Verbal Energy

The stickler's dilemma

How much do we let a word's origins limit our usage of that word, and do we pretend we can't see down to the roots of a word?

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A friend and I exchanged greetings the other day warmly, but with a standard formulation: "How are you?" and "Very well, thanks, yourself?"

Then he asked again, to get me to repeat my response. "Very well, thanks," I said.

His concern, he soon acknowledged, was whether I would just blurt out, when I was in a nonprofessional setting, "I'm good."

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A while back I decried in this space the use of "I'm good" as a reply to "How are you?" And immediately I started to hear "I'm good" almost everywhere, including out of the mouths of many who are near and dear to me.

Ouch. If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn't have written that column.

This is the problem with getting known as a stickler. You have to be always "on." And you can't pretend you don't have views on, or in some cases actual knowledge of, the language issues at hand.

The upside of this, though, is interesting questions from friends. I had a quick ping a few days ago from someone at another publication asking whether dilemma was really the best word choice for the context of the passage she was working on.

She recalled that I had once counseled reserving dilemma for situations involving a choice between two options. But the passage at hand referred to a state of general perplexity, in which clear options hadn't yet presented themselves.

Dilemma comes from Greek through Latin, from "di," meaning "two," and "lemma," meaning "premise." Is it really being too much of a stickler to say, "Save it for instances where you have just two choices"?

The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't think so: "It should be used only of situations where someone is forced to choose between two alternatives, both unfavorable to him."

The Usage Panel at the American Heritage Dictionary likewise comes down against using dilemma as a general synonym for "problem." However, 64 percent of the panel members agree that dilemma could be used for a situation presenting more than two clear options.

My friend and I decided that quandary was the word to use. Ironically, it was a safe choice because it seems no one knows its derivation – no etymological baggage here!

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The "di" meaning "two" of dilemma may be plain as day to someone who knows just a little bit of Greek word roots. (It's the "di" of carbon dioxide, each molecule of which consists of a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.) There is a point, though, when you have to say, look, we're speaking English, not Greek or Latin, and words change over the centuries.

And sticklers need to be sure of their facts. Some, for instance, hesitate to use dialogue for a three-way conversation. But the front end of that word isn't "di" meaning "two"; it's "dia," meaning "across." A dialogue is "words across," etymologically, just as the diameter of a circle is the "measure across" it.

A way out of the stickler's dilemma is to think about three levels of acceptability for words and usages: those you use in your own writing; those you let pass in the writing of others even though it's not how you would have written it yourself; and words and usages you need to correct in the work of others, if it's your professional task. And as to the "dilemma" dilemma, I'll stick with the kind that has just two horns.

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