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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.
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
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?
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
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.”
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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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Police were called to a day care center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.
He had a photographic memory which was never developed.
When she saw her first strands of gray hair she thought she’d dye.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.