Your Copy Sucks: I don’t think that means what you think it means

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(CC) flickr // image munky

I love English, but I’ll be the first one to say it is cruel, unwieldy, illogical, and frustrating. We have words that sound alike but are spelled differently, words that have two meanings, words that are spelled the same but sound different, words that have three meanings, words that mean one thing as a verb but the opposite thing as a noun, and words that have seventeen meanings.

And there are some words and phrases you should just avoid because you are doing it wrong. Sorry, but you are.  Here’s a quick rundown:

MOOT.

Moot is a bastard. It has two different and almost completely opposite meanings. When most people use “moot” they say things like, “That’s a moot case; it’s closed and we’re not discussing it anymore.” That’s not what moot means! Moot is defined as being both 1) open to discussion or debate AND 2) purely academic or hypothetical. It is a very confusing word, and if you try to use it correctly you’re just going to end up making people frustrated, so don’t use it.

JUMPING THE SHARK.

We all use this phrase to express disappointment in a show or movement that has become lame. But I notice a lot of people using it incorrectly. “Oh, they really jumped the shark with that crazy idea,” people will say. Well, no, not really. Jumping the shark is about making an absurd, pointless move. Doing something adventurous or out of the box does not constitute a shark jumped.

For example, spoiler alert, no one was saying, “Dang, did you see that Mad Men thing with the foot!? That was so jumping the shark!” Everyone said, “Did you see that Mad Men thing with the foot!? That was insane!” And then they lapse into a Don Draper-daydream. The point is, if you think an idea is a bad one, that’s a personal opinion. Jumping the shark is defined by a majority opinion, and a shark cannot be jumped before the majority weighs in.

HACK.

I get this one a lot. I work with computers, and I know a little more about them than the average person. But when the average person uses the word “hack” to mean something completely different than what it means, I want to shake them. Hacking, as a term, has been popularized by outlets like Life Hacker and Mind Hacks, and I guess because of that a lot of people assume hacking means fixing something.

But hacking isn’t just about fixing something. Hacking is about fixing a problem or adding augmentation via a circuitous and clever route that would not normally be employed; that definition is the same for life and mind hacking as it is for computer hacking. Hacking means modification. So when I ask you for your password and you say, “I don’t have it on me, I’ll need to do some hacking and find it,” I shudder. (True story.)

I also shudder when someone asks me to fix their computer and I fix it by following the prescribed steps that anyone could have followed, and I am declared an expert hacker. Um, no, I just know how to read and can click Next a few times. I also shudder when movies feature a computer sequence where the hero must HACK THE SYSTEM, usually by typing really fast and watching a slow progress bar as things blow up in the background. That is not hacking. That’s just dumb.

NAUSEOUS.

This is a tough one. It used to be, years ago, that you could spot a Word Person by the way they used the word nauseous. Nauseous was, to these people, an adjective meaning sickening; causing nausea. If one said, “Oh, I feel nauseous,” the Word People would giggle behind their hands. “Ha ha,” they would giggle. “He means he’s nauseated.” Then someone would make the obligatory “I dunno, he’s making me nauseous” joke and everyone would collapse in a pile of laughter.

However. The word nauseous has (and apparently always has had) an official definition of “affected with nausea,” in effect making nauseous synonymous with nauseated. Old school Word People angrily don’t believe there should be two nearly identical words that mean the same thing (who can blame them?) and might bite your head off for using it. So what do you do?

Don’t use this word. It will only anger old school word nerds if they happen to be within earshot.

I COULD CARE LESS.

Oh, could you? Because I can’t. Which means the thing that I think you’re trying to say.

FLORA AND FAUNA.

A lot of people mistakenly think these two words, which almost always travel side by side, mean the same thing: woodsy plant stuff. But that’s not true. Flora means plant life. Fauna means animal life. Saying “local fauna” to describe the trees is a bad move.

NEITHER A BORROWER NOR LENDER BE/TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE

Thanks for that advice there, gramps. Where’d you get that? Oh, Hamlet? Well, that is a classy place from which to pull quotes. But here’s the problem: the guy who says that stuff, Polonious? He’s a villain in the story, a gossiper, liar, and manipulator, and no one likes him, and eventually he gets stabbed to death and everyone sort of thinks it’s awesome.

So don’t go throwing around fancy Shakespheare witticisms to prove your point. Any English major in earshot will laugh at you, because nothing Polonious says can be taken at face value. (Plus, quotes are a lazy way to argue.)

So there you go. Stuff to avoid. I know I must be missing some words or phrases that are tricky or regularly misused. Got any?

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  • yodajones

    I think you are right on target about most of this stff but you kind of flubbed the “jumping the shark” definition. The phrase comes from the TV show Happy Days, when the Fonz jumps his motorcycle over a shark. It was at this point that Happy days went from being a popular idealized-but-semi-believable nostalgia show to an unpopular, cheesy and dramatically and comedically crippled mess.

    JTS generally refers to the exact point where something popular stretches its credibility to the point where it becomes unpopular.

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Hey man, you'll see that exact definition in the Wikipedia link that was included at the top of that section. I'm not disputing that; I'm saying when people use that phrase to mean “I personally did not like that” when JTS really means “pretty much everyone can agree that what happened just then was lame,” we gots problems.

  • yodajones

    I think you are right on target about most of this stuff but you kind of flubbed the “jumping the shark” definition. The phrase comes from the TV show Happy Days, when the Fonz jumps his motorcycle over a shark. It was at this point that Happy Days went from being a popular idealized-but-semi-believable nostalgia show to an unpopular, cheesy and dramatically and comedically crippled mess.

    JTS generally refers to the exact point where something popular stretches its credibility to the point where it becomes unpopular.

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Hey man, you'll see that exact definition in the Wikipedia link that was included at the top of that section. I'm not disputing that; I'm saying when people use that phrase to mean “I personally did not like that” when JTS really means “pretty much everyone can agree that what happened just then was lame,” we gots problems.