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By most estimates, the English language includes about one million words,
yet native speakers regularly use only about 5,000. And they don't always
get the ones they do use correct. Like all languages, English is constantly
changing - new words are added, old words are phased out, and new word
combinations are formed all the time.
But the following examples of language changes cause trouble for people
who like to use their words correctly because these words and phrases
have pretty much lost their original meanings.
Beg The Question
If an event or happening raises a question for someone it's almost certain
he or she will say, "This begs the question ..." But it doesn't.
Begging the question is a verbal trick speakers use to avoid a question,
not bring one up. The original definition of begging the question meant
to assume that what is being questioned had already been proven to be
true, so the answer sidestepped the thing in question. Say you were asked
a question that just required a simple yes or no answer. But instead of
saying yes, you answer with a statement that assumes the thing in question
is already true. That's begging the question.
For example, if the question is, "Senator, will this new crime bill
be effective?" and he or she answers with a statement that doesn't
answer it - "I've been fighting crime my entire career, and this
crime bill is the latest example of that" - then the speaker has
begged the question.
It's a common practice in formal debate, and it's especially prevalent
in politics. In the example above, the speaker is acting as though the
crime bill is definitely effective, even though he or she never answered
the basic question with a yes or no. Assuming the question is true is
not evidence that it is.
From that, beg the question evolved in the language to mean that the
statement invites another obvious question. Anytime you run verbal circles
around the question without answering it can be called begging the question
in this sense (although strict grammarians frown upon it; they like to
keep the original meaning).
It's hard to believe that such a simple word hides such a horrific history.
The original definition of "decimate" was "to kill one
in ten." The brutal practice was used by the Roman army beginning
around the 5th century B.C. and was implemented as a way to inspire fear
and loyalty. Lots were drawn, and one out of every 10 soldiers would be
killed - by their own comrades. If one member of a squad acted up, anybody
could pay the ultimate price. Captured armies often fell victim to this
practice as well.
Today, "decimate" has lost that meaning, but some grammarians
still like to preserve it ... at least in the sense of "to reduce
by 10 percent." The "dec" prefix means "ten"
- it's the same Latin root that gives us decade, for example. So to use
"decimate" to mean just "destroy" contradicts the
meaning of that prefix. (Note: Language snobs really get up in arms when
someone says "totally decimate." Totally reduce by ten? We don't
get it, either.)
Could Care Less
This is an easy mistake to make. The correct phrase, of course, is "couldn't
care less" - as in, "I don't care at all, so it wouldn't be
possible for me to care any less about this." But over the years,
that's morphed into a new phrase (with the same meaning), and even though
the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage criticized the change
in 1975, saying it was "an ignorant debasement of language,"
"could care less" seems to be around to stay.
Language historian say "couldn't care less" was originally
a British phrase that became popular in the Untied States in the 1950s.
"Could care less" appeared about a decade later. No one knows
exactly why the incorrect form came into being, since it doesn't make
sense. But the phrase has stuck, and a lot of grammarians care very much
that it's not being used correctly. (Regular people, of course, couldn't
No, that's not a misspelling. Sure it sounds weird to the ear, but people
who know the term's history and meaning prefer the original. "Card
sharp" first appeared in the 1880s and meant a card player who tricked
or scammed others. "Card shark" appeared much later, in the
Many people assume that the mix-up simply comes from speakers who either
thought "shark" sounded better or misheard the word originally.
But that may not be the case. Linguists have traced the history of both
"sharp" and "shark" to their original usages, and
though it doesn't appear that either word derived from the other, there
are a lot of similarities in meaning. "Shark" comes from a 17th-century
German word schurke, which meant "someone who cheats."
"Sharping" came about around the same time and meant "swindling
or cheating." The words "loan shark" and "sharp practice"
come from these words as well.
So technically, "card shark" could be correct. But because
"card sharp" appeared first, many linguists want to preserve
it. Whether they'll succeed is anyone's guess, but it's a sharp point
of contention for many.
Spit and Image
If you think you're the spitting image of your parents, you're forgiven.
People have been messing this one up for decades. "Spit and image"
was the original term, used from about 1825 on. The Oxford English
Dictionary defined it as "the very spit of, the exact image,
likeness, or counterpart of." "Spitting image" came about
some 80 years later and was followed by a few other variations, including
"spitten image" and "splitting image" (neither of
which really caught on). In this case, "spitting image" has
overtaken the use of "spit and image" for most English speakers.
But when you're spitting out this phrase, take a moment to remember its
original use and think about the image you're trying to project.
Few words cause as much confusion or are used incorrectly as often as
"ironic." Not that it's hard to understand why - the definition
is not simple: "a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn
from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous
by adroit questioning ... the use of words to express something other
than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning." What?
1996, Alanis Morissette wrote an entire song titled "Ironic,"
which consistently used the word incorrectly. And even the people who
are supposed to know what it means get it wrong. The American Heritage
Dictionary gave the word "irony" to its distinguished panel
of experts (the ones who help ensure the accuracy of all the words the
dictionary defines) and asked them if either of the following sentences
used the word correctly:
1. "In 1969, Susie moved from Ithaca to California, where she
met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York."
Seventy-eight percent of the panel's members agreed that this was an
incorrect use of the word.
2. "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against
American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest
items in the stalls of the market." In contrast, though, 73 percent
agreed that this sentence used it properly.
How "ironic" came to be defined as "coincidence"
is anybody's guess, but for our purposes, we like to refer to the following
quote from the 1994 film Reality Bites. When Ethan Hawke's character
is asked to define "ironic," he says, "It's when the actual
meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning." Thank goodness