When we marked the first anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we also marked a year of media misuse of the word “anniversary.”
In the 12 months that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center, we heard and read about that day’s one-month, three-month, and six-month “anniversaries,” but Sept. 11, 2002, was the first real anniversary. That’s because “anniversary” means the yearly recurrence of the date of a past event. Nothing under a year can be an anniversary. The root of “anni” means “year,” and the root of “versary” means “to turn” – literally, the turning of a year.
Many words derive from the same “annus” root. Thus, annual means of or measured by a year (as an annual salary), or occurring once a year (as an event or publication). An annal is a written account of events arranged chronologically year by year. An annual ring, seen in a cross-section of a tree trunk, represents a year’s growth.
Since anni means “year,” it’s redundant to say one-year, or 10-year, or 50-year anniversary – the graceful way to express it is first, 10th, or 50th anniversary.
Most usage problems come from mimicry – from borrowing words we don’t understand from others who don’t understand. But words are the professional communicator’s only tool, and we do well to know what they mean before we use them.
Consider this from a news anchor: “He’s a novitiate when it comes to inside-the-beltway politics.” This anchor meant novice. A novitiate is a place, not a person; it’s where novices stay.
From a political commentator: “This so-called reform bill flaunts the Constitution.” He means flout, and because he doesn’t understand his own words, he confuses both his meaning and his readers. Flaunt means to show off or display; flout means to scorn or treat with disdain.
From a copy editor: “I’m a big fan of the nut graf. I find it’s a good device for honing in on the key point of a story.” It’s worrisome that this copy editor doesn’t know the difference between home in and hone. “Hone” means to sharpen, and “home in” is what homing pigeons do – that is, they go home; they aim for the mark. A missile homes in on the target; a barber hones his razor.
Another copy editor writes: “What did they put in his coffee, and more importantly, where can I get some?” And a reporter: “Most importantly, these precautions help to lower your risk of developing skin cancer.” Most important is the correct expression. The words are an elliptical expression for “what is more important,” so writing “more importantly” is like writing “what is more importantly.”
From a political reporter: “The correspondence between Kenneth Lay and the governor’s office ran the gambit from personal thank-you notes to forceful lobbying.” She means gamut, a range or scale. A gambit is a maneuver or ploy, as the opening gambit in a chess game.
A police reporter refers to the “vagaries” of a witness’ account. The reporter probably is confusing “vagary” with “vagueness,” but the word has nothing to do with vagueness, obscurity, or uncertainty. A vagary is an odd, capricious, unpredictable, or whimsical action or idea.
Confusing reticent with reluctant is a major usage problem in the media. Reticent means to be taciturn, quiet, reluctant to speak – it does not mean to be reluctant to do anything else. A reporter: “The voters said they were reticent to support a provision they didn’t understand.” Those voters were reluctant to support the provision, and they obviously weren’t reticent about it.
We’ve discussed the media’s misuse of the expression “begs the question” in this column before, but it’s so widely misused that it bears repeating. “Begs the question” does not mean “raise the question.” It means to use a circular argument that assumes as proved the very point you’re trying to prove. We’d be begging the question, for example, if we claimed that parallel lines would never meet and offered in proof the fact that the lines were parallel. Or we’d beg the question if we supported our claim that a certain scripture was inspired with the “proof” that the scripture said so.
Failing to understand a word or expression and therefore using it incorrectly is one sort of communication problem. But sometimes we annoy our audience by creating ugly new words where attractive old ones already exist. The habit of adding “ness” to a word willy-nilly is such a practice. I recently read the coinage “unpreciseness,” for example, rather than imprecision. We often read in the sports pages about an athlete’s “ineptness,” when the perfectly good noun for this meaning is ineptitude. A direct quotation in a recent news story contained the word “cumbersomeness,” when cumbersome says it. Reporters shouldn’t change direct quotes, of course, but they can always paraphrase.
In short, in our search for clearness, accurateness, readableness, and briefness, we should find instead clarity, accuracy, readability, and brevity.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at