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Words are often vulnerable to sudden popularity and decline

July 17, 2009|By ALLEN POWELL

We usually think of fads as momentary attractions to unique pieces of jewelry, clothing or dances.

However, words also are vulnerable to sudden popularity and decline. My concern is directed as much to outright mistakes in several popularized words as in the lack of understanding of the range of the original meaning of some words.

One popular word, missed almost 100 percent of the time, is "podium." What is visible when the wooden, upright piece of furniture on which the notes of a speaker rests actually is a lectern. If there is a raised platform on which the speaker stands, there is a podium. Conductors generally lead an orchestra from that vantage point. If a well-recognized announcer calls the lectern a podium, the other MC's will follow like lambs.

The more sophisticated might attract attention by talking about a "quantum leap." They intend to convey the impression of a large distance or gap between two events. A sports personality might say a rookie made a "quantum leap" to the big leagues. This actually shows a complete lack of understanding of the origin and nature of atomic behavior.

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"Quantum" is derived from the word "quantity," and is used in physics to describe the behavior of the tiniest particles of physical reality known to science. Subatomic particles such as electrons and protons do move, but within the framework of an atom, the distance is so tiny as to stagger the imagination. No matter - if the usage catches on, every MC who wants to appear knowledgeable will follow the leader and "take a quantum leap."

Another very overworked word, employed by political analysts and their guests, is "pragmatic," "pragmatist" or "pragmatism." A pragmatist is one who is not locked into a fixed point of view or is flexible when dealing with controversial ethical or political issues. "True believers" generally have nothing but contempt for these "compromising," "spineless" moderates.

The prominent American philosopher, William James, was convinced good ideas should evidence workability, practicality and good results when put to work. There is some merit to this idea, but it carries some very risky baggage in usage. This is because "workability" needs other criteria of judgment to satisfy the worth of ideas.

In addition, we desire to know whether our ideas are actually true or false. This is a much more serious demand than mere "workability." Indeed, we could consider one idea as "workable" at one point in life and then switch to the opposite point of view and consider it as "workable" to the total disregard of its truth or falsity.

There are situations in which people want or need to believe in ideas they regard as important. These ideas, such as immortality, free will and the existence of God, cannot be proved to be either true or false, but do "work" in that believers still accept them as true. We have moved far beyond the understanding of the politician who will probably settle for "workability" in its practical, simple usage.

The moral to this story is we, as persons and citizens, need to be precise and clear in word selection. Popularity offers no guarantee of proper usage. We should have a dictionary nearby to check what, in fact, is acceptable. Between misused words, partially understood words and intentionally distorted words, we have a difficult time knowing the true state of affairs.

If we are not seriously word-conscious, we could be in a situation like Humpty Dumpty in an argument with Alice about the meaning of "glory." Humpty Dumpty thought his very personal definition should carry the day and blurted out, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

Word anarchy would create a word jungle. This would be intolerable.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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