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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: A Little Learning

Copyright: robuart / 123RF Stock Photo

For 500 years parameter nestled in the discipline of geometry, supplying arcane and exclusive service to science. Then around the time Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel” the outside world discovered this obscure word and everyone went gaga over it.

Yes, language must advance by adding new words and new meanings to existing ones, but I never really understood how this trendy corruption got past security. I have my hunches: many writers believed using parameter was a way to appear scholarly while most people simply love the sound of the word.

A Google of parameter yields 238 million returns and, although I didn’t have time to check all of them, I’d estimate the majority use the term as a substitute for perimeter or limitation (e.g., that topic transcends the book’s parameters), a meaning that has nothing to do with the technical application of parameter. But these synonyms are pedestrian by comparison and it’s no surprise they lost out. The consonant nature of parameter-perimeter evokes the Welsh rabbit-Welsh rarebit dispute, but with it you at least get toast and cheese either way.

Years later, when parameter was entrenched in the social sciences lexicon and mathematicians were having a good laugh, an academic friend tried to apprise me of some sociological nonsense. I recall nothing of his homily but I do remember it was well fortified with parameter plus the occasional parametricparametrical and parametrically. He was trying to appear erudite but he obviously loved the sound of this word and its variants. It’s not easy to ignore its charming cadence.

I recalled that conversation the other day while reading the thou-shalt-nots section in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: “Most of the nonstandard usages are malaprops traceable to a mishearing, a misunderstanding, or a kitschy attempt to sound sophisticated.”

Pinker nails it with “sound sophisticated,” but a weakness for ear candy is also a factor. Many of his examples of misused words, parameter included, have a melodious ring: criteria, dichotomy, disinterested, fortuitous, fulsome, literally, meretricious, mitigate, practicable, protagonist. Beautiful words that most of us are itching to use, irregardless of our familiarity with their proper meaning or whether they, in fact, exist.

Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism (1711) cautions: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Pope is not attacking ignorance per se. He is saying that “a little learning” is worse than not enough or none at all. Modest people such as hairdressers, motor mechanics or hardware store clerks may misuse words occasionally but it is usually the result of naiveté. They are not to be compared to supposedly educated professionals who, trying to impress, go awry. These are the very people who are usually our clients.

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Previous “Wasted Words” post: Respectable Stoners.

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