Monday, June 26, 2006

Monday Rant: Etymology

This topic has probably been done to death by the English Warriors of the world, those annoying folks who corner you at a party and blather on about the proper use of commas and apostrophes.

I'm not going to rant about punctuation. I'm going to rant about stupid phrases in common use.

1. Toe the Line.
My Social Studies teacher in high school had this one completely wrong - and, given the man's wealth of knowledge of both the English language and history, this is nearly unforgivable. His opinion (wrong) was that this should be spelled "Tow", as in someone pulling on a rope. NO. This phrase refers to party politics in Renaisance England. The story as I understand it goes: rival political parties in Parliament tend to disagree. In an age when gentlement usually wear swords, disagreements can become violent rapidly. To prevent bloodshed in Government, two lines were painted on the floor of Parliament in parallel, far enough apart that two antagonists facing each other could not reach each other with their swords. To Toe the Line, then, is to stand with your party compatriots with just a toe on the line, but no further forward, presenting a unified opposition against the other side. No rope pulling involved.

2. Champing at the bit.
Notice the spelling, again. Not "chomping". A bit does not fit in a horse's mouth in a position that it can chew on it - the bit is behind the teeth, closer to the jaw hinge. An anatomically normal horse is incapable of applying pressure on the bit with the jaw. Champing is a different action - lunging forward, as I understand it.

3. Two Bits.
Not "two cents" or any derivation. Two bits is 25 cents (USA), from an era when, presumably, 12.5-cent pieces were in circulation. Or perhaps the "bit" part of the expression applies to something else - in any case, two bits does not equal two copper pennies.

4. Begging the Question.
See here for explanation. It does NOT mean "raise the question". It's a logical fallacy centered on assuming the answer to a question before asking the question.

5. Carrot and Stick.
This phrase is commonly used as a shorthand to indicate a simultaneous reward (carrot) and punishment (stick). Then the metaphor is abused further, with descriptions of larger sticks or sweeter carrots. A carrot and stick is not a pair of independently-variable consequences. A carrot, suspended on a string from the end of a long stick, could be dangled in front of a (particularly stupid) draft animal to evoke movement. The carrot is a reward, though unattainable. The stick is not used to beat the animal, its role is purely structural in positioning the carrot. The Economist, a well-regarded user of the English language, habitually abuses this phrase, and is occasionally called to task, with little apparent result, in the Letters-to-the-Editor pages. Perhaps the editors of The Economist really like having a convenient metaphor to apply to Middle East politics and International Brinksmanship. A better metaphor, pulled from my experiences as a grad student, could be the "Fellowship committee meeting", in which the reward (Fellowship) is coupled to a punishment (committee meeting).

6. A lot (of)
This just makes you look stupid and uneducated if you use it. Particularly if you mangle the spelling (alot, allot, etc).

7. Utilize
Use. It's a complete, 100% synonym, and you don't look like a nob for saying it.

OK, I'm done. I'm not going to rant about other English manglings, like Elite-speak (31337) or "teh ghey" at this time.

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