Wordsmithing Returns with Bryan Garner . . .

For today’s posting, I return to two of American etymologist Bryan Garner’s usage tips of the day,  that he has published in the last month.

The first term is “transpire.” The historically correct meaning of “transpire,” Garner reports, is “to pass through a surface; come to light; become known by degrees.” But that meaning is no longer in use. Today, “transpire” is popularly used as a formal word equivalent to “happen,” “occur” or “take place.” But Garner reports that used this way, the term is only a “pomposity” replacing everyday words, such as those just cited, in the last sentence.

For example, “Satisfied that something unusual was indeed transpiring [read “happening”], the team then arranged for a visit to the house” (David Lazarus, “Ghostbuster Snares Clients on New” [S.F. Chronicle, 13 Oct., 2002]).

A second, incorrect use of “transpire” is to mean “pass” or “elapse,” as in “Three days transpired [read: passed] between the call and discovery of the dead child” (Steven Paulson, “911 Call Was Made from Mansion Before Body Found” [Times Union (Albany) 10 Jan, 1997]).

In summary, Garner writes that “transpire” is a word that writers should avoid . . . altogether simply to avoid distracting readers, whether traditionalists (who dislike the modern usage) or others (who may not understand the traditional usage).”

The second word of today’s blog is a phrase that is often misused: “hoi polloi.” Garner reports that its meaning is “the common people, the masses.” “Hoi” in Greek means “the” (plural), “the hoi polloi” is redundant. But he says that the three-word phrase persists and “ought to be accepted.”

Garner reports, however, that “hoi polloi” does not mean the elite. This mistake in meaning has occurred through a false association with “hoity-toity” (which means “arrogant, haughty) or “high and mighty.” Garner gives this example of misuse: “You may shell out $75 or $80 per person, sans tax and tip, for the Tribute experience, but, trust . . . Tribute has been drawing Detroit power brokers and the upper-end hoi polloi (read: upper crust] since it opened in April” (Jane Rayburn, “Restaurant Reviews,” Detroit News 3 July, 1997).

So, adapting Garner’s two tips for this week, we could write:

“Over time, his understanding of geometry-trigonometry transpired, adding to the scholarly achievements that only alienated him further from the hoi polloi at school.”

Garner inspires writers with the precision of his work. My call-to-action is to apply the same kind of precise diction in both your spoken and printed word. Such excellence is a lifelong pursuit; but it’s never too late to try!



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