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.

April 26, 2012

The Subtle Shadings of Spellings and Synonyms

To those of us who are almost synesthetic about words, two different words with one dictionary meaning (denotation), or one word with two different spellings, become completely different animals.  If denotation is a word’s DNA, then connotation, the waft of resonances and associations around it, is its epigenetics.  Two such words are like identical twins who have grown into very different individuals.

Two examples I’ve recently come in contact with:

1. grey vs. gray. The only difference is that the first is the British and the second the American spelling.  But how different their tone colors are.  Grey is grim, yellow, and sallow. It speaks of London industrial grime and gaslight, maybe even gaol (there’s a hollow spelling for you!) and gallows. Gray is blue-gray—softer, more open (the vowel isn’t pinched), less hopeless, a color you might feel drawn to touch, like some clouds or feathers. (Interestingly, neither spelling, to me, seems right for gray hair, which is more metallic—steely, pewtery, silvery, until it goes snowy.)

2. persistent versus persevering. Do these words mean exactly the same thing you?  To me, “persistent” has a more active and interpersonal connotation than “persevering.” “Persistent” could be a kid pestering its parent for an ice cream cone (the alliteration between “persistent” and “pestering” is probably one of the keys to my reaction), or Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out the Watchtower, or Martin Luther nailing the theses to the cathedral door—sort of repeated attempts to get the world’s attention. “Persevering” means not quitting, just keeping on going. One is head up, one head down; one insistent (another sound clue), one stoical. A dog jumping over and over at a closed door versus a tortoise plodding doggedly (!) along.

Is it just me?

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