Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smoking a Conestoga

It’s a holiday weekend, so here at Word Crank it’s time to kick back with a stogie.* That’s right, it’s cigar time once again, as in “Close but no…” (No actual tobacco products were burned in the writing of this post.)

First up, I was reading a review of a New York hotel on one of those sites where people post their opinions. One woman offered this: “The hotel, sadly, seems like it's in its death throws.” A death throw is, I suppose, the specialty of a spear-wielding warrior, but it has nothing to do with the demise of a Manhattan hotel. What the woman meant was “death throes.” “Throes”—always plural—means intense struggle or pain, from the Old English words for calamity and suffer.

There are figures of speech we use without knowing the underlying meaning of the words, and that can get us in trouble. For me, it is “hoist with one’s own petard.” I know its figurative meaning—to fall in the trap one has laid for another—but the literal meaning escapes me. A detective on a true-crime television show was hoist with something when he said “It ran the whole gambit.” Oh, so close. He meant “gamut,” of course. It really does help to know “gamut” comes from music and means a complete scale or the range of an instrument. “Gambit” is an opening tactical move in chess.

A similar problem vexed a columnist commenting on MSNBC’s firing of Keith Olbermann. In the days that followed that dust-up, he suggested that Olbie’s nemesis, Fox News, should hire the volatile commentator. “This would enable Fox to increase its already significant market share as well as guide its viewer demographic profile into unchartered waters.” The writer has a lot of company in this error, but what he should have said was “uncharted waters,” as in unmapped territory—off the charts.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Chart your course for the gamut of holiday fun.

*from Conestoga, because long, thin cigars are thought to have been smoked by the drivers of Conestoga wagons.

No comments:

Post a Comment