9 Linguistic ‘Ignorantisms’ Even Sticklers Got Used To

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Most unfortunate is the innocent who tries to use the word decimate in the normal (and dictionary-approved) way, to mean destroy. “Decimate,” chimes in the uninvited stickler, “comes from Latin decimus, meaning tenth, and can only be used to describe the situation where specifically one tenth of something has been destroyed.” (Blah, blah, blah, something about Roman armies.)

Decimate is the quibble that just won’t die. But why? There were plenty of other quibbles just like it that sticklers did eventually stop repeating. Many of them are listed in Word and Phrase, a 1901 usage guide by Joseph Fitzgerald, under the heading “Ignorantisms.” They rest on the same kind of nitpicky etymological explanations, but not even the strictest sticklers seem to care about them anymore. So have at it, decimate defenders. Expand your arsenal of pedantry with these nine forgotten ignorantisms. Or, perhaps, let the whole Roman army thing go.


“Properly the word denotes ‘feeling strong aversion.’” So something you abhor is not abhorrent; you are abhorrent from it. Fitzgerald blames Darwin for popularizing the incorrect usage ("abhorrent to our ideas of fitness"). He suggests that if we want a word to describe a thing that is repellant, we instead (on the model of multiplicand and dividend) use abhorrend.


Sodden is the past participle of seethe and it means boiled: “If any one is pleased to used the word in the sense of soaked and softened, as in water, or of soaked, saturated with drink, he will perhaps be understood, but the word sodden has no such meanings.”


Fruition comes from the Latin frui, for enjoy, and not from fruit. Plans don’t “come to fruition” like a tree yielding fruit. Instead you get personal fruition (enjoyment) from the yield of your plans.


“There is no such phrase known in correct usage, or in any but ignorant usage, as ‘to affiliate with.’” Filiation, from the Latin for son, is a parent-child relationship, not one of brotherhood or mere association. A local organization may affiliate to a larger one, in the sense that it becomes a child of a parent organization, but people do not affiliate with each other or with organizations.


“The man who first used the word Phenomenon and its derivate Phenomenal in the sense of ‘something very remarkable’ gave a palmary example of a Vulgar Error.” Phenomenon only means “that which is cognizable by the senses.” Fitzgerald thinks the error comes from “the lecture hall in which the man of science, or the popularizer of scientific knowledge, would announce beforehand one of his experiments by saying, ‘The phenomenon you are now to see,' etc.; and as the ignorant audience would the next moment see some striking effect of mixture of chemicals, or some strange electrical action they would naturally suppose that ‘phenomenal’ meant ‘scientific miracle.’”


“Transpire, in the sense of happen, is an arrant ignorantism. Its pedigree is short and ignoble.” Expire means to breathe out and transpire means to “emit through the excretory organs of the skin.” Figuratively, it can mean that a secret oozes out through windows and walls, or that other information somehow escapes into the air. If an event transpired, it does not mean that it occurred, but that information about it leaked out.


Sleuth is not a synonym for detective. “The only meaning the word has in sober English is track or footprint.” Dogs who followed animal tracks were called sleuthhounds and on that basis the nickname “Old Sleuth” was humorously applied to police detectives. Newspaper readers, “not thinking of the humor,” took sleuth to be a regular synonym for detective.


“In right usage, the word Mutual has the definite meaning of reciprocal, from one to another.” It should not be used for “joint” or “shared.” Fitzgerald blames Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) for convincing the dictionary writers to sanction the “abusive employment” of this word.


Consternation “has never had in our language more than one sense, that of such a combination of ‘surprise, wonder, and terror as literally or figuratively to prostrate the individual thus affected.’” It seems that the use of this word for instances of simple anxious confusion causes Fitzgerald a true and proper case of consternation.