Sunday, April 15, 2007

Introducing Vizzini

Remember "The Princess Bride"?

If so, you will recall the scene where Inigo Montoya (you killed my father; prepare to die) observed his boss say "inconceivable" to describe events that, nonetheless, came to pass.

Montoya's reply: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Likewise, we don't think New York Times reporter George Vecsey really meant to use "bemused" here:

O’Neill is somewhat bemused that she is working with a young woman born in Russia; as it happens, O’Neill majored in Russian history and has lived there and speaks the language. While Jessica is blonde and perhaps classically Russian-looking, O’Neill notes, “She is the all-American girl.”
Bemused means "bewildered" or "engrossed" according to Encarta; to the NYT itself, it means "So lost in thought as to be unaware of one's surroundings: absent, absent-minded, abstracted, distrait, faraway, inattentive, preoccupied. Idioms: a million miles away. See ability/inability, awareness/unawareness."

We think the reporter meant to write "amused," but liked the fancier tone of bemused. In gussying up his prose, he wound up with his very own Vizzini.

This is what often happens when people reach for the fanciest-sounding word in the bowl without really knowing what it means. We see this sort of thing a lot.
Histrionic, example, is not an upscale version of "history."

Utilize is not a fancier way to say "use." (It actually has quite a delightful meaning, though we don't use it often. It means to make use of, and is more specific than just plain old "use." Let's say you lost your suspenders in a bet. You could utilize corn husks to make a rustic belt.)

In any case, go ahead and use fancy words if you really know what they mean. If they just sound like a 24-carat version of something in your everyday word bucket, beware. You could end up drinking iocane poison, an odorless, tasteless powder that will kill you instantly.

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