Thursday, April 07, 2011

I interrupt this blog to confess my language ignorance

About six or seven years ago my old roommate Scott and I learned that we had been using "nonplussed" incorrectly. We each thought it meant "unimpressed" or "unmoved," though in fact it means "to render utterly perplexed; puzzle completely," according to Dictionary.com. As the great Ben Yagoda puts it in this unknown-supercommon-mistakes-we-all-make exposing piece on Slate.com: "nonplussed from ... fazed to unfazed."

Now I have a Masters degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University and was (and still am) teaching writing at a teen newspaper. Scott was at the time a Ph.D. student at UCLA. We grew up together and attended a fine middle class suburban school in Western New York. We were each amazed that we were incorrect. Though neither of us could pinpoint when we learned the word, we each felt like we had learned it with its incorrect meaning around high school. We're well-read intelligent people, so how the hell did this happen?

Well Yagoda seems to be saying that it's basically societal language (de)-evolution. Examples abound (well, only three and since this post is about language I ought to at least clarify my exaggerations, but I'm exaggerating because that many misuses of relatively common words did embarrass me) in the piece that exposed more than my misuse of "non-plussed."

Momentarily. -- It traditionally meant for a short time, but now commonly means very soon.

Begs the question. -- In a logical argument it meant when one explains something by the fact that it is so. Begthequestion.info's example: "I think he is unattractive because he is ugly." It has become misused to mean "raises the question." I have used this with my students and even gotten them to use it. I've passed along misinformation.

Fortuitous. -- Traditionally this meant "accidental." It has come to be used to mean "lucky." I'm guessing that this is because a synonym for lucky is fortunate, and the shared "fort" beginning has created an erroneous historically logical connection.

Later in his piece, Yagoda writes about when should a person fight to preserve the proper historical usage and when does doing so render one pretentious or even confusing.

He brings up examples of pompons v. pompoms (which I've fought to preserve, though I'm not sure why given the widely accepted new spelling) and not ending a sentence in a preposition, which I've given up only in the last few years.

I must admit that part of the reason I've hung onto pompons is because it's so obscure and I like sounding smart. I've never been an athlete, nor was I tall, dark and rico suave, nor a great musician (though not bad). However, I was usually smarter than almost anyone I met in elementary school and even high school. As a nerd, who has become a word nerd (werd? as I steal from L.A. Youth alum Seth S.), I like to showoff in front of my students from time to time.

But what next? I'm not sure. I am going to try to be less end-of-discussion-because-I'm-smarter-than-thou. As I also tell my students (when not propagating misuses of begs the question), the older you get the more you'll learn that you have a lot to learn. So I shall (will?) try to take my own advice and pay closer attention to language so that I continue to learn to use it better, smarter and more clearly.

P.S. I used the title "I interrupt this blog ..." because I had planned to blog about something else today and even scheduled posts for the next week. But this was urgent!

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Who knew -- I was also wrong about "nonplussed" -- thanks Fricano, and it is humbling.