Words in Flux



The words we’ll examine today highlight the rift between language purists and less-fussy people who just want to get their point across. You probably can guess which side we are on.

Podium  This word might not mean what you think it means. A podium is not a stand with a slanted top for notes or books—that would be a lectern. A podium is a raised area that speakers, performers, or orchestra conductors stand on. People do not stand behind a podium—more likely they are standing on a podium, behind a lectern.

Back in 1989 The Random House College Dictionary got it right, defining podium as a platform. But a mere ten years later, dictionaries had caved. The 1999 Webster’s New World says that podium and lectern are synonymous. The 2016 online American Heritage dictionary lists “platform” first, but its second definition of podium is “a stand for holding the notes of a public speaker; a lectern.”

The difference between a podium and a lectern is as clear-cut as the difference between a floor and a table. Shouldn’t a dictionary resist muddling these words’ meanings?

Fortuitous  This is a chronically misunderstood word. Purists will not tolerate fortuitous as a synonym for “lucky” or “fortunate.” It simply means “by chance.” True, you could describe winning the lottery as fortuitous, but getting flattened by a runaway truck is also fortuitous.

So let’s haul out the dictionaries again. This time the ’89 Random House cops out, listing “lucky” as the second definition of fortuitous. That is disappointing, considering that just nine years earlier The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language allowed only “happening by accident or chance” and warned that “fortuitous is often confused with fortunate.”

Epitome  Those who use it correctly know it means “a perfect example.” Those who misuse it think it means “an example of perfection.” The epitome of means “the essence of.” But it does not mean “the best” or “the pinnacle.” Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool means that the actor exemplifies coolness. Washington may well be one of the coolest men alive, but that is not what the sentence is saying.

We are pleased to report that even though epitome has been widely misused for years, we have yet to find a dictionary that lists the incorrect meaning. Maybe it’s because the distinction is so subtle.

Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at 9:30 am

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8 Comments on Words in Flux

8 responses to “Words in Flux”

  1. Idioms says:

    Wonderful, I just love to read about Podium, Fortuitous, Epitome and they are interesting. Very informative. Thank you.

    Lilly

  2. Ann M. says:

    I actually laughed out loud at the floor and the table; I’ve never heard a more apt analogy.
    Thank you, as always, for your witty e-letter,

  3. Barron Cole says:

    Thank you for your weekly newsletter.
    In your edition of March 1, 2016, you refer to the “five-year anniversary of the death of Jane Straus.”
    Speaking of words in flux, has “anniversary” now lost so much of its meaning than even a Web site on grammar must refer to the “five-year anniversary”? Why isn’t it just the “fifth anniversary”?
    After all, anniversary derives from the Latin for “year”–unless you’re saying that the barbaric “2-week anniversary” is now considered good usage.

  4. Bree says:

    I love grammarbook.com. You have been helpful to me as I write my memoir.

  5. Buff Childress says:

    Do you have a list of the witty sayings taught in elementary school to help students remember literacy rules?

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