Elocution Isn't Everything – It's The Only Thing
I spend a lot of time writing about people who maim and massacre words in the beautiful, lyrical Italian language. But you know what? I live in America and unless I wander in to what passes for an Italian restaurant around here, my chances of hearing Italian being butchered are fairly slim. Not so with English, however; that poor, beleaguered language gets beaten and battered every day by those for whom it is supposed to be a native tongue. Malapropisms, mangled idioms, made up words, or just general grammatical abuse, all usually uttered with complete sincerity, are, nonetheless, sometimes hilarious.
I was speaking with a teenager the other day who was telling me about his efforts to speak properly and his belief that doing so was essential to being taken seriously in life. What a breath of fresh air! Honest proof of hope for the future. I shared with him my philosophy that elocution isn't everything – it's the only thing, and that sometimes you have to be a square in order to be well-rounded. If only this young man could be cloned, perhaps some of my pet linguistic foibles and faux pas would become extinct. Speaking of which, I know someone who says “faux pas” in reverse, rendering it as “po fa.” I hope the person is just being funny.
One of my favorite abused idioms is “cut the mustard.” Referring to something weak or unable to perform, and often rendered as “Can't cut the mustard,” or “too old to cut the mustard,” this one is a real hoot. Why intelligent people would think that performance and a spicy yellow condiment were in any way related is quite beyond me. The proper term is “cut the muster” and is a reference to a military roll, or muster. When one is too old or otherwise too infirm to appear for duty on said muster, one is unable to make the cut, or to “cut the muster.” I know some Dijon can be a little thick, but I've never yet encountered a mustard that I had to cut.
Then there's “for all intensive purposes.” A thorough and intensive examination of this phrase will reveal that the actual term is “for all intents and purposes.” “Intensive purposes?” Please!
I used to know someone who used the phrase “a blessing in the skies.” (Sigh) I don't much associate with that person anymore, and that may, indeed, be a “blessing in disguise.” Or perhaps just a blessing.
Then there are folks who like to “wet” their appetites. I don't know to what degree moisture affects the appetite, but I prefer to sharpen – or to “whet” – mine, thank you.
There's probably no hope for this one: “spitting image.” Used to describe an exact duplicate, especially of a person, it's really rather disgusting when you come to think of it. Who would want an image of themselves that expectorates? The actual idiom is “spit and image” and it has been around for a very long time. Some theorize that it has biblical origins relating to God's using his “spit” to create man in his image. A newer take holds that the term is derived from “spitten,” the archaic dialectical past participle of the word “spit.” Yale University's Laurence Horn, a professor of linguistics, opines that said "spitten image" refers to "a likeness that was literally spit out, but where figuratively the 'spit' in question involved a rather different bodily fluid." Think about that the next time you're tempted to use the expression.
I also love people who make up new words. Some folks feel that using ten-dollar words will make them sound more knowledgeable. And that's generally true – unless the words are made up and not worth ten cents. For example, I know someone who says “categoried” when he means “categorized.” An object with a purpose is “functionable” rather than “functional.” A person is “instituted” instead of being “institutionalized.” And when all is right with the world, there is a sense of “normalty.” I keep trying to tell this person that there is “normality” and there is “normalcy,” but there is no such state as “normalty.” But I get nowhere because he “lives under the optical illusion” that he is extremely intelligent.
There's no shortage of mangled words in American English. Besides the aforementioned, dozens of others come quickly to mind. The following are a few of my favorites:
Acrossed vs Across – I am certain you have come “acrossed” many people who incorrectly employ this one. “Crossed” is a past tense verb. “Cross” is a present tense verb. “Across” is an adverb. In the statement “I went across the street,” “went” is the verb and “across” is an adverb modifying the verb. “Acrossed” is simply not a word.
Nucular vs Nuclear – A recent president had problems with this one, so if it's one of your grammatical gremlins, at least you're in good company. But it's still “NEW-clee-er” and not “NEW-kyoo-ler.”
Hunnert vs Hundred – If you express the numerical value of 10 x 10 as “hunnert,” welcome to the country. That's primarily where people who can't say “hundred” live.
Off-ten vs Often – Oh, this one grinds my gears every time I hear it and I hear it more and more “off-ten” these days. The word has been pronounced “OFF-en” – with a silent “t” – practically since the beginning of time. The downfall of the proper pronunciation began when common English-speakers learned how to write. They saw that there was a perfectly good “t” in there and, by golly, they were determined to not let it go to waste. This is one of those “correct through common usage” battles that purists – like me – usually lose. But I vow to fight vigorously and “offen” for the proper pronunciation, “common usage” be damned.
Febuary vs February – Look at the letters, folks; there's a second “r” in there. It's “FEB-roo-air-ee” not “FEB-yoo-air-ee.”
Liberry vs Library – Reference “February” above. “LYE-brer-ee” not “LYE-berry.”
Athuhlete vs Athlete – This word has only two syllables, not three. Although it may be more verbally “ath-uh-LET-ic” to say “ATH-uh-leet,” it's incorrect. Two syllables only: “ATH-leet.”
Spaded vs Spayed – When you have your female dog or cat “fixed,” I can assure you the veterinarian does not employ a shovel anywhere during the procedure. Fluffy or Fido has been “spayed” not “spaded.”
Excape vs Escape – Personally, I try to escape from people who say “excape” as expeditiously as possible.
Expecially vs Especially – I especially try to escape from people who say “expecially.”
Tenderhooks vs Tenterhooks – Once upon a time, woven cloth was dried on a wooden frame called a “tenter.” The fabric was attached to said frame by way of metal hooks, called “tenterhooks.” At some point, a state of tension or anxiety came to be associated with these hooks. “My situation has left me on tenterhooks.” When these hooks got tenderized, I'm not quite certain. But I am quite certain they are still “tenterhooks” and not “tenderhooks.”
Upmost vs Utmost – Although it is generally most desirable to move up, I still try my utmost to avoid those who put forth their “upmost” effort.
Miniture vs Miniature – I know there's a great movement afoot to make words shorter and more compact, but please don't “min-ah-chur-ize” the word “MIN-ee-ah-chur” by pronouncing it “MIN-ah-chur.” There are four syllables there; please use them all.
Asterix vs Asterisk – In case you don't know what it is, it's the little star-like symbol above the “8” on your keypad. In case you don't know how to say it, it's “AS-ter-isk,” not “AS-ter-ix.”
Verbage vs Verbiage – In a effort to reduce excess “VER-bee-age,” I suppose many people take to eliminating letters and syllables, thus reducing their potential “VERB-age.” But it's still wrong to say it that way.
Mischievious vs Mischievous – I go NUTS over this one! “Mischievous” derives from the Anglo-Norman French “meschef.” In modern English, that's “mischief.” When you turn it into an adjective, it becomes “mischievous,” pronounced “MISS-che-vus.” However, as early as the fifteenth century, an extra syllable snuck in there and turned the word into “miss-CHEE-vee-us.” The OED considers “mischievious” to be a “non-standard” spelling and a “variant” usage, usually confined to regional, colloquial, or humorous use. So I guess if you want to sound like a humorous hick, it's okay to be “mischievious.”
Sherbert vs Sherbet – Only one “r” here, good people. I'm sure Bert likes SURE-bet, but maybe he should just call it “sorbet.” (And that's “sore-BAY,” not “sore-BET.”)
Tact vs Tack – Both are fine words, but they are not interchangeable. I know people who, when referring to altering a course of action, change their “tact,” and I suppose, if they think of it at all, they think of “tact” a being a shortened form of “tactic.” None of that's true. The word “tack” has a nautical origin. On a sailing ship, the “tack” refers to the lower leading corner of the sail, which points the direction the ship is heading. If you change course, you are changing from one tack – or heading – to another, thereby “taking a different tack.” You may be able to do so tactfully, but other than that, the two words have nothing to do with one another.
Supposably vs Supposedly – This isn't so much a case of mispronounced words as it is one of misuse of similar but unrelated words. “Supposably” really is a word, but one that has nothing to to with “supposedly.” “Supposedly” refers to what one believes or assumes to be true; “Supposedly, I will get a big raise next week.” “Supposably,” on the other hand, refers to something that is capable of being conceived; something that can be supposed. “I could supposably get a big raise next week, if my boss isn't too cheap.” “Supposably” isn't a very common expression in actual use, but its misuse in place of “supposedly” is quite common.
Suit vs Suite – You hear this all the time on TV; “Come in today and get your brand new new bedroom suit.” But just because they say it on TV doesn't make it correct. Unless you're talking about pajamas, I suppose. That might be an appropriate example of a bedroom “suit.” A “suit” is a set of coordinating or matching garments. A “suite,” in this context, is a collection of similar or related things that can be used together or for a common purpose; furniture, for example. A “suite” can also be a set of rooms or a collection of musical pieces considered as one composition. A “suit” is just a suit. I guess you could hang it in the closet of the suite for which you have purchased a new suite of furniture or you could wear it while listening to a piano suite. Wouldn't that be sweet? But there's no such thing as a “suit” of furniture – unless you plan to wear your sofa and chairs.
Realator vs Realtor – Another case where all you have to do is look at the word. Two syllables; “real” and “tor.” There's no “a” in between.
Jewlery vs Jewelry – Back in my radio days, we used to advertise for a place called “Jewelry Warehouse.” I think I was the only one in the building who could say “JEW-el-ree.” Everybody else stumbled over their tongues and said, “JEW-ler-ree,” much to the client's displeasure.
Foilage vs Foliage – This one cost a recent “Jeopardy” contestant a bundle. The word used to describe the aggregate of leaves of one or more plants is pronounced “FOE-lee-edge.” Some people try to shorten it to “FOE-ledge” and some, like the “Jeopardy” guy, try to get away with “FOYL-edge.” But Alex Trebek was too smart for him. No money for you, loser.
Mute vs Moot – If I had a nickel for every time I heard “mute” used instead of “moot.” But I don't, so it's a moot point about which I will remain mute.
Irregardless vs Regardless – Regardless of your proclivity toward making up delightful new words, “irregardless” simply isn't one.
Ex cetera vs Et cetera – “Et cetera” is literally Latin for “and the rest.” In common usage, it is an expression that means “and other things” or “and so forth.” In even more common usage, unfortunately, is “ex cetera,” which means nothing because it isn't a real word or term.
Bonus: Calvary vs Cavalry – “CAL-vary” is another name for “Golgotha,” ostensibly the site of the crucifixion in Christian tradition. “CAV-al-ry” is a military term for soldiers on horseback. The two are not interchangeable. One does not send in the Calvary nor does one ascend Mount Cavalry.
And finally, no matter how fast you want it, there is no “x” in “espresso.” You might be able to order your Italian coffee in the express lane, but it'll still be “espresso.” I just had to throw something Italian in there.
Now, friends, armed with your new-found erudition, go out there and speak well. I'll be listening.