Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Difficult Words

One of my very favourite authors is Bill Bryson. I loved him when he was still just a travel writer and I read the side-splittingly funny Notes from a Big Country. Bill Bryson is American but is married to an Englishwoman, and has lived for many years in both countries, so he's pretty much the authority when it comes to comparing their foibles and idiosyncrasies. I recommend all his travel books.

He is also a journalist, however, and has written several books about the English language. I wish his book Shakespeare: The World as a Stage had been around when I was struggling through the second year of my English degree because it would have made my study of the bard much more interesting.

One book by Bryson which I keep close to my desk is called Troublesome Words and I recommend it to all writers. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that no one should attempt to write anything without having it around to refer to. It's indispensable in explaining the difference between acute and chronic, affect and effect, (and that's only in the As) and being Bill Bryson he can also explain which one to use depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to reside on.

I'd like to add a few more troublesome words to his list however, all ones I seem to have come across a lot over the last few weeks:

Strait / Straight: Strait means "difficult", especially in terms of being narrow or awkward. So the channel of water between Anglesey and mainland Wales, near where I used to live, is called the Menai Straits not because it is a straight line, but because it is narrow and difficult to sail along. Straight means without a bend, angle, or curve, or direct:. Thus it is the strait and narrow path (KJV) because it is cramped and maybe rocky or steep or strewn with obstacles. (And the band, and idiom, are Dire Straits because it means extreme difficulty.) I saw most recently that someone had referred to a "straight jacket" when you will now realise it is actually a straitjacket.

Decimate does NOT mean to utterly and totally destroy, despite being used in that sense on several episodes of Stargate SG-1 (which is, in every other way, wonderful). It means to destroy a tenth. It was a punishment used in the Roman army among rank or file soldiers where they drew lots and one in every ten was killed. So if a town is decimated by, say, invading aliens, 90% of it is left standing and unharmed.

Literally means really or actually and suggests that you are describing something exactly as it happened without exaggeration. So if you say, "I was so angry I literally bit her head off" I would marvel at how you were able to accomplish that unusual murderous feat, but probably wouldn't visit you in jail. Unless you really, actually, mean what you say, ("I'm literally freezing" is fine if you are in the advanced stages of hypothermia) then please use figuratively rather than literally.

Revert is one I am seeing more and more now, often in email which say things like "I will check the situation and revert." Revert actually means "to return to a previous state" rather than "to reply or get back". This apparently new usage is Indian in origin. In the English spoken  on the Indian subcontinent it seems that revert has long meant reply and this usage is becoming more common elsewhere. Maybe it's an interesting example of language being a living thing that changes and evolves, but I can't help asking "revert to what?"

This has been a public service blog post.


  1. Huh, very interesting! I hear “literally” get mixed up with “virtually” quite a bit, and I am probably even guilty of mixing up the two myself. Good to know! :-)

  2. "Quantum" belongs in that list somewhere, too. It actually refers to "quanta" which are microscopically small. From press articles and the like, you'd think it meant "enormous" or "life-changing" (which I suppose it might be if you were a quantum).

  3. Very good. I was confused on a couple of those words, myself. The word that makes me cringe when I hear it is "irregardless." No such word, but so many people use it. The word is "regardless." Thanks!



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