Ode to a tin ear: How language gets mangled

Questioning meaning can help you avoid misusing ‘familiar’ terms.

Questioning meaning can help you avoid misusing ‘familiar’ terms

People mishear, then they misspeak, and the next thing you know, the coinage finds its way into print.

For example, a writer I know—someone whom I hold in high esteem—recently wrote, “… it’s no big deal if you’d just assume do it at 10 a.m.”

He meant, of course, “… if you’d just as soon do it …”

He simply misheard it in the first place, but he didn’t stop to parse what he thought he had heard, so the fact that it made no sense eluded him.

Supposably, she’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning,” I’ve seen in an e-mail, as well as hearing it—and cringing. Again, the correct word, supposedly, landed badly on the ear. Rather than questioning what supposably could mean, that person just used the term. At least I suppose that’s what happened.

I’d rather walk the five miles home than ride with a drunken driver,” seems clear enough—and a wise choice. I’d rather means I would prefer to. But somehow that verbal construction went through someone’s cerebral Cuisinart and came out this way: “I rathered walk the five miles …”

Huh?! That one is really hard to fathom.

Here’s one that’s a bit easier: the incorrectly written “just desserts.” Seems like it should be the right form for a synonym for comeuppance—especially if it involves the eating of “humble pie.”

However, it’s “just deserts.” As The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms tells us: “This idiom employs desert in the sense of ‘what one deserves,’ a usage dating from the 1300s but obsolete except in this expression.”

So unless you’re penning something along the lines of, “The pastry chef didn’t prepare appetizers or main courses—just desserts,” you’ll want to lose that extraneous s.

And finally (for this week, anyway) here’s a ubiquitous confusion: What ever vs. whatever. The former is generally an interrogative form, with ever providing emphasis. “Gee, what ever happened to Joe Piscopo?” a fan of SNL in the 1980s might ask.

Or, if you were not a fan, you might use the pronoun whatever in this way: “Whatever happened to Joe Piscopo, it wasn’t enough.” Yeah, whatever.

(Joe, if you’re reading this, please take no offense. I’m from Jersey, too.)


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