March 18, 2007

Being That Guy

Usually when new words are added to the dictionary it's because our changing society invents them, and their presence in the language (ringtone, supersize, spyware) demands that dictionaries acknowledge them. So like it or not, 'potty-mouth' is now in the dictionary. What's irritating to me is when words enter the lexicon simply because so many people say them, spell them, or use them wrong.

When one uses language that is subject to one or more interpretations, sometimes in order to mislead or confuse, but often just to avoid committing one way or the other, one 'equivocates', using language that is 'equivocal'. To be unambiguous then, or to avoid any misunderstanding, one tries to be 'unequivocal', and so speaks 'unequivocally'.

So where did 'unequivocably' come from?

From constant repetition by lots of people who don't know better, I suppose. Dictionary.com says it's not a word at all, but Merriam-Webster includes it, with its etymology cited as "by alteration." I take that to mean its repetition by lots of people who don't know better.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says 'unequivocably' is "non-standard', and shouldn't be used, but they are obliged to mention it because it is used. MSN Encarta also just says no. Likewise Britannica Online.

Still it's everywhere. It's not as common as, for example, the use of 'literally' to mean 'figuratively', or the misuse of the expression "begs the question", in the context of something that prompts, or demands that one ask a particular question. I could cite three or four bloggers in the last two weeks using 'unequivocably', if my intent were to criticize or embarrass people. It's not.

The last thing I want to do is self-appoint as a critic of grammar, spelling and usage in the blogosphere. Talk about a fool's errand. Nobody want to be that guy. At least when I find myself stirred to be that guy, I try to bite my tongue and move on...and hope no one is scrutinizing this haphazardly-written site for such errors.

At the moment I can't even think of many other examples of this phenomenon, although 'alright' appears to be a word that came to be accepted instead of 'all right', by virtue of its widespread misuse.

And I couldn't let a post on this topic go by without mentioning one of my language pet peeves. That is the use of the expression "I could care less" to mean its opposite...that the speaker could not care less. If they could care less, that means they care at least some...and maybe a lot....the opposite of what they are trying to say, which is that they don't care at all.

A few years ago I emailed NR's Jay Nordlinger on this topic. Jay is a frequent commentator on matters of the English language and word use, and I sought his estimable opinion on this burning controversy. Five days later, this item appeared in his Impromptus column: (Nordlinger Archive)

Several readers have written me saying, “Will you do something about ‘I could care less’? People say it when they mean ‘I couldn’t care less.’ President Bush said it the other day, and it embarrassed me — sort of like ‘nuke-ular.’”

Sorry, but I can be of no help here. People simply started to say “I could care less” to mean the reverse, and it stuck — and it’s here. It used to irritate me, but I have now accepted it as an idiosyncrasy of the language (which is full of them). It’s a solecism for our times.

Years ago, I worked with a girl who was one of the brightest people I have ever known. She said “I could care less” all the time. (Me: “Do you know what I think of your Bill and Hillary Clinton?” Her: “I could care less.”) The fact that plenty of bright people say this should provide one clue that this is an expression whose meaning is clear and whose peculiar usage we should swallow. We are not to be literalist about it.

For my part, I didn't ask him "to do something about" the expression, but I was kind of disappointed that he thought that, at least in this particular battle in the war, the cause was lost.

Posted by dan at March 18, 2007 4:08 PM