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Media Circus

Words of Caution

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 12/13/2000

As we enter an era of speech-challenged leadership, let us not snicker too smugly. President-presumptive George W. Bush is, after all, a man of his time--our time, that is, when the popular standard of the spoken American language is set by so-called television personalities. If we must find fault with public figures who blaspheme against good speech, let's start with those whose primary job--whose only job--is supposed to be communicating. Before launching into my complaints, let me establish that I'm no grammar prude or usage Nazi; I couldn't write for oft-slangy City Paper if I were. New words and turns of phrase add new ideas and shades of meaning to the American language. Vocabulary evolves to fit its subject matter, and to suit the tongues of its speakers. (The word we pronounce "DEE-tour" used to be said French-style--"dé-TOUR"--but the latter now sounds pretentious.) Even the much-chided practice of scrambling parts of speech is a hallowed English tradition: You might not approve of "impact" as a verb, but Shakespeare would.That said, however, language erodes when it becomes less meaningful. George Orwell warned us about doublespeak and taught us that a language with fewer words is capable of fewer ideas. Dumbing down also results when we simply let professional, public talkers get words and phrases wrong--such errors perpetuate themselves like weeds, sometimes crowding out the original, correct words and meanings. Thus, I've been keeping a sloppy list of flubs from TV and radio. (Sorry, broadcast partisans, but generally, major print media get words right.)

As to the attributions below, I don't see the value of embarrassing individual on-air personalities, but their employers need to be warned, especially at those outlets that pride themselves on appealing to an educated audience. (WJHU, take heed.) I humbly recall how, several years ago, I was taping a voice-over for an educational program and pronounced "harbinger" as if it rhymed with "singer." The producer gently prompted me to use a soft "g." There were no hard feelings, and I stood happily corrected. So here goes:

  • "Joolery." An error routinely uttered on WJHU (88.1 FM). Maybe I'm a snob, but pronouncing "jewelry" to rhyme with "tomfoolery" makes the diamonds sound like paste. Surely the advertisers--er, underwriters--aren't pleased.

  • "Lincoln Park." Strictly a local goof, heard recently on WBAL-TV (channel 11). The big forest in West Baltimore is named not for the 16th president of the United States but for the 10th mayor of Baltimore, Sheppard C. Leakin (who served 1838-1840). Tip for broadcasters: Study the map.

  • "The Olympics is coming." Is they really? Many announcers forget that "Olympics" is a plural noun, short for "Olympic Games." See "media," below.

  • "Hafez El Assad layed in state." From a National Public Radio Middle East correspondent (not Linda Gradstein). We are close to conceding defeat on this and declaring the boundary between "lay" and "lie" the Berlin Wall of English usage. But just for old time's sake, say it with me: "Hafez El Assad lies in state. Hafez El Assad lay in state. Hafez El Assad was laid in state."

    "Triathalon." An athaletic event in which athaletes compete? This was heard on WBFF's (channel 45) News at Ten.

  • "Take a new tact." A common goof by a WJHU regular. "Tact" means social judiciousness and sensitivity; a change of course or direction is a new "tack."

  • "Hone in . . ." Another common goof, in which the same WJHU regular is joined by millions of Americans. If this usage were put to a vote, I'd lose, but let's get this straight: The correct phrase is to "home in," like a homing pigeon finding its way home. A hone is a device for sharpening tools, so you can imagine a person "honing in" on a sharp point. I can forgive, but will not concede.

  • "Monumentous." A charming coinage by a WBAL-TV reporter. This is almost a keeper, being a blend of "momentous" and "monumental" that suggests both words at once. Still, it made the nice young reporter look ignorant. (The last major blend word to enter the language through the back door was "humongous," a pastiche of "huge," "monstrous," and perhaps "tremendous." It's in the dictionary now.)

  • "Revelant." From the same WBAL news anchor who gave us "rev-vered." It's just plain wrong.

  • "Intrically," "intrical," and sometimes even "inchercal." These aren't blend words, they're blur words. The speakers (and there are many, many of them) are smearing together several perfectly serviceable but distinct words--"integral" (and "integrally"), "intricately," "inextricably"--and hoping nobody asks them to spell what they just spoke. The blur words take the place of any of the legitimate originals in such stock phrases as "an intrical part," "intrically linked," and "intrically intertwined."

  • "The media is . . ." All I can say is, no, they isn't. I have been waiting to rant about the abuse of the word "media" ever since I took over this column. Here's the short version: "Media" is the plural of the word "medium." If, by "media," speakers are referring to an array of information sources--newspapers, television, radio, Internet--why do they construe the word as a singular noun? This extremely common error qualifies as an erosion of the language not merely because it's ignorant, but because it conveys an imprecise, erroneous idea. To say, "The media is responsible for our declining values," for example, implies that there is some huge, monolithic entity at work. While it's true that our national media are controlled by giant corporations, and fewer and fewer of them, it's still misleading and unfair to imply that thousands of mutually independent writers, editors, and on-air reporters are mere drones, cluelessly collaborating (as if by force of nature) to convey a collective message. The media aren't that bad!

    There, I've said it. In closing, I'd like to dedicate this column to my mother, Louise S. Chalkley, who used to shudder at the dissonant grammar of the Beatles and the Lovin' Spoonful. I will think of her whenever I split an infinitive. Courage, mon amie, le diable est mort.

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