The Dictionary Defeats Dogma

By Mark Nichol

Responses to one of my recent posts brought up two interesting related issues: misunderstandings about idioms and their origins, and about linguistic terms.

First, numerous readers wrote to Daily Writing Tips recently to inform me that I had misspelled a word in one of the items in “35 Fossil Words”: It’s “just desserts,” not “just deserts,” to refer to getting what you deserve, I was told.

But as I noted in this post last year, deserts is commonly misspelled desserts in this idiomatic phrase; years ago (perhaps influenced by the name of a bakery called Just Desserts), I, too, had long assumed that the latter spelling was correct. The word, however, is related to deserve, though except for occasional use of the singular form in legal documents, it is unknown outside the idiom and the phrase “get (one’s) just deserts” and its truncated version, “get (one’s) deserts.”

Many idioms are similarly misunderstood; another example, also listed in my recently posted roster of fossil words, is “beck and call.” In a post on my esteemed colleague Mignon Fogarty’s popular website Quick and Dirty Grammar Tips, numerous commenters insisted with variously amusing and alarming self-righteousness that — despite definitive linguistic documentation of the idiom — the correct phrasing is “beckon call” (what kind of call? a beckon call) or “beck or call” (because, honestly, why would somebody both beck and call?). (Thanks to Daily Writing Tips visitor Roberta for the link.)

The post you’re reading right now is intended not to ridicule people who misunderstand idiom (after all, a couple of paragraphs up, I admitted doing so myself, and I am not prone to self-ridicule), but it is intended to drop a hint to those who might doggedly cling to dogma, stubbornly misapprehending a word or phrase’s source. Many elements of English are of uncertain etymological or syntactical origin, but most are well attested, and corroboration is a simple matter of looking something up online or in print. A bumper sticker word to the wise: Don’t believe everything you think.

The related issue is the term “fossil words.” Some Daily Writing Tips readers took exception to that phrase and to my definition of such terms as those that “survive only in isolated usage,” arguing that they employ some or many of the listed words. (Does that mean, more than one person asked, that that makes the correspondent a fossil?) However, note that the definition of the titular phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A word or other linguistic form preserved only in isolated regions or in set phrases, idioms, or collocations.”

By “isolated usage,” I meant not “frequency of use” but “scope of use”; these words are rarely, if ever, uttered other than as part of the idiomatic phrases they are associated with. When was the last time you used bated other than in the expression “bated breath,” or mettle when it was not preceded by something like “test your”? If you can tick off the occasions on your fingertips, you likely have a season pass to a Renaissance fair. And to that I say, “Huzzah!”

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10 Responses to “The Dictionary Defeats Dogma”

  • Maeve

    I just wrote a post on that very thing (desserts and deserts)! I’ve been on a mystery reading binge and noticed the incorrect usage in a novel.

    http://bottomlineenglish.com/deserts-and-desserts

  • Roberta B.

    This one had me re-reading the previous post about “fossil words.” Great explanations (in Maeve’s blog, as well) about “deserts=what’s deseved” v. “desserts=un-served”……and also the point about limited “frequency of use” v. “scope of use.” I got so caught up in the other lively discussion that I missed these points the first time around.

  • AnWulf

    Here’s another one: “HOME IN” is the right phrase NOT “hone in” … One can hone (sharpen) his arguments but one homes in on a problem. “Homing in” has long history … homing pigeons … whereas “hone in” seems to hav come from a mistake back in the 60s when it first shows up.

  • Roberta B.

    @AnWulf – Your comment reminds me of “to palm” off v. “to pawn off.”
    Seems to me there have been previous posts explaining both. Don’t you just love idioms?! Way back in my tutoring days, I found they were the hardest to explain to non-native speakers.

  • Eugene C.

    “Just deserts”

    Princeton’s WordWeb says:

    Just deserts (or just desserts) (non-standard usage)
    An outcome in which virtue triumphs over vice (often ironically)

    Both forms are correct according to Princeton’s Word Web.

    On “beck and call” (beckon):

    Here I am confused. Correct form for: As his assistant, she was always at his beck and call (or beckon call).

    EC

  • venqax

    I often see the title of the US Navy’s song written “Anchors Away” as opposed to the proper “Anchors Aweigh”, undoubtedly because away seems to make sense (kind of), and the specialized nautical term aweigh is unknown to most people unacquainted with sailing and ship-board speak.

    Similar, I think, is “tow the line”, which is a very common misprint because it does makes sense– you tow things with a line– and is actually more intuitive than “toe the line”. The verb “to toe” is certainly a fossil if it was ever commonly used to begin with. Hard as it is to fight mistakes, it’s even harder to fight mistakes that seem to make perfect sense.

  • Gabrielle

    On another tack altogether – sorry about that – but what puzzles me is why the ‘green line’ appears and advises; ‘re-phrase use of first person ‘I’, ‘me’ etc.

    To check it out I copied a paragraph from a book of a well respected author, and YES, up comes the ‘green line’ beneath ‘I’, ‘me’ etc. So, if Patrick White has no problem with that odd rule, then nor do I.

    Gabrielle.

  • Gabrielle

    Gabrielle 18th September

    On another tack altogether – sorry about that – but what puzzles me is why the ‘green line’ appears and advises; ‘re-phrase use of first person ‘I’, ‘me’ etc.

    To check it out I copied a paragraph from a book of a well respected author, and YES, up comes the ‘green line’ beneath ‘I’, ‘me’ etc. So, if Patrick White has no problem with that odd rule, then nor do I.

    Gabrielle.

  • Nelida K.

    Mark, and Maeve: (and all other readers who got them right),

    Good for you, concur 100 %. It never ceases to amaze me how, not being a native speaker of English I (mostly, at least) know the “correct idioms”, whereas native English speakers tend to confuse the right phrasing of the idioms. I assume it has something to do with the English teachers I had, who hammered those items into us and failed us if we didn’t get them right….

  • sb

    Given the definition of “fossil words” includes the word “obsolete”, and given “isolated usage” could mean either in scope or in frequency (I see nothing to indicate which you meant in your other entry), I think we could be forgiven for having misunderstood you. 😉 People will react swiftly upon fear of being thought a literate fossil, as you found out.

    That said, I wonder how else these words were used, back in the day, when not confined within those idioms. That begs the argument? discussion? that if they weren’t used otherwise, maybe these words aren’t as fossilized as some think.

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