee’s knees!

Ex Machina, relax, I’m not going to dogpile on you like the rest of the hot heads here.

First, kudos on the “Cecil Adams Syndrome” that you described in your last post. It took you two sentences to describe what I could not in two years.

IMHO, put on a scale, both points are valid, but the contrary point to Ex Machina’s is more valid.

Would one pick a moment in the history of time and declare that as the proper moment to choose all of the meanings of the words of the English language, never to change? No. How could you, and which moment would you pick? Who has any more rights than another to determine the proper definition of a word. In reality, I would guess that when a majority of people accept it, it becomes so. Sort of a de facto standard, in which I hope I used the term “de facto” correctly.

That is why we are on the umpteenth version of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I think I have the 16th edition.

Interestingly enough, it was just last month that Webster’s announced that it would introduce the word “McJob” in its next edition.

Now, a hijack.

Ex Machina, to make you feel better, I learned the meanings of the words fortnight, lieu, and airs from reading Dumas, as a boy. I had never heard of these words before that, so atleast the knowledge is still intact. But how did I learn them? I reread the passage several times, and deduced their meaning by the way that they were used in the text - from their usage.