Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Right Word

When Hemingway was asked by Paris Review editor George Plimpton what problem he was having with the ending of A Farewell to Arms, which the novelist revised at least 39 times, he famously replied, with cynical understatement, "Getting the words right."

This is every writer's challenge, of course--to select the precise word that captures the idea or feeling he or she wishes to express, not an easy task in a language like English with a vast storehouse of verbal options.

It doesn't help when notable writers knowingly or carelessly use the wrong word.

Consider Maureen Dowd, avidly read by millions in the New York Times, where her acerbic wit skewers public figures in Washington and elsewhere. Today my wife pointed to a sentence in Dowd's column on sexual abuse in the military that reads in part:  "President Obama was also lacerating on the Krusinski arrest..."  Lacerating?  Wounding is the only meaning I am aware of for this word, unless it is now being used in a new way. The sentence is unclear to us.

The Times is also singled out by William Deresiewicz for a linguistic scolding in a recent article in The American Scholar for using "apologist" to mean "one who apologizes."  The Atlantic, he reports, has used "waxed" (as in waxing and waning) to mean talk, as in "wax eloquent."  This is on a par with some of my students' bloopers.

Lorrie Moore, the noted writer, used "willy nilly" to mean something other than "by compulsion." Ann Beattie seems to think "reticent" means "hesitant."  NPR has mistakenly equated "notoriety" with "fame" and per se with "so to speak."  And so it goes. Does no one have time to consult a dictionary to make sure they have the right word?

Deresiewicz does a good job of noting the errors of the experts and has found, as I have, widespread misunderstanding and misuse of "hoi polloi" (the people in Greek: the masses, not the upper crust, as so many now think); "penultimate," which does not mean "really ultimate," whatever that is.  "Begs the question," as I noted in an earlier post is a hopeless case, along with "disinterested" (impartial). No one seems to remember the original meanings of certain idioms or words.

Although some words have lost their original meanings over the centuries, as usage changes, as any visit to the OED will show, "bemused" does not mean "amused," as the high-brow New York Review of Books seems to think. 

Such errors are not funny like the ones I enjoy collecting, helped along by Richard Lederer and others.  I refer to malapropisms that are hilariously wrong, as in "The sea was infatuated with sharks" (infested).  Or the valedictorian who told his or her graduating classmates, "we are moving from the world of childhood to the world of adultery."

English can be a challenge: consider the confusion that often exists in similar-looking and sounding words with divergent meanings, like ravaging, ravishing, and ravenous.  Only the last one refers to hunger, despite what many writers and speakers may think.

What is disturbing rather than amusing is to see the educated elite write carelessly, failing to edit or be edited, adding to the watering down of accuracy in language and thereby to clear communication. Writers of some of the periodicals mentioned above set the standard for American English usage. And where are the editors?

As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

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