Admittedly, my sensitivity to diction is probably a few degrees more intense than that of the average newspaper reader, but sometimes I have trouble reading the paper with complete understanding. This failing, I believe, may meet the etymological meaning of the term dyslexia: dys, “bad, difficult” + lexis, “word.”
The other morning I turned with great interest to a front-page story “compiled from wire reports” about the men who prevented a massacre on a French train. The first sentence left me confused:
PARIS — Three Americans are being touted as heroes for subduing a heavily armed man who opened fire Friday aboard a high-speed train as it sped through Belgium.
“Touted”? Are they not really heroes, then?
The verb tout is heavy with connotations of unfounded hype (excessive publicity claims). Products are touted. Money-making schemes are touted. The supposed qualifications of political candidates are touted.
Heroes, on the other hand, are applauded, commended, lauded, or praised.
I read on. Yes, it seemed that they really had performed acts of great courage. The word touted was definitely out of place in the context.
Next, came this bit of information:
The three tackled and disarmed the gunman, with the help of a Briton businessman.
What, I wondered, is meant by “a Briton businessman”? I’d always associated the noun Briton with the people who lived in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons got there. That can’t be it.
Well, I thought, the events had occurred in a French train. Perhaps Briton is a typo for the adjective Breton: “relating to Brittany (a region of France).” Perhaps the man who joined in with the Americans is a Frenchman. After all, I reasoned, if the businessman were from Great Britain, the writer would have used the adjective British, no? Later, from other sources, I discovered that Briton was in fact intended to mean British.
As I have belatedly learned, the noun Briton can indeed be used to mean “a native or inhabitant of modern Britain.” Next time I see the word used as a noun, I will not falter. So far as I can discover, however, the adjective is still British. A businessman from Britain is a British businessman.
As for the verb tout, I shall continue to view it as a word to be used only when the writer’s intention is to cast doubt on the sincerity or accuracy of the person or thing being touted.
Note: The “British businessman,” Chris Norman, was born in Uganda, raised in South Africa and has lived in France for the past 25 years. He did attend university in the UK and holds a British passport.