Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The English Tongue and the Media

It takes me about 7 or 8 minutes to drive from home to the Bucknell field house where I workout every morning. On the way I listen to Morning Edition, hoping to hear a story as interesting as the one about the alphaDictionary Rebel-Yankee Test that ran last June. What I am hearing is more an more misuse of English. This morning, two words tore into my consciousness during my short trip.

This morning, on the report of the Senate hearings on the appointment of General David H. Petraeus as the next commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, the reporter noted that Senator Clinton had no questions but used her 8 minutes “railing” at the President’s decision to send more troups to Iraq. The report then cut to a clip of Senator Clinton in a perfectly calm and measured, even statesman-like voice, explicating her position. Are the younger generations reducing rail to a synonym of criticize?

The next report touched on the impatience of the electorate with the two recently convicted congressional bribe-takers, referring to them as miscreants. This one is probably a matter of preference since the meaning of this word has been eroding for decades. Miscreants were originally heretics (from French miscreant “disbelieving”) and later traitors. To me they are the vilest of the vile, totally without moral character and capable of the worst of crimes, a rubric I would not accord bribery.  Miscreants are pirates and murderers, maybe major bank robbers or robber barons, not weak public officials who surrender to temptation.

Maybe it is just me. Perhaps I try to hard to maintain these subtle distinctions between the meanings of words. It often occurs to me when I make them, that they probably fly past my intended audience or coconversationalist uninterpreted if not unnoticed.

The same broadcast did contain an very nice metaphor that bears converting into a cliché as quickly as possible: to walk between raindrops meaning to successfully maneuver between a barrage of dangers without sustaining damage.  The metaphor of dangers as raindrops stretches it a bit but the hyperbole of the difficulty of walking between raindrops without getting wet works well. Walking between the hailstones of single-interest groups works better for me as a metaphor for the fate of the modern-day US politician. 

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