Are you a good deipnosophist?

Published 10:33 am Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

For two weeks, I have shared with readers entries from “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein. Buy the book if you like to write. If you could care less (or is couldn’t care less?) about this grammar gobbledygook, I promise this is the last of three columns on this topic.


Boss: Although it has been in the language for more than a century, boss is still labeled by most dictionaries as “colloq.” or slang. Its most nearly standard uses are in the senses of a political leader or of a workman’s superior. In other senses, it is a casualism that should be used with caution in reputable writing. To speak, for example, of a “real estate boss” or an “atomic physicist’s boss” is flatly slangy.

Careen, career: The two words are sometimes confused. Careen (rhymes with lean) means to tilt or heel over. “The yacht careened sharply at the first buoy.” Career means to move at high speed: “Out of control, the car careered into a group of children.”

Credit: Although dictionaries give ascribe as one meaning of the verb credit, in good usage the connotation is a favorable one. Credit should not be used for the ascribing of unfavorable things, as in this sentence, “The society seeks to clear the name of Richard, whom history credits with the slaying of two young princes and other killings and crimes.”

Dead bodies: Tautological: “They said many dead bodies, mostly of children, were seen floating on the water.” In this sense bodies means corpses. You wouldn’t speak of live bodies, would you?

Deadly, deathly: Deadly means lethal or death-dealing, as in “a deadly poison.” Deathly, in modern usage, means resembling death, as in “a deathly silence” or “a deathly complexion.”

Deipnosophist: One who is good at dinner-table conversation is a deipnosophist (from the Greek deipnon, meaning a meal, and sophistes, a wise man). There is no reason for this entry unless it is to point out that with a word like that to describe himself, even an amateur deipnosophist is off to a flying start. See omphaloskepsis.

Libel, slander: Both words mean defamation, but in the eyes of the law there is a difference between them. Slander is oral defamation; libel is defamation by any other means — in print, in writing, in recorded speech, or by pictures, signs or effigies.

Lion’s share: Not only overused but misused, the phrase lion’s share often appears in this kind of context: “Many factors played a part in the close election, in which the Democrats again won the lion’s share of state constitutional office.” The lion’s share, as conceived by Aesop, is all or nearly all, not merely a majority or the larger part.

Omphaloskepsis: A word meaning contemplation while gazing at the navel, omphaloskepsis would be of use only to a deipnosophist. And it has no more business appearing here than deipnosophist.

Sometime, some time: Sometime means at a point of time; thus, “The statements were made sometime last month.” When the some is intended to be an adjective modifying time and producing the equivalent of a short time or a long time or an indefinite time, the term is written as two words. These, therefore, are incorrect: “Statements made sometime ago by the Atomic Energy Commission …”; “For sometime now, Wallachs has been giving away little woven labels, for shirts, that say ‘Please — No Starch!’”

Stalemate: A technical term that, like gambit, must be handled with care, as it was not in this sentence: “The stalemate that settled on the Congo seemed to be lifting.” Chess nuts will tell you that a stalemate is as final as checkmate, and it cannot be eased, broken, lifted or anything else, except, perhaps, avoided.

Surprise, astonish: You won’t catch this book retailing that bromidic tale about Noah Webster (or was it Dr. Samuel Johnson or neither?) who, when his wife said she was surprised at catching him dallying with the maid, replied, “No, madam, it is I who am surprised; you are astonished.” Nevertheless, the tale makes a point worth noticing about the two words, whose meanings tend to overlap these days. Both words convey the idea of wonder, but surprise contains the added ingredient of the unexpected. It is well to hold that distinction in mind.


By the way, notice in the surprise, astonish entry his use of retailing. Did you think is was a typo? Indeed, the second definition of the verb form of retail means to recount details of a story to others. The first definition is to sell goods to the general public.

Many terms have changed since Bernstein’s time. Check out the entry for pupil: It is not proper to speak of admitting “a limited number of Negro students to previously all-white elementary schools.” Those who attend elementary schools are pupils; those who attend higher institutions of learning (high schools may be included among these) are students.

Nowadays, even kids at preschools are termed “students.” The language clearly changes. Still, I imagine it would be incorrect to call a college kid a “pupil.”

So is it “could care less” or “couldn’t care less”? Of course, you probably already know grammarians prefer “I couldn’t care less” because if you say “I could care less” it means you care somewhat, which is the opposite of what the speaker was intending.

You don’t need Bernstein to tell you that.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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