by Cynthia Clampitt
When the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” came out, we started getting phone calls from people who wanted to borrow money. Seriously. Never mind that we lived thousands of miles from California or that our name wasn’t spelled quite the same—or even that it was a purely fictional TV show (this was before “reality shows” began blurring the lines). People were beginning to believe what they saw on TV.
Of course, any warning about believing what you see on TV can be extended in several directions: things that are “based on a true story,” for example. But I think a key area in which people need to be careful about believing what they hear on TV is language. Some commentators like to use big words but don’t always use them correctly. A few TV writers think the words sound impressive and use them, and it spreads, creating a phrase fad. Soon, people outside the media start using things incorrectly because they’ve heard it a couple of times and don’t even think to question whether the user knows what he or she is saying.
For example, it suddenly seems as though everyone who wants to point out that an issue has been raised is saying that it “begs the question.” It’s popping up on TV (news and entertainment), in print, and in conversation.As you may have guessed from that intro, “begs the question” does not mean, “raises the question.” The phrase describes a logical fallacy, referring to arguments where the assumption on which an argument is based is actually what it being proven. In essence, something that begs the question is saying, “If we assume X is true, then I can prove it’s true.” In other words, you’re not really proving anything at all. If you look in the dictionary and read the full definition of “beg,” you’ll learn that, in addition to asking for something, beg means “dodge, evade, or avoid dealing with a point.” “Begs the question” is related to circular reasoning. One simply fails to deal with the real question. Almost no one will ever have a reason to use the phrase unless her or she is teaching philosophy or going into politics. So just say, “This raises the question”—I beg you.
“Irregardless” became a fad for a while. It’s a non-word. However, since dictionaries reflect popular usage, it has begun to appear in dictionaries, though defined as “a humorous or substandard redundancy for “regardless.” Most of you may already know that, but it again reflects the issue of picking up words that have been incorrectly used.
Another example from recent years is “penultimate.” It was used in one newscast by a reporter who thought it meant “higher than the top.” It actually means “next to last.” Within weeks, I was hearing “penultimate” on other channels, in lectures, and I was seeing it increasingly in print.
The lesson here? Never use a new or unfamiliar word without checking it first, even if you’ve heard it used a dozen times. In fact, if you suddenly hear a word being used by everyone, that should be a red flag. Not all phrase fads are wrong, but they are wrong often enough that they all should check. (And, in the name of originality, it might be something you want to avoid using simply because it is a fad.)
Now if a reporter misuses a word during a live broadcast, it can sometimes be excused, as a dictionary is probably not close at hand, and one might be caught up in the emotion of the moment. The classic example of being overcome is, of course, the reporter crying, “Oh, the humanity” as the Hindenburg went up in flames. No one would chide him for using the wrong word under those circumstances. The ESPN reporter who, while watching sailors prepare yachts for a race, calmly noted that they were “efforting,” however, is not so easily forgiven. (Effort, by the way, is a noun, not a verb. One makes an effort, or one is working. “Efforting” is an aberration that undermines the credibility of the speaker/writer.)
Of course, moving from speaking to print removes all excuses for misused language. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen with the same frequency, just with less excuse. Before writing it down, look it up. Of course, if you really care about language, you’ll look it up as soon as you hear or read a new word. This will not only fix the correct meaning in your mind and help you understand what has been said or written, it might also afford you the opportunity of a good laugh, if the person has used the word incorrectly.
Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com .