That word does not mean what you think it means

I keep thinking of that line when I hear a word used incorrectly – which is almost every day…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

In one of the key scenes from the film The Princess Bride, the character Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I keep thinking of that line when I hear a word used incorrectly – which, I must admit, is almost every day.

Here are a few you may have heard.

The word “decimated” is often used to describe total devastation. A clue to the actual meaning can be seen in the word itself. The root-word is “dec” which means ten or tenth, as in decade.

The word “decimated” actually means one out of ten is lost. A hurricane, for example, is likely to do much more than “decimate” a town.

The word “essential” as in the 2020 phrase “essential worker” has little, if any resemblance to its traditional meaning of “importance” or “crucial to survival.” I think few of us would consider parcel delivery drivers as “essential.” If we did, by the way, we would pay them accordingly – and probably require more specialized training.

The word “right” when referring to a political (or Constitutional) right is misused so often, and so consistently that few seem to have any idea that it holds any meaning at all.

First of all, if a right is “Constitutional” that means it refers what the government allows or prohibits.

A store or business for example, can require or ban almost any behavior or attire that seems appropriate.

Remember the “No shoes, no shirt, no service” signs? Yes, you have every right to not wear shoes. But not inside that business.

Some declare that they have a “right” to not wear a mask anywhere.

If they are on private property (and a store, business or even shopping mall is private property) the owner has every right to enforce reasonable and fair (and publicly displayed) rules that apply to everyone.

I love the Constitution, but it has zero relevance to what any business owner requires.

Starbucks or Safeway stores (among many others) have their own policies on open-carry of weapons, for example. The Constitution applies to what the government can do, not private business owners.

The same applies to the principle of “free speech.” Yes, the government guarantees “free speech,” but “free speech” presumes some level of appropriateness and self-control.

The word “education,” to most of us, (most of my teachers anyway) is taken to mean “to memorize and recite,” “to absorb information.” Based on its root wood educre, which means “to lead out,” the word “education” should mean something more like freedom from formulas and a level of mastery that is suitable for, and defined by, the individual acquiring it.

In other words, “education” is largely the departure from the known, and being prepared for the essentially unknown, if not unknowable. Being “educated” is not to be confused with knowing a lot of information, but instead means that one knows how to learn adapt and be flexible as new situations demand it.

Students, after all, are almost always workers, residents and parents in a world a generation removed, one most of their teachers would barely recognize.

“Elective” as in “elective medical procedures” is one of those terms I hear from non-medical people in a dismissive tone, as if “elective” meant some unnecessary “vanity” procedure like cosmetic surgery.

When medical staff is under pressure, as in during an epidemic, we should all put off any “elective medical procedures.”

That does not mean cosmetic surgery (which may not be life-saving, but is also not necessarily “vanity”), but it does mean any medical procedure which is non-life threatening; a physical exam for example. Or a dermatology appointment.

Think of “elective” as the preventative maintenance on your car; do you need an oil change today? Or even next week? Probably not.

But do you need it on a regular basis, as in when you “elect” to have it? Yes.

Another word whose misuse makes me crazy is “opinion.”

A medical or legal “opinion” in one based on research, evidence and analysis, and usually set in a context of years of professional experience and practice. It is not how one “feels” about something or someone.

A medical or legal “opinion” is not the same as one’s “opinion” about mayonnaise or cilantro or an NFL team.

No one should hold an “opinion” or “belief” about homelessness or climate change or political corruption. These are not buffet items where we show preference or avoidance, these are issues and realities that affect us all.

How often have you had a conversation like this?

Me: I don’t have any particular political allegiance, and have respect for beliefs across the political spectrum. I just prefer integrity and elimination of corruption.

Other person: Now you’re getting political.

You may have noticed this already; no political party has a monopoly on corruption.

And no political party should tolerate it. Manipulation and opportunism should not be allowed, or celebrated, it should be banned at every level.

And, as much as we have gotten used to it, corruption is by definition a distortion of our legal system and political process.

In our political arena we have been tolerating behavior we would never tolerate in a business setting – or even within our families.

If we equate corruption and politics, we are doomed as a coherent, reliable and trustworthy trading partner or ally.

Nepotism, conflicts-of-interest, kick-backs and selling of inside information has become a “side-hustle” for too many of our politicians. They are public servants, not tax-subsidized parasites – and that’s not an “opinion” – that’s law, tradition and legal precedent.

You could blame social media and technology for our inability to use our own brain-power to actually understand today’s issues and challenges ( but I think the real problem is our intellectual laziness and our attraction to simple solutions and our tendency to put the world into “good-guy” (the people we agree with) and “bad-guy” (people we disagree with) scenarios.

As I’ve mentioned before, I taught English and writing at the college level for many years. Each year it seemed that my students got further and further from being able to comprehend, let alone express, a focused, developed, independent thought.

I thought it was them, or our schools, or our mass media.

But now I see that it is all of us.