Lingua Brava

April 20, 2009

Word Choice, Part I

Filed under: Uncategorized — foodorthought @ 9:29 pm


When I worked as a copywriter, part of my job was to edit newsletters written by employees in different divisions of the company. Clean up the text, fix errors, help with word choice, make sure the right message gets across. In general, some people write very well, others not so well, and some mean well: they get close to what they want to say but get derailed by a wrong word and end up in The Land of Another Meaning. Case in point (only the name has been changed):


“A party was held for Doug MacDougal for 40 years of service. The party had an Irish theme to honor this extinguished gentleman who retired in May.”


I wonder what Doug would have thought about being called “extinguished”? And while we’re at it, how about we also substitute “expired” for “retired?” Another rhyming pair of words. Doug wouldn’t mind – right? – assuming he’s still around to read it.


Here’s another:


“Let negative comments roll off your back like water from a duck.”


water-from-a-gooseHmm. Now I know a little bit about birds but I never heard about water coming from a duck. A bathtub rubber duck maybe. Or maybe this is some deep fortune-cookie wisdom? More likely it’s a cliché gone wrong, but it’s fun to think about it literally. “Huh? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Who the frick do you think you’re talkin’ to? Oh yeah? OK. Well I got a duck, see, and I’m not afraid to squirt you with it! That’s right, you heard me, I got a DUCK. So you just keep your comments to yourself, know what I’m sayin’?”


One of my favorite word gaffes – no, I confess, it’s my all-time favorite – is this:


“Each employee and child brought a canned food or a $1 donation to help others in need during the holidays. One of the most important parts of the party was self gratification.


Do you see what I see? I admit it took me a few seconds to realize what it said. After a mental double take and an audible snort, I looked it up in the dictionary just to be sure. Nope, there’s only one definition. I know what the writer was trying to say: the spirit of giving to others. And yet while my word-geek brain can’t help but take a literal diversion down the path of an ill-chosen phrase, since this is a PG-13 blog I’m not going to elaborate on what that type of party evokes. If you care to imagine it yourself, you’re on your own, perv dear reader.


Editing can be dry work at times. But just as in life itself, there are nuggets of amusement to be found in everyday places. (No, we’re not talking about the party.) Look around you, read things, listen to what people say. Every so often you’ll encounter language that has the best intentions but nevertheless suggests Another Meaning.


As for yours truly, I probably don’t make mistakes in choosing words, right? [ahem] Excuse me for a moment while I gather the courage to confess….


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