GrammarPhile Blog

Misused Words

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Jun 22, 2010 10:26:00 AM

Most of us are prone to misuse words - some of us more than others. Whether in public speech, or in heated tête-à-tête, we panic and forget how a word is used. Don't despair—it happens to the best of us. Sometimes we're confused for just a fleeting moment: How many readers recall an incumbent U.S. president, speaking at his party's convention on live television, confusing Hubert Humphrey with Horatio Hornblower? Other times we're confused for a lifetime. 

Consider the word Frankenstein. In 1818 a young woman prodigy named Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (wife of the poet in today's Aside) published a horror story called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, about a German student, Frankenstein, who fabricated a monster that ultimately became the agent of his creator's destruction. The aptness of the fable and of the foreign-sounding name popularized the plot and notion among the many who never read the classic novel. For decades it was therefore felt necessary to correct those who thought that Frankenstein was the monster ("What are you going to be on Halloween?" "Ooooh. I'm dressing up as ... Frankenstein!" "Um, no, you silly, you're dressing up as Frankenstein's monster." "Oh, yeah.").

In any direct reference to the story itself, this correction is still in order. But in alluding to situations in which the creature undoes the creator—e.g., man and his machines—it seems permissible to many writers to transfer the maker's proper name to his invention. The change follows the natural course of acceptance. Thus a mackintosh (not the computer), a Ford, a silhouette—to say nothing of a Rembrandt, a Malaprop, or a sandwich—are familiar extensions that would encourage legitimizing a Frankenstein, and not just by yielding spinelessly to a common misunderstanding.

Here are some additional commonly misused words:

  • honed/homed: as in "We honed [read: homed] in on the solution at our staff meeting"
  • climactic/climatic: weather changes are climatic, a Big Poppy walk-off grand slam is always climactic
  • capitol/capital: the capitol often has a gold domed roof, and it is always in the capital city, and you write the name of the capital with a leading capital letter, as in "Carson City" or "Pierre"

What commonly misused words bug you?

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