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Blurred meanings

This is how the Los Angeles Times describes a prisoner’s escape from a jail in Colorado: He pushed up a ceiling tile, hoisted himself up into the ventilation system and climbed until he reached a roof. Then he shimmied down the wall on bedsheets fashioned into a makeshift rope.

Shimmying is what Blaze Starr did on the stage of the 2 O’Clock Club. The verb refers to shaking (Blaze Starr) or wobbling (a misaligned automobile), and there was once a dance called the shimmy. When one tries to go up or down on a rope or pole by gripping with the hands and legs, one shinnies.

This distinction is one of many being blurred by casual and inattentive use of the language.

Utilize, for example, once meant to use to advantage, a narrower and more precise meaning than the more general to use. But utilize has become such a favorite among managers, bureaucrats and other pompous distorters of language that it might as well be abandoned as useless.

Burgeoning, I see, is a new favorite among journalists, who think that it describes something growing rapidly and extensively, like the suburbs around cities. Its original sense, now being rubbed away, describes something that is just beginning to grow. Budding or sprouting would be an apt synonym, but that sense has pretty much been swallowed up.

When you read that someone is trying to squash a lawsuit, you can be sure that the writer is not paying attention. To squash is to crush, as one steps on a bug. To quash is to annul or cancel or quell or suppress. But the misuse will not apparently be put down.

And, before I go, I want to take up a useful distinction once more, despite repeated failure to gain traction on the point: A careful writer might well maintain that convince and persuade are not equivalent terms.

Convince, with its etymological relationship to conviction, is the stronger word of the two; it implies that doubt has been overcome by certainty, whereas persuade rises from the sense of urging an action. To illustrate: I can be persuaded to do something even though I am far from convinced that it is a good idea. Similarly, persuasive can nudge you to one side, but convincing will keep you there.

This distinction is not my invention. At the debate in Virginia on ratifying the U.S. Constitution, with James Madison advocating ratification and Patrick Henry passionately arguing against, John Marshall wrote, “Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade. Mr. Madison had the greatest power to convince.”

Persuaded? Better yet, convinced?



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (2)


Hear! Hear! I am well convinced. I always have been. I am a stickler for adhering to certain "archaic tropes" used within language - most of which, in my opinion - help keep English not only clear (in the sense of having clarity) but also intelligent in their presentation of ideas and stories.

That Marshall quotation, I just ran across that in the latest book by Joseph Ellis. Very succinct differentiation!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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