Sunday, October 17, 2004

There Oughtta Be a Word

Some common errors hint at gaps in the language. Host as a verb and gender meaning "sex" are two examples that filled those gaps so well they can no longer be considered errors. Other examples that may never grow into acceptance but sound stubbornly right while being wrong:

  • Bemused. You know, bemused -- looking at a person or a situation with slightly amused detachment, perhaps with a wry smile or even a shake of the head.

    The word doesn't mean that, of course, even though that's what most writers think it means; it means something closer to "confused."

    Webster's New World:


    1. to muddle or stupefy
    2. to plunge in thought; preoccupy: usually in the passive voice
    The standard copy-editor trick is to change bemused to amused, and indeed that's about the best we can do, but I find it not quite satisfactory. We need a word that means "quietly and slightly amused."

  • Officious. As I wrote in "Lapsing Into a Comma," the mistaken meaning sounds so right. The Transportation Security Administration stooge who makes a big Barney Fife show of inspecting your sneaker -- officious! The Six Flags ride monitor who points out that you're encroaching on the do-not-pass yellow line by an eighth of an inch -- officious!

    The hint of "official" makes this an understandable mistake, but the word actually means almost the opposite.

    Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

    volunteering one's services where they are neither asked nor needed
    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

    Marked by excessive eagerness in offering unwanted services or advice to others.
    Webster's New World does hint at some overlap with the mistaken meaning (my italics):

    offering unnecessary and unwanted advice or services; meddlesome, esp. in a highhanded or overbearing way
    Bizarrely, in the world of diplomacy, officious flies in the face of the "official" thing even more, meaning "informal or unofficial."

  • Monger. My third offering in the "they should mean this, but they don't" category might be a little more controversial, because I'm not sure how many people share my former misapprehension.

    If you're a whoremonger, doesn't that mean you really, really enjoy using the services of whores? Fishmonger? You crave seafood.

    A -monger, of course, is a seller, so a whoremonger is actually a pimp, but aren't many or most uses of powermonger intended to mean "power hound" rather than "power broker"?

    The brilliant singer-songwriter Joe Pernice sings of an ex-girlfriend as a "life-sucking powermonger," which obviously means desiring power rather than doling it out. The error isn't limited to pop music. From

    Ncube's presentation suggested that the Zimbabwean president is a "powermonger . . . who is prepared to kill for power."
    From Slate:

    Essentially, [Dr.] Strangelove is the story of a few deluded powermongers who destroy the world because they can't admit they're wrong.
    From a letter to the editor in Florida Today:

    One has to wonder how different our country would be today if George W. Bush had listened to his wife, his father and mother instead of Don Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Karen Hughes, Karl Rove and Andrew Card. It's obvious that none of those powermongers were looking after the best interests of Bush or our country.
    A headline in Crain's Chicago Business:

    Rant control: Control freaks, opinionated nonconformists and powermongers make condo association meetings the scene of fireworks-and the occasional fistfight
    I've known the true meaning of fishmonger and the like for decades now, but I still think mong just screams craving and desire, as in "I'm really monging some fish right now -- let's go to McCormick and Schmick's!"


    Phillip Blanchard said...

    What's wrong with "Blanchard looked at Walsh with slightly amused detachment, smiled wryly and shook his head" ?

    Le Petomane said...

    "Monger" has a long-established secondary meaning: a person promoting or dealing in something undesirable or discreditable. A warmonger, for example, doesn't sell wars.

    I'll accept "powermonger" as a synonym for "power broker," which retains "monger's" sense of "selling or dealing in" and which is how most thougtful and well-edited papers seem to use it.

    However, as a synonym for "power-crazed," it's just wrong. And you see it used in that sense more and more.
    Karl Rove is a powermonger, for example, but most junior high school hall monitors are power-crazed.

    Bill said...

    Of course, "sell" has a secondary meaning of "promote" :-).

    I'm glad to hear that others have at least noticed this usage of "-monger."

    Jen said...

    I typed the phrase "amused detachment" into Google, for this very reason! A friend has asked me to describe her in one word only. I immediately thought "bemused" but being a geek, I double-checked myself with the Merriam Webster online. Wrong word! So, I need one word to describe someone who seems to go through life as though watching as a spectator, with amused detachment. There *oughtta* be a word!