Do you really mean what you’re saying?

A good friend of mine has just described me as a pedant. Well in some ways maybe I am. When it comes to the use of words, though, I am not that strict: it just pains me when people who are clearly unaware of the real meaning of a word use it in completely the wrong context.

A misuse which really sets my teeth on edge involves the use of the word ‘epicentre’. This word has become common in news reports and is almost always used wrongly, most often when the speaker just means to say ‘centre’. Epicentre means the point on the earth’s surface directly above an earthquake (the Greek prefix ‘epi’ signifying ‘above’). It does not mean the ‘dead centre’ of anything. So, if I say ‘Durham is the epicentre of scholarship in the north of England’ it would mean that scholarship in the north of England exists underground, with Durham on the top of it.

Another groanworthy mistake is  using ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’. If you are disinterested it doesn’t mean you are not taking an interest – it means you are objective and free from bias (ie not an interested party).

Something over which I suppose I am a bit of a pedant, mainly because I studied philosophy in my youth, is the use of the expression ‘beg the question’.  Speakers who know no better say ‘it begs the question…’ when they mean ‘it prompts the question, or it raises the question…’. To beg the question actually has a very specific technical meaning, dating back to Aristotle if you must know. It means to assume a proposition that, by a circular argument, involves the conclusion. For example, ‘Freedom of speech is important because people should be able to speak freely’. If that baffles you, then you are almost certainly using the phrase ‘beg the question’ wrongly.

Which prompts the question…when you use the word ‘literally’ do you mean it literally? To say something literally indicates that you mean it exactly as you are saying it, to the letter (literally). Quite often it these days is used just to spice up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, eg ‘He literally exploded!’, ‘It was literally raining cats and dogs!’, ‘There were literally a million people in my car!’. Do you really mean that? Okay, I do realise that nobody would take these statements literally in conversation. The problem is that by continually exaggerating like that, we rob the words of meaning and make everything overblown and weak.

A similar effect happens with the very common word ‘incredible’, which seems to be used more and more often and is quickly using its real sense of ‘unbelievable’. Documentaries on TV promise us incredible stories of survival or some such. Well thanks, but frankly I would like to hear some credible stories, otherwise what’s the point? TV journalists describe, say, the scene of a natural disaster as ‘incredible’ when the pictures being shown are all too real. Worse still, they say it is ‘undescribable’. Surely the journalist’s job is to describe the scene to make it credible?

I could go on….and on…but I won’t. Maybe my friend was right after all.