, Newburyport, MA


May 13, 2013

Confusions and cliches

Sometimes things arrive on my desk or in my computer that don’t fit into any organized pattern, but that are too good not to share with people who like words and their use and misuse.

Where do you suppose the headline writers’ heads were when they wrote these actual headlines (which appeared on the Internet under the heading, “Why I still buy newspapers”)? “Bugs flying around with wings are flying bugs.” “Illiteracy an obstable, study finds.” “Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.” “Miracle cure kills fifth patient.” “Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons.” “Homicide victims rarely talk to police.” “17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree.” “Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee.”

Mistakes like these never fail to entertain. Like some more? “City unsure why sewer smells.” “Study shows frequent sex enhances pregnancy chances.” “Barbershop singers bring joy to school for deaf.” “Man with 8 DUIs blames drinking problem.” “Diana was still alive hours before she died.” “Rally against apathy draws small crowd.”

I recently reported on the man who was “sentenced to 6 months in the Lawrence Superior Court,” and just the other day saw “Tsunami warning issued after Alaska quake cancelled.” Canceling quakes is a level of seismological intervention I did not know had been reached.

I suppose every profession or social group has its argot, its convenient clichés. Real estate salespeople probably don’t have the time or inclination for literary ventures, so, understandably, they tend to use or misuse the same words over and over. They will continue (despite this column) to use them because of the feelings or images they evoke.

A common and to me annoying cliché is use of the word “home” instead of “house.” I am on the (obviously correct) side that asserts that what is bought and sold is a “house” — bricks, mortar, siding and shingles. A “home” usually involves a house, but it is far more — typically a host of tangible and intangible emotional connections. One could buy a “home,” I suppose, with Mother and Susie in the kitchen baking, Dad having a drink in the den, and Grandma knitting on the porch with a cat in her lap. But it would be somebody else’s home, not yours. The “homely” adage is, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ to make a house a home.”

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