The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 21, 2020

Getting the most out of “most”

new CNN poll shows that most Americans want the Senate to remove Trump from office (51 to 45 percent), most want to hear from the witnesses that Trump blocked from testifying in the House (69 percent), and most believe that he abused the power of the presidency (58 percent) and obstructed Congress (57 percent).

~ Teresa Hanafin, “Fast Forward” (Boston Globe newsletter)

I’m sorry, but no matter where you stand on Trump, the Senate, impeachment, or CNN, 51 percent is NOT “MOST” Americans. It is, for all practical purposes, half.

The 69 percent who want to hear from the witnesses can make a much better case to be “most Americans.” The 57 and 58 percent who agree with the substance of the two articles of impeachment cannot. They are, at best, “a majority.” Not even the Senate two-thirds “supermajority” required to convict an impeached president.

Here’s the dictionary:

The synonyms tell the tale. Most of them—four out of five, 80 percent—connote considerably more than a mere “majority.”

In my opinion, the rhetorical inflation of any majority into “nearly all / almost all / the bulk of Americans” is a propaganda weapon in our Uncivil War. It’s a purely verbal tug-of-war for domination that seeks to belittle the other side and magnify one’s own, just as Trump exaggerates the size of his inauguration and rally crowds. Talking this way turns you into a liar like all the other liars. It degrades language and thought, both serving and obscuring the critical problem that the country is being very calculatedly driven into two large, irreconcilable camps. It is because neither of these camps comprises “most” Americans, and neither of them accepts the very existence of the other, that we can have neither consensus nor clear majority rule with a confident, and therefore perhaps magnanimous, winner. It’s because no one can have actual victory that each side strives for total victory.

Where do you think “most” begins? This is a matter of connotation (judgment, feeling, consensus) rather than denotation (bare meaning), so there’s some wiggle room. To me it’s not less than two-thirds, but better yet, three-fourths.

January 15, 2020

What does this writer think “trenchant” means?

Filed under: etymology,language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 8:49 am

The writer is talking about political polarization:

Gerber tries to use his sermons to steer congregants to a less trenchant view of politics by urging them to accept that others may disagree with them.

Answer: “entrenched.” Dug in. What it actually means:

If you’re trenchant, it means you think or say smart, sharply worded things that cut right to the heart of the matter.

Consulting the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary, the two meanings spring from one root:

trenchant (adj.)

early 14c., “cutting, sharp,” from Old French trenchant “cutting, sharp” (literal and figurative), present participle of trenchier “to cut” (see trench). Figurative sense in English is from c. 1600.

Interesting! It implies (unintentionally, but aptly) that the sharper the opinions used as a trenching tool, the deeper the trench in which one becomes entrenched.

January 14, 2020

What does this person think “raucous” means?

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 2:19 am

In a tweet:

January 7, 2020

“The agony of being in a limbic state”

Filed under: ambiguity,etymology,puns,typography,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:18 pm

Being at war for so long has left a considerable number of Americans unable to reconcile their global dominance with the agony of being in a limbic state of neither peace nor victory.

Is the author of this Daily Beast piece, Spencer Ackerman, referring to the limbic system, the network of subcortical brain areas that is the axis of emotion? Or does he think that “limbic” is the adjectival form of “limbo”? (Does “limbo” even have an adjectival form?)

Either—or both—would fit. His point actually is that being unable to achieve the consummation and catharsis of victory in the Middle East has left the U.S. and its citizens in a state of limbic limbo.

Here’s the marvelous Online Etymological Dictionary (the “free OED”—you should know it and use it! ) tracing the roots of the words limbic and limbo:

limbic (adj.)

“pertaining to or characteristic of a border,” 1879, in anatomy, in reference to the brain, from French limbique (1878, Broca), from limbe (14c.), from Latin limbus “edge” (see limb (n.2)). Limbic system is attested from 1950.

limbo (n.1)

region supposed to exist on the border of Hell, reserved for pre-Christian saints (Limbus patrum) and unbaptized infants (Limbus infantum);” c. 1300, from Latin limbo, ablative singular of limbus “edge, border” (see limb (n.2)). In frequent use in Latin phrases such as in limbo (patrum), which is entirely Latin, but the in was taken as English and hence the Latin ablative became the English noun. Figurative sense of “condition of neglect or oblivion, place of confinement” is from 1640s.
So the words ARE related—but only in the positional sense of both being at the edge of something (Hell, in the case of Catholic doctrine; the cerebral cortex—its own kind of hell, if you will—in the case of the limbic system). The emotional sense, of being lost in a place where nothing is happening, and therefore in a dully frustrated, affectless state, is this writer’s probably inadvertent inspiration. 
To add yet another etymological curlicue—it’s also left us on edge.
(For those on a roll, liminal (pertaining to a threshold) and limit are also related.)

January 5, 2020

Remain silent harshly

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 10:02 am


Shame on every Republican who enables this tyrant. History will judge every one of you who continues to remain silent harshly.

January 3, 2020

Oh, Marianne.

Filed under: language degenerating,slipped cognates,spelling — amba12 @ 4:23 pm

But then, you didn’t write this yourself, did you, Marianne Williamson. (In your latest email fund appeal.)

I assume there are reasonable people in the American defense establishment trying hard to reign in the more reckless impulses of our president now.

“Reign in.” “Tow the line.” “Palates of cash.” AAAARRRGGHHHH.

Palate, Pallet, Palette

Filed under: language degenerating,spelling,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 9:23 am

Can you define each of the above? Do you know which is which, and the uses of each?

A very warlike woman on Twitter named Amy Curtis prefaced her call for swift and total annihilation of:our enemies with this:

Giving the Iranians palates of cash is not the answer. Restrictive rules of engagement is not the answer.

I find that unpalletable.


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