Avoid Quaint, Archaic Words That Are
One-Phrase Wonders

by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

A staple of "oldies" radio is the "one-hit-wonder" -- the category of old favorites by soloists or musical groups who briefly enjoyed fame as recording artists, but who sank into oblivion after failing to score more than one hit on the record charts.

So it was for Phil Phillips, who hit No. 2 with "Sea of Love" in 1959, for the Easybeats, who recorded "Friday On My Mind" in 1967, for Samantha Sang, whose "Emotion" was a platinum single in 1977, and for Falco, who hit No. 1 with "Rock Me Amadeus" in 1986. They and other one-hit wonders may have had more arrows in their quiver, but most of us will never know what else was in their repertoire.

Some words, it appears, are one-phrase wonders. They appear only in specific idiomatic expressions or only when paired with another particular word. Out of that specific context, such "one-hit" words seem as out of place as a tuxedo at a beach luau.

The word "aback" is one such word. It's used only in the expression "taken aback," meaning startled or disconcerted. What does "aback" actually mean? It's derived from a nautical term that describes what happens when the wind blows a square sail the wrong way -- against the mast rather than billowing out. Under such circumstances, the ship comes to a halt, and is thus "taken aback."

Sometimes you can be taken aback upon learning that someone else has "run amok." People never go amok or turn amok or behave amok; they run amok. Also spelled "amuck," that word refers to a murderous frenzy, derived from a Malaysian word meaning "kill."

Something else that can be taken is umbrage, as in "Ollie took umbrage at Stan's suggestion." The principal meaning of the noun "umbrage" is "shady branches or foliage." By extension it also means reason for doubt or suspicion, as if cast under a shadow. Those meanings have largely fallen into disuse, and the word is now used almost exclusively in the idiomatic expression "to take umbrage," which conveys that someone has been offended or insulted. So instead of saying "she took umbrage at his remarks," why not say "she considered his remarks insulting"?

When something is in an airtight container, we accept that it has been "hermetically sealed." What's special about the "hermetical" sealing process? Nothing at all. It's advertising hokum -- pretentious nonsense. The word "hermetic" means "tightly sealed," as well as "magical" or "related to alchemy," which is a combination of chemistry, magic and philosophy. The word "hermetical" is derived from Hermes Trismegistus, a mythological figure instrumental in the rise of gnosticism (a belief in the evil nature of matter), which generated followers among the third-century A.D. crowd. The word in one sense refers to the belief that Hermes Trismegistus invented a magic seal to keep containers airtight, but in another sense it means "characterized by occultism."

Here's a fun test: tell the guy in the next cubicle at work that you have some big news, but you can't tell him until tomorrow morning. In the morning, he may tell you that he's been "on tenterhooks" awaiting word from you. If he says that, it's perfect; the news is that most people who use the word "tenterhooks" to mean "in suspense" don't know what they really are. Tenterhooks are sharp hooks used for hanging fabric on a tenter, which is a frame used for drying and stretching cloth.

After that explanation, your friend may claim you gave him short shrift -- another one-phrase wonder. "Short shrift" is used to mean "little or no compassion or mercy", but the word "shrift" is actually a remission of sins pronounced by a priest following confession.

Go easy with your friend, or you may risk being the victim of his pent-up anger. "Pent" is the past participle of the verb "pen," meaning to confine within an enclosure. Its use, however, is almost exclusively adjectival, by pairing with "up" to describe an emotional outburst, as in "pent-up anger," "pent-up frustration" or "pent-up rage." Its use in any other way is rare.

Now let's lay down "sally," which exists as a noun meaning a witty expression, as well as a proper female name. It also has a verb form that means to surge ahead suddenly. Even though saying "sally forward" or "sally ahead" would make sense, it is always paired for some reason with the adverb "forth." Suppose four women named Sally went to the beach and three of them were reluctant to go into the chilly water but the fourth one bravely charged into the surf. You could say that the fourth Sally sallied forth.

Some words show up only as redundancies, yet we unquestioningly use them. Consider the expression "hale and hearty." It's redundant because "hale" means robust, vigorous or sound in health -- just as "hearty" does. Yet few people would describe themselves as having a "hale appetite" or receiving a "hale welcome." The word "hale," therefore, has become a surplus word that ought to be retired from contemporary use.

Likewise, the odd adjective "headlong" is almost always used redundantly. The word is typically paired with "rush" as in "headlong rush," although it sometimes is used alternatively with forms of the verb "run" or synonyms such as "dash," as in "he dashed headlong through the police barricade." Such uses are redundant because "headlong" means "with great haste and force"; someone who is dashing, running or rushing is moving with haste and force. Besides, the word itself seems ill-conceived. In one sense it is intended to mean "head-first," but at the same time it carries a connotation of acting rashly without forethought -- in other words, someone dashing headlong is acting with his feet rather than with his head. The word "headlong" is thus not only superfluous but also apparently self-contradictory.

The verb "mete" means to allot or distribute, but is used almost exclusively in combination with "out," as in "the camp leader will mete out the food rations." Much of the confusion in oral communication stems from homophones -- words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. "Mete," "meet" and "meat" are homophones. While it's unlikely that we can purge "meet" and "meat" from our language, we certainly can do without "mete," using "distribute" as a perfectly acceptable and more clearly understood substitute.

Sometimes people choose certain words such as "mete" in a misguided effort to sound more erudite. Words under that category also include "lieu," another single-use term. It's a synonym for "place," as in "Ralph sent a promissory note in lieu of payment," meaning "in place of" payment. "Place" is a perfectly useful word that has its place in other contexts as well -- including references to locations or as a synonym for the verb "put." The noun "lieu" is not nearly as versatile; imagine saying "you really put him in his lieu," or "be quiet because this is a lieu of business" or "your lieu or mine?" So "lieu" is another one of those one-trick ponies that needlessly clutters our language.

While synonyms do serve the useful purpose of lending variety to our speech and carrying variant shades of meaning, many exist needlessly. Our language is dynamic; many words that were once functional have become archaic as a result of technological or societal changes -- or simply through decline in use. Through conscious avoidance, we can relegate these one-phrase wonders to dictionary footnotes classifying them as the quaint, languid curiosities they are.


EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  marti@editpros.com Jeff March jeffm@editpros.com
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051 http://www.editpros.com

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