Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

March 6, 2013

The wordsmith has the last word

By Mike Redmond
CNHI

— Hello, friends, and welcome to another in our ongoing visits with the world's most pedantic superhero, Captain Word Guy.

Captain Word Guy, what's on your mind today?

Inflation.

You mean when prices for goods and services rise while purchasing power falls?

No. I'm talking about Word Inflation - the practice of misusing a word, either by misunderstanding or misapplication, until its meaning is changed, obscured, or lost altogether. For the other one you need to talk to Captain Economics Guy.

Well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine.

Captain Weather Guy.

Anyhoo, tell us more about Word Inflation. Why are you thinking about it?

I saw a post on Faceplace in which the writer described something as "penultimate," as in "this is the penultimate example of an American family."

What's wrong with that?

Simple. It's incorrect. He or she meant "ultimate."

But what if the family was better than ultimate?

There's no such thing. Ultimate is ultimate. You can't go beyond infinity and there's nothing after ultimate. But I often see people using "penultimate" as a way of saying even more ultimate than the regular ultimate.

Isn't that what it means?

Nope. It means "next to last." Therefore, according to the post, the family mentioned is the next to last example of American families. Which is not what the writer intended.

And this is inflation?

Yes. It grows from what I call the Superstar Phenomenon. Once upon a time, when some boob decided "star" was not enough word for certain celebrities, the word "superstar" came into use to define a stratum of stardom achieved by only a few. Then word inflation kicked in. Buffoonery ensued and soon everyone who ever stood in front of a camera or hollered into a microphone was called a superstar.

So?

So then there came a time when people had to build another stratum to define the superstars who were greater than the garden-variety superstars, and soon we were being overrun with divas and icons. It's madness, I tell you. Madness.

You worry too much.

Do I? Open your ears. How many times in a year do you hear the word "irregardless?" There's no such thing. It's either "regardless" or "irrespective." Choose one and move along, please.

Any others?

Dozens, but I'll stick with this one for now: How many times have you begun a sentence with "Hopefully" when what you really mean to say is "I hope."

Huh? What's wrong with "hopefully"?

Nothing if you use it correctly, as in: "Please free me," the prisoner said, looking hopefully at the parole board. But the modern use of hopefully as a way of saying "I hope" has been approved by a number of dictionaries. It's common usage now. Which is why I am not always hopeful for the English language.

Well, we're coming close to the end of our allotted real estate on the time-space continuum, Colonel Word Superstar Icon Guy, and I'd like to thank you for a most illuminating discussion on a subject that bores me to tears.

Oh, please. You're lucky Captain Trigonometry Person isn't here.

We'll have to bring him along sometime. I'm sure it would make for a very unique discussion.

Ack. You can't modify "unique" in that way. Unique means "one of a kind." Something can't be very one of a kind.

Is that your penultimate pet peeve?

I give up.

© 2013 Mike Redmond. All Rights Reserved.