Friday, January 1, 2010

Words' worth III

Happy new years! The grammar police return! A while back (May!), I commented on a few words that had gotten my attention through their misuse. Since then, a few more peaked piqued my interest, and now I return with the third installment of "Words' worth."

Peak / Peek / Pique - "Peak" means summit or maximum value; "Peek" means look at quickly or furtively; "Pique" means provoke or stimulate. You can "take a peek," but you cannot "take a peak" (unless you're involved in Appalachian coal mining). You can have something "pique your interest," but you cannot "peak your interest" in anything.

(Similiarly): Eke / Eek - People can "eke out a living" but they should reserve "eek" for unexpected encounters with mice.

Cite vs. site - a "site" is a place, either in the real world or on the web. You use "cite" when you're attributing work to someone else (or issuing a ticket, if you're a traffic cop).

Extinction vs. extirpation: extinction of a species or variety means there are none left, anywhere. However, the local version of the phenomenon is properly known as extirpation. Thus, if say you killed every single wallaby in Australia, but the wallabies on New Guinea were still numerous, you would have extirpated them from Australia, but you would not have made them extinct. Even professionals use "extinction" where they ought to be saying "extirpation."

Similarly, a lot of people use the word decimate "incorrectly." To decimate a population (say, of Roman soldiers) was to kill one out of every ten. 10% die, in other words, and 90% are left alive. That may be the official definition, but the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people use the term decimate in exactly the opposite sense: that 90% die, and only 10% survive (or thereabouts). At what point do we switch the definition of a word: when 90% understand the meaning to be one thing, and only 10% stick with the old definition?

Shear vs. Sheer - There are many definitions to both "shear" and "sheer," but the one I see fuddled up most frequently is when people use "shear" to describe cliffs, or use "sheer" to describe geological stresses.

Oh dear: did you hear about the omission of "emission" on a Kansas state test (wherein some test-writer swapped the word omission for emission). Don't worry: the kids caught the error!

Literally - "Literally" means "actual," not an exaggeration, analogy, simile, or hyperbole, but actual truth. Amazing how many people use this incorrectly. Sometimes it seems like literally the entire world!

Metamorphosize - The first time I put up a post like this (see link above), I harped on the word "orientate." I pointed out that the word "orient" (verb) means the same thing, without an extra, unneccesary syllable. In spite of my harangue, orientate remains in the dictionary. Even worse, I find a lot of people want to throw an extra syllable in at the end of "metamorphose" even though "metamorphosize" is not an actual word.

Standing on line versus standing in line. This one seems to be cultural. Some people claim that when you queue up for, say, a movie, you're standing "on line." This grates on my ears, and I would instead say that you're standing "in line." (I reserve "online" for internet presence.) But I don't know that I am justified in feeling this way -- I think it's more likely that I just grew up in an "in" household, versus an "on" household.

As before, I'd like to know which words bug you. Chime in.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes an important word drops out of a phrase. Though, I found your post interesting and though I mean the following phrase literally - it would generally be taken in the opposite sense.

"Callan - I could care less about your concerns about words!"

Good, interesting and informative post.

tom donlon

January 1, 2010 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am wondering whether native speakers have this kind of errors.

Happy New Year to you too!

PS. Why "Happy new years!" with "s"?

-Naomi, non-native speaker :)

January 1, 2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger Marciepooh said...

Tom, I've always thought that phrase could either be sarcastic, "they could care less (but it would be difficult)" or more literal "they couldn't care less". Both gets the meaning across, with the correct inflection.

Naomi - It's "New Year's Eve" (possessive), so I think "Happy New Years" comes from dropping the "eve". With the 's' should be said on 12/31 and without on 1/1?

January 4, 2010 11:31 AM  

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