Words that even editors are afraid of

Editors often have to confront in others' writing words they wouldn't use in their own.

A bit of e-mail correspondence that flew across my screen the other day mentioned the need "to regulate this to the back burner," or some such. Was the word my e-mail pal was looking for relegate?

This word came into English late in the 16th century to mean "to send into exile," or to reduce in rank. A major-league ballplayer sent back to the minors would be an example of being "relegated" – not that they had baseball in the 16th century. Today the word comes up in contexts like this "back burner" reference.

But why the mistaken "regulate"? Was the writer trying too hard? Were his fingers on the keys just not cooperating? Did he have his auto-correct settings cranked up a notch too high?

At this point I decided to cut the writer a little slack. After all, I know there are words I don't like to mess with. As a writer, I can simply avoid words I'm not sure of. As an editor, though, I don't always have that choice. Especially at publications where the stated goals include "preserving the writer's voice," an editor who claims to be troubled by a particular usage had better have a pretty good reason to challenge it. "Because I don't like it" won't cut it.

And so it's often my work with other people's writing that pushes me to take a word that's been in my passive vocabulary and make it my own.

Take proscribe and prescribe. I grasped the distinction between these two later than I care to admit. But our language is full of pairs like this that look as if they could mean the same thing, or whose distinctions are subtle indeed. To proscribe is to forbid; to prescribe is to order the use of a particular remedy, typically a medical one, or often a public policy measure; or, more broadly, to recommend or advise.

Etymologically, proscribe is rooted in the idea of "writing in front" – picture public officials putting up a big sign along the highway saying "Don't do this!" Prescribe is rooted in the idea of "writing in advance" – temporally rather than spatially. Why the one term signifies a no-no and the other a must-do is not something I would want to have to explain to a visitor from Mars.

Deprecate and depreciate are another one of these odd couples, separated by only a single letter but with very different origins. In their unadorned forms, their distinction seems clear. Deprecate means to criticize strongly, to deplore – rooted in the idea of praying for something to go away. Depreciate is from the world of finance and means to lower the price of something.

The two concepts seem to conflate in the common phrase "self-deprecating humor" – or should that be "self-depreciating"? I would vote for "self-deprecating" to describe someone's sense of humor – but would note that by the time it makes it to this turn of phrase, "deprecate" has lost part of its oomph. (It has been downgraded, as we like to hear the weather service say.) "Self-deprecating humor" is, in practice, ascribed to those who aim gentle put-downs at themselves, not those who signal they feel a need to be expelled from the community.

And "self-depreciating" seems a good term to describe certain financial assets whose value seems to implode on its own. We've had all too many of those lately.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.