Saturday, August 24, 2013

Turns of Phrase II

(NOTE: I considered pushing this back and giving yesterday's post a few more days on the top, but that would be about as meaningful and helpful as that Kony 2012 bullshit. However, if you have the chance, please scroll down and take a look at the previous post. And now, on with you regularly scheduled ranting.)

Around this time last year I listed that are typically misspelled, misused, or generally abused. Never let it be said that I can't find things to nitpick! And since I haven't gotten any better about nitpicking since last year, here are three more which even very good authors have occasionally tripped on.

THE PHRASE: Running amok

OFTEN SEEN AS: Running amuck

WHY? This phrase is actually Indonesian in origin, and since English has a very small number of Indonesian loanwords, confusion can arise. 'Amok' refers to a kind of magically-induced berserker rage, believed to be caused by a possessing spirit. In colloquial English, 'running amok' loses the magical element and becomes simply 'acting violent' or 'causing chaos.'

So why do people spell it 'amuck?' Well, since the word 'muck' means dirt or filth and the now-archaic phrase 'mucking things up' turned it into a verb in the context of screwing up, 'running amuck' appears to mean 'making a mess of things.' Similar results from a completely different process. 'Amok' is, however, considered the Oxford Dictionary's authorized spelling.

PHRASE: For all intents and purposes

OFTEN SEEN AS: For all intensive purposes

WHY? This one has its roots in English law under Henry VIII, somebody with a lot of intents and purposes. Legal language will often pile words together as a form of, essentially, covering all bases; a law that covers 'all intents and purposes' has more teeth than a law that covers just intents, because it leaves fewer possible loopholes for defendants to exploit. The original phrase was 'all intents, constructions, and purposes.'

(If you'd like a great example of what can happen when people argue terminology, just look to Christian theology. Jesus is referred to as the son of God, but does this mean he's both godly and human, godly, just plain human, or what? Is he God' equal? If so, how can God create something equal to himself? The arguments this issue caused went on for hundreds of years. Clearly the Bible was not written by lawyers.)

'For all intensive purposes' doesn't really make sense when you examine it too closely. It would seem to imply that the item of discussion only applies to really, really important or difficult purposes, which is completely contrary to the phrase's stated meaning of 'for all uses.' It's an easy mistake to make, though: when spoken in conversation, the 'and' in the phrase tends to slur, resulting in the common mishearing of 'intensive purposes.'

PHRASE: Bated breath

OFTEN SEEN AS: Baited breath

WHY? When someone waits with bated breath, it means they're so tense they've essentially stopped breathing. The phrase has its roots in the word 'abated,' meaning 'stopped' (usually gradually). However, since 'abated' isn't really a word that gets a lot of play today, 'baited breath' has become more common. It sort of makes sense when you consider that someone with bait is waiting for something to happen, and usually staying very still in the process.

I gotta admit, I love this one. I'll be cruising along through a story and WHAM, baited breath! Dull scenes become a lot more interesting if you imagine the characters with hooks and worms dangling down their throats. Also, since so many vampires and weres seem attracted to the scent of a woman's blood (and hoo boy, have I got a rant for you on that), it actually makes more sense once you assume they're panting after something that smells like a chum bucket. Sexy!
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