Annoying Word Usages of the Week

Posted: June 15, 2012 in Language, Teaching
Tags: , , , ,

It’s the end of finals week here.  This is first finals week in years where I wasn’t staring at a stack of student essays to grade.  Not having any grading to do was pretty amazing, to be honest, but I did sort of miss the puzzling, and sometimes entertaining, errors in usage/word choice/phrasing that students make.

So, since I didn’t get to snicker at hurried, end-of-term, student essays with somewhat understandable mistakes, I kept a list of annoying word usages that I came across in more official/professional writing. I found enough that this could be a weekly thing.  These are a few I think most worthy of comment and debate:

Luddite (context: nearly every article about Thomas Pynchon allowing his catalog to be digitized): 

I’ll concede that arguing this one is a lost cause, and I’m all for the evolution of language and words.  However, as someone who has read extensively on the history of technology and industrialism, I can’t just let it slide without getting a little pedantic.  While the modern usage means something like: “A person who eschews, or even fears, modern technology,” the source of the term implies something a bit different (and there’s this word “technophobe” one might use instead).  The original Luddites weren’t against technology . . . not in the broad sense.  Luddites were rebelling against specific technologies in the textile industry that supplanted them as workers and, basically, made them beggars.  For right or wrong, there was a political and ethical motivation to the Luddites’ position that went beyond mere technophobia . . . a motivation that was a precursor to other workers movements.  It is worth remembering that.

(You may want to read Thomas Pynchon’s essay “Is it OK to be a Luddite?”)

2 robots; 1 android

Robot (context: this mostly-excellent Slate article a friend sent me, which is responding to Fassbender’s role as David in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus):

The article (in the probably case you didn’t click through) situates David in Prometheus alongside the good and bad of other fictional robots designed to look human.  It is explicitly set up in dialogue with the concept of “the uncanny valley,” and is specifically about how a successful portrayal of a humanoid robot necessitates seeming close to, but not quite, human.  The problem?  There’s a perfectly good word for robots that are made to look human: androids.  The article’s title and set-up paragraphs never mention androids (though the term is used later in individual entries).  Puzzling . . . unless the use of “android” was a later addition by the author, which would then make the lack of revision to the intro and title puzzling.  It is a bit like coming up with a list of best car chase scenes in movies and then titling and prefacing it as simply “best chase scenes.”  Precision in language matters.

Coup (context: subject lines in a recent cluster of emails from my department head about recent PhDs who found employment):

I can’t directly cite or link to this, but recent, department-wide email announcements about several of my colleagues finding teaching positions have referred to the finding of a job as a coup.  First, the obvious link to violent, usually militaristic, overthrow of an administration makes this a really weird choice (and all the related terms like coup de grâce deriving from the French term of origin; see OED, coup, n.3).  More importantly, though, I think of the term “coup” as usually referring to something unexpected and prevailing against heavy odds.  Not that finding an academic job is easy in this market, but referring to a new PhD’s success in the job market as such seems like an unintentionally backhanded compliment.  What’s wrong with “success”?

Pretty sure this is not the coup he means either.

Entitled (context: the majority of speaker announcements and edited volume calls for papers I’ve seen recently):

Though it has popped up a bit this week, this is an old annoyance for me, especially since it comes out of places where precision in language should matter (university departments of various humanities fields). Maybe it’s just me who is annoyed by this. The usual usage goes something like:

Dr. So-and-so will give a talk entitled, “this is boring and/or aggravating,” during a symposium on tedium and monotony.

Personally, I always use “titled.”  According to many grammar/usage sources, both “titled” and “entitled” are technically allowable (however, Purdue University seems to disagree). Disregarding the so-called rules of usage and any debate therein, “entitled” just seems imprecise, haughty, and adds an unneeded extra syllable.  This is also pretty much the only time in regular usage where it lacks the usual sense (feeling of having a right to something) that we understand in “entitlement” or “entitles.”  What’s wrong with just “titled”?

Others on my list this week included: “firstly,” “jury-rigged,” “principal” (in the place of “principle”),  and “trope.”


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