Sunday, February 14, 2010

Contender for the Most Misused Word in the English Language

I was thinking I should post something useful, seeing as I now have followers - a strange, yet fun fact - and what better to put up than something from the one and only Tim Esaias.

Now, I realize that most (or all) of you won't have any idea of who Tim is. I really ought to put up a post about Seton Hill since I often refer to it but never fully explain what it is. I'll make a note of that. Until then, Tim teaches there, offering up his tidbits of wisdom and showing many of us the joys of weaponry, fortifications, and what we really ought to keep out of our novels and writing work in general. He's got some of the best ideas I've heard in....well, since I started writing, actually. There are several items Tim takes issue with; smiling, nodding, moon phases in fantasy worlds, stage directions, and the grimace (a word I think I've only used once in my entire writing career...if you can call it a career anyway).

But today I'd like to share with you one of Tim's posts on the Seton Hill message board concerning one particular word: prodigal.


It's true that glance is horribly misused, and used more commonly. And there're nauseous and hopefully as major rivals. But it would be hard to equal the percentage of misuse this word gets.

The word is so commonly misused, that the best strategy for a writer is never to use it. The audience won't know what you mean by it, so what's the point?

It means spendthrift. It does NOT mean went away for a while.

The reason that most people don't know the correct meaning is that they run across this word in just two confusing contexts: the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the expression "the Prodigal returns."

In the parable the elder son takes his inheritance in cash, goes away from home, and BLOWS IT ALL. It's the blowing the money that makes him prodigal. He returns because he's flat broke. The phrase is a reference to this event in the parable: the return and the father killing the best herd animal to greet him, despite his being a spendthrift.

This reader/copyeditor is sick to death of people using this word incorrectly. He would also like to protect his friends, colleagues and students from appearing to be culturally ignorant, not to mention semi-illiterate, hence this brief note.

It is true that one dictionary company has decided to enshrine American ignorance by accepting the incorrect definition, based on common misuse. It is also true that ignorance is one of the engines of linguistic change. That does not mean, this writer feels, that embracing ignorance is a virtue. He treats that idea with scorn; spurns it with his heel; and shakes from his sandals the dust of any city which accepts it.

Here endeth the rant.

Personally, I only feel a little stupid. I've never used the word "prodigal" in any of my writings, so I've never had the chance to misuse it. However, I thought it meant something completely different from both of these (wrong and right) definitions.

At least now I know better.

I also miss my access to the OED online.

"Oh father, I've returned! ...Can I get another $200?"


j.m. neeb said...

You know, I can see the case where most people misuse the word prodigal. Hell, I've probably even done so myself (not necessarily in writing, though, as I don't think I've used the word in print to date...).

I'd be intrigued to find out how people misuse the words "glance," "hopefully," and "nauseous," though. Those ones seem like they'd be difficult to get tripped up over.

C R Ward said...

What an interesting post! I've never used the word prodigal, but I'm one of those who believed it to mean "the prodigal returns". I blame Sunday school. :-)