Grammar Gremlins: The Inigo Montoya Edition

“You keep using that word,” says Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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From time to time I read or hear a word that just plain doesn’t mean what the context suggests. I’m not too sure of myself to look them up, and once in a while I’m surprised. Usually, though, the word in question has really been misused.

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Belie, for example, seems to confuse people (perhaps that’s why it isn’t used all that often). I’ve seen a phrasegremlin-3 like “His actions belied his words” where the context made it clear that those actions supported those words. In fact, belie means to disguise, contradict, or give a false impression. If actions belie words, they prove the words to be false.

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I’m always surprised when people confuse ancestor and descendant, but they do, and it’s one of those things that make me yell at the TV from time to time. A person’s ancestors come before, anywhere from parents to the distant past, while descendants come after, children onward. Jane Writer might be a descendant of someone who traveled on the Mayflower; that brave adventurer was her ancestor.

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Proscribed caught my eye in something I was reading recently, because it was used to mean something was a regular part of a ritual. The author had confused (or mistyped) proscribed (which means forbidden or condemned) with prescribed (which means required or recommended). Since both of these are perfectly good words, spell check is no help.

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Recommend is another word that sometimes gets turned around, as in “My doctor recommended me to a specialist.” Probably not, unless your doc told the other doc (probably on the golf course), “Go after her; she’s a great patient.” Your doc may have recommended Dr. Foote (“You might like her; she’s a great podiatrist”) to you, or he may have referred you to another doctor (“This is who you see next; be there at noon.”) Of course you can always recommend your doctor (or your favorite restaurant, or a terrific new book) to a friend, but not the other way around.

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inigo-montoyaAn example of a word that has moved away from its original meaning (rather to my sorrow, because the original meaning was so delightfully specific) is decimate. Although now often used to mean destroy or remove a large portion of something, originally it meant to kill every tenth person (usually in a military context) chosen by lot. (This actually happened in 1843, when 17 of 176 recaptured Texans, chosen by beans in a jar, were executed by the Mexican Army, in what was known as the Black Bean Episode.)

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Words are what we all work with, but they can be tricky little devils. Fortunately we have the Internet, which will pop up a detailed definition of anything in no time at all—but I still keep a printed dictionary from 1984 on one of my desks.

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