Some of you may remember comedian Johnny Carson's trademark response when a guest on "The Tonight Show" told him something surprising: "I did not KNOW that!" That's how I reacted to the following tidbits of verbal information that came as news to me.
--Full-court Press -- I've always been fuzzy on the distinction between "repress" and "suppress." Is the Syrian government, for instance, suppressing a rebellion or repressing it?
Suppressing it. "Repress" means "to keep something under control in order to maintain or regulate order." "Suppress" denotes a more vigorous curtailment, "to fight actively against an opposing force." IDNKT!
--Spouting Off -- I've always assumed that a waterspout was simply a tornado that occurred over the ocean. In fact, as the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style points out, "Most waterspouts arise under weather conditions different from those spawning tornadoes (generally with the formation of a large cumulus cloud over the ocean, rather than from a large thunderstorm.)" IDNKT!
--Affirmative Action -- The use of "affirmative" and "negative" arose among military aviators because the one-syllable words "yes" and "no" were sometimes misheard due to radio static. IDNKT!
--Hue Knew? -- The correct spelling of the phrase meaning an uproar is "hue and cry," not "hew and cry." "Hue," of course, means "a gradation of color," but an unrelated and now archaic "hue" meant "outcry." IDNKT!
--Homin-ization - "Ad hominem," which means "to the person" in Latin, originally denoted an argument that appealed to the human emotions of the person being addressed; the "hominem" was the person listening to the argument. So a speech designed to elicit human sympathy made an "ad hominem appeal."
But in recent decades, "ad hominem" has come to denote the criticism of an opponent's personal character, as in, "He delivered an ad hominem attack on his rival." Now the "hominem" is the person being criticized, not the person listening. IDNKT!
--Coy Polloi -- My mom always referred to the upper crust in my hometown as the "hoi polloi," so I guess I can be excused for not realizing that "hoi polloi" actually means just the opposite: the masses, the general population. Of course, now that my hometown has been taken over by wealthy people, they've become the hoi polloi (general population) after all. So I guess I DID know that!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254Copyright 2013 Creators Syndicate Inc.