The origins of the words we use are often primitive, but we shouldn’t abandon them too quickly.

Every once in a while, I run into a language purist who likes to take issue with stuff I have written as being wrong-headed or just plain wrong. These are people who think you shouldn’t use words like “stuff,” as I just did, because it is lazy. Find the definitive word, they’ll lecture, because stuff means unspecified things. Still, there are times when stuff is the right word. As a body of weekly blogs and former newspaper commentary, it is a varied and diverse collection in the attic of my minbd. It is stuff, but in a positive sense, I hope.

The following, with some editing and updating, goes back a few years to one of my weekly columns in a newspaper where I once served as editor. Hopefully, it is still relevant today.

Language changes, and I understand it is now okay to use the word “hopefully” to mean “it is to be hoped that” when the purists still tell you it is wrong. The same with “momentarily,” which is now commonly used to mean in a moment or soon.  The purist will tell you it means for a brief period of time, and when something happens momentarily it doesn’t happen for long. I can be a purist myself, because I have a problem with people saying that something is taking place presently when they mean currently. Presently means what momentarily has come to mean—soon.

So a few months (now years) ago, a language purist I know stopped by to deliver collected complaints about grammatical gaffes in the publication. His critique was well received, because I respected his opinion. He pointed out that that you can’t have a couple items or people. It has to be “a couple of” something. I agreed with him and confessed that it probably did appear here and there in the newspaper, but it wasn’t so much a mistake as just a casual way of stating it. He went on to maintain that I have done this myself more than once—maybe even a couple times, I mean a couple of times. I protested that I was not guilty of such lazy language usage, and if I were it was inadvertent or an omission. Since that conversation, I came across various archived articles or columns where I had committed this faux pas. For some reason, perhaps in haste or due to brain rot, I had strayed from the path of proper English.

Having confessed to some of my own language laziness, I’m now ready to dwell on some of my pet peeves. Let’s start with people saying they are nauseous when they are really nauseated or feeling queasy. A person who is nauseous is literally someone who is making others sick. Everybody is using nauseous in this way and, frankly, I still refuse this usage myself. If I am nauseous, I am sickening. If I am nauseated, I am sick. Dictionaries are now accepting nauseous as meaning sick to one’s stomach, even putting it ahead of the original meaning. Maybe I should change with the times, but I still can’t help thinking someone is sickening upon declaration of feeling nauseous.

Okay, I got that out of my system. I feel better now. Some of the stupid things we say wouldn’t be said if we really thought about them. I hear people saying things like their political beliefs have changed 360 degrees over the years. They mean they have radically changed, but what they are really saying is that they haven’t changed a bit. Three hundred and sixty degrees is a full circle or back to where you started. What they probably mean is 180 degrees. That’s similar to the quantum leap that is supposed to mean a great distance, usually applied metaphorically. But in physics, a quantum is about as small a change as you can possibly measure. In fact, the words quantum and leap don’t even belong together. How about a quantum nudge?

Here is another language sin a lot of us commit. There is no such word as “alot.” A lot of us are using alot, perhaps in interest of saving a space. I say put the space back in and allot your space-saving efforts to other excesses in our writing.

If you are loath to do something, it is with reluctance. If you loathe something, you despise it. I don’t know about you, but I’m loath to loathe anything, because it is just another negative thing to deal with and life is too short.

Then there is nonplussed, which is commonly used to describe someone who is tranquil, calm or serene. What it really means is that you are in something of a quandary, baffled and perhaps unable to proceed. As it turns out, the dictionary publishers, as with nauseous, are allowing the commonly misused meaning to creep in as a secondary definition. My online reference dictionary allows a back-up definition of “cool and collected” for nonplussed. It seems that if a lot of people misuse a word, it becomes acceptable, while the original and purest meaning is on its way to being forgotten. I think that would be unfortunate in this case, because these two meanings are opposed to each other.

Stupidity by Any Other Name…

Then there are once and a while when you mean once in a while, and one in the same instead of one and the same. “In” and “and” are not one and the same even if only used once in a while.

Sometimes you use a term for years, perhaps even as a cliché, and you don’t realize it is a distortion of the original meaning. The expression, “you’ve got another thing coming,” originated from an old witticism, I recently learned, that stated: “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.” So think was changed to thing. We all use it, and it makes more sense in conventional usage.

I’m running short of space and time here, or I’d continue about people who reap what they sew when they mean sow, have hairbrained ideas when they are harebrained and described blonde kids as toe-headed instead of towheaded. I fall into an occasional trap myself, but it keeps me on my toes, which have no resemblance, I hope, to my head except in their mutual lack of hirsuteness. That excludes, of course, people with hairy toes. How “tow” connects with blondes as towheads goes all the way back to the 1800’s when flax fiber was used for weaving cloth on a spinning wheel, which was— you guessed it— light or blonde in color.

This is not to be confused with bonehead, also in abundance nowadays, seeing as bones also tend to be light in color, but is just a more colorful (more like colorless) word for stupidity. We tend to blame the head or skull for lack of brainpower, as in numbskull, blockhead, bubblehead, knucklehead, chucklehead, pinhead, deadhead or chowderhead, which had nothing to do with chowder but somehow became a synonym for being thickheaded.

I’ve been called some of the preceding over years of writing news articles, feature stories and commentary, and it’s all good in the rendering of opinions important to us. Grammar and language usage is not deemed as all that important nowadays, but the art of communication should be more critical than ever and the words may be more important than ever. It seems that many of us are no longer on the same page when it comes to expressing ourselves and valuing the opinions of others, including the numbskulls and knuckleheads.