Sunday, July 3, 2011
Picking Your Battles: The Meaning of Words
Because I care about getting things right, and because I'm a teacher (also qualifying for some uglier labels such as "pedant," "curmudgeon," and "control freak"), I can't stop myself from writing this post, knowing all the while that it's probably an exercise in futility. I frequently tell my son, nephews, and students that you have to "pick your battles." Wasting energy on debates not worth having is stupid. I only wish I would always follow my own advice.
This post is about the mispronunciation or misuse of a number of words that are pet peeves of mine. But they are not all equal. Some of these words are so engrained in society that their mispronunciation is now the norm. This means that the English language, as it always has, is changing, and I just haven't caught up. Those battles are not worth fighting, but even though the war is over, I thought I'd mention them all the same. There are others listed below where I'm still standing guard, sword in hand, fighting off the mistakes with desperate slashes.
A. The Battle Is Lost and I Surrender
B. The Battle Goes On
"Cognoscenti": Here is the dictionary definition of the word:
–plural noun: persons who have superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, especially in the fine arts, literature, and world of fashion.
The problem is how to pronounce the strange spelling, and it's a bear of a task to get right. In the chosen family I've developed here in Columbus, Lorri Latek (who has been my non-biological sister for over 30 years) and I struggled to master it, knowing that it's an embarrassing word to mispronounce (given that it means someone who has superior knowledge). As the years went by we kept finding new little things about the word until we finally succeeded. The two key sticking points that most people miss are (a) "cog" is never the first syllable—instead think of the liquor named "cognac" and you'll be on the right path, and (b) the "scen" is pronounced as if it were "sh," hence "shen." Practice until you can say it correctly without stumbling and then—at the risk being thought a snob—you'll be a paid-up member of the cognoscenti.
"I Couldn't Care Less": This means just what it says: "I don't care at all." Compare: "I could care less," which means you care some, since you could care less. Is that really what the speaker usually means?
"Nuclear": George W. Bush was the chief offender here, saying "nucular" and causing people the world over to worry about his having the nuclear button near him at all moments during his Presidency.
GEN. And now that I’ve introduced myself, I should like to have some idea of what’s going on.
KATE. Oh, Papa – we –
SAMUEL. Permit me, I’ll explain in two words: we propose to marry your daughters.
GEN. Dear me!
GIRLS. Against our wills, Papa – against our wills!
GEN. Oh, but you mustn’t do that! May I ask – this is a picturesque uniform, but I’m not familiar with it. What are you?
PIRATE KING. We are all single gentlemen.
GEN. Yes, I gathered that – Anything else?
KING. No, nothing else.
EDITH. Papa, don’t believe them; they are pirates – the famous Pirates of Penzance!
GEN. The Pirates of Penzance! I have often heard of them. But wait a bit. I object to pirates as sons-in-law.
KING. We object to Major-Generals as fathers-in-law. But we waive that point. We do not press it. We look over it.
GEN. (aside) Hah! an idea! (aloud) And do you mean to say that you would deliberately rob me of these, the sole remaining props of my old age, and leave me to go through the remainder of my life unfriended, unprotected, and alone?
KING. Well, yes, that’s the idea.
GEN. Tell me, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
PIRATES. (disgusted) Oh, dash it all!
KING. Here we are again!
GEN. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
GEN. Yes, orphan. Have you ever known what it is to be one?
KING. I say, often.
ALL. (disgusted) Often, often, often. (Turning away)
GEN. I don’t think we quite understand one another. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan, and you say “orphan”. As I understand you, you are merely repeating the word “orphan” to show that you understand me.
KING. I didn’t repeat the word often.
GEN. Pardon me, you did indeed.
KING. I only repeated it once.
GEN. True, but you repeated it.
KING. But not often.
GEN. Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said “orphan”, did you mean “orphan” – a person who has lost his parents, or “often”, frequently?
KING. Ah! I beg pardon – I see what you mean – frequently.
GEN. Ah! you said "often", frequently.
KING. No, only once.
GEN. (irritated) Exactly – you said “often”, frequently, only once.
"Zoology": If you're applying for college and tell the admitting officer you plan to study "ZOO-ology" you'll have trouble getting in. The first syllable of the word is pronounced with a hard "o": "zō-ology." There's no "zoo" in zoology in spite of the spelling.
Conclusion: If your forte is a love of animals and you often think about going into zoology even in this nuclear age, (being celibate yourself and therefore free of family entanglements) my advice is to study hard and join the scientific cognoscenti.
"I Hate 'You Know,' You Know," November 28, 2010
"Is It Okay Note To Use Perfect English?" August 10, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013