One of the things I like about Jay Nordlinger's Impromptus in NRO is his little rants against incorrect usage of words. I know a lot of people think that this is merely pedantry, but it's not. It is a truism that there is no such thing as a synonym. If there are two words that, superficially, describe the same thing, then their difference encodes a subtle variation in exact meaning. That, however, is not the point. What I object to is when two different words are used interchangeably, which has the effect of erasing precisely the difference in meaning between them that gives them their raison d'etre. Herewith, a selection of some of my least favourite catachrestic usages:
- Flaunt/flout. One cannot flaunt the law, one can flout it. To flaunt something is to brandish it in an ostentatious manner, to flout something is to defy it. Those who make this mistake are flouting convention by flaunting their ignorance in a blatant (q.v.) manner.
- Disinterested/uninterested. If one takes no interest in something (e.g. the bulk of US citizens in the outcome of the World Cup) then one is uninterested. If one is refereeing a World Cup match, then one should have no stake in the outcome: one should be disinterested.
- Blatant/flagrant. A blatant act is one where its commission is unattended by concern for its propriety or the consequences. It is used in many cases in the sense of 'obvious', but this is incorrect. A flagrant act, on the other hand, is one whose offensiveness is great. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the distinction thus: if it [an act] was committed with contempt for public scrutiny, it is blatant. If its barbarity was monstrous, it is flagrant.
I reserve my greatest distaste for the following two gems, however:
- Enormity. This is used, often by otherwise well-read people, in the same sense as enormousness, meaning 'of great size'. No, no, no! The word enormity denotes a surpassingly wicked evil, a monstrous act (aside: denote and connote are also often confused).
- Careen. I think I have seen this used correctly in print at most twice in the last fifteen years. To careen does not mean to plunge headlong, to move at great speed, to swerve violently. That is careering. To careen does not mean to ricochet: "the bullet careened off the rock." That is to carom, a term derived from billiards. To careen means this: to take a boat out of the water, lean it on its side, and scrape the frickin' barnacles off it. By extension, it can mean to list drunkenly. Any usage connoting speed or bouncing off something is just plain wrong.
Phew. That feels better. But seriously folks, the reason there's two words in the first place should be a subtle hint: they mean different things