DILEMMA: “a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive” — The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

“In Gwinnett County, the drug dealers are able to hide in plain sight,” county District Attorney Danny Porter said. “…The presence of the organizations is a dilemma enough that we have to develop new tactics.” (Mexican drug cartels thrive in suburban Atlanta, CNN.com, March 19, 2009)

Ah yes. Three years of law school wasn’t enough to eradicate the lexical misinformation which so suffocates our nation. Not that D.A. Porter, Esq., is to blame. Almost all dictionaries (except for the New Oxford American, my favorite) allow for what is now the main definition of dilemma: “any difficult situation,” although some, like NOAD and ADH4, include usage notes decrying this meaning. 58% of ADH4‘s usage panel rejected the watered down definition, although, surprisingly, 64% said dilemma was acceptable when referring to a choice between three or more bad choices.

Surprisingly, because dilemma comes from the Greek for “two propositions” (mathematicians will recognize the stand-alone lemma). The word has been with us since the 16th century and has its origins in formal logic. Dilemmas were often posed as intellectual exercises, since in real life, it is rare that two alternatives are equal in their badness.

Nevertheless, a Google search reveals another surprise. Despite casual misuse of the word, most news outlets, bloggers and even rap artist Nelly seem to be within striking distance of the traditional definition of dilemma. Which puts me in a difficult spot — I either criticize them and be in the wrong, or else congratulate them and momentarily surrender my righteous condescension. A true dilemma indeed.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/03/19/atlanta.drug.cartels/index.html
Wikipedia’s explanation of dilemma 
A more detailed exposition of what makes a dilemma, with sample dilemmas you will recognize
Lyrics to Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” 

P.S. In case you were interested, a choice between three equally diabolical alternatives is called a trilemma. Four, a tetralemma, and so on.


POSTMORTEM (or POST-MORTEM): “an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Aside from the lexicide of verbiage, no other meaning drift is as disturbing as this one. You don’t have to be a first-year Latin student to recognize the irony. As every fan of detective novels and “CSI” knows, postmortem means “after death.” At the risk of sounding didactic, let me repeat that: “after death.” Not “after the fact.”

So, corporate manager, you simply cannot call a postmortem meeting to discuss a project kickoff. You just can’t. Postmortem documentation is for coroners, not strategic consultants. I’ll say it again: postmortem means “after death.” If necessary, I’ll post an entry defining death.

And that is why this lexicide is so ironic and disquieting. It’s not just that college-educated business folk everywhere are witlessly wishing for their enterprises’ demise. (Will we soon start eviscerating our strategies instead of analyzing or dissecting them?) Merriam-Webster, Random House and AHD4 have all given in to popular misuse by adding entries acknowledging that yes, postmortem means “after the fact” or “an analysis after the event.” In other words, this entry is a postmortem for postmortem. To which I say, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him after the fact.”

My suggestion? The next time someone calls a postmortem for a live project, show up with scrubs and a bone saw. If you get funny looks, the correct response is, “what?”

— Otto E. Mezzo

In case anyone cares, to say “after the fact” pretentiously yet properly, try post hoc or post facto. Or you could just say what people used to say: wrap-up, summary or (here’s a gem) after the fact.

SIGHTING | March 13, 2009

The lead-in: “Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin.” Harsh, man. I’m sorry I missed the drawing and quartering. Did they let Steven Spielberg and Kevin Bacon whip the horses?


PRODIGAL: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Apart from the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is probably Jesus’s best-known parable. In the story, a rich man’s son squanders his legacy on wine, women and riotous living, only to return home when the money runs out, starving and truly repentant. The Prodigal Son Returned Home. 

So ingrained in Western culture is this story, we could be excused for thinking the word prodigal means “wayward, gone from home a long time.” Well, no actually, we can’t be excused because also ingrained in Western culture is the dictionary. I can access several lexicons by typing “dictionary” into my browser. I can even call up a dictionary and thesaurus by pressing F12 on my keyboard. We’re talking a pinky’s effort here. So why do so many people, even — gad! — journalists, persist in this wrongheaded definition of prodigal? In a quick Google™ search, I came up with a Time (June 21, 2005) story entitled “The Prodigal Returns” and an International Herald Tribune (April 14, 2006) article entitled “In the Arena: Prodigal returns to Chinese home.” The Time piece chronicles Vladimir Horowitz’s first concert in Russia since he defected; the other similarly recounts Wang Zhizhi’s return to China after leaving the NBA. I suppose from a Communist perspective, any lifestyle in the decadent West qualifies as wastefully extravagant, but I’m not sure that’s what these writers (and their editors) had in minds. 

Admittedly, prodigal is rarely used outside the context of the Prodigal Son parable, so perhaps it’s become a keyword of sorts, triggering the image of a happy reunion after a long spell apart. But the Prodigal Son did not leave because of political oppression; he was selfish. By referring to Horowitz and Wang as prodigals (not “Prodigal Sons,” which would have at least referenced the parable), Time and the International Herald Tribune (the “global edition of the New York Times“) cast them as lascivious good-time Charlies. I mean, the Time article goes on for nine pages! Couldn’t anyone — an intern, since obviously editors can’t be bothered — locate a well-thumbed paperback Merriam-Webster?

I could go on, but that would be — well, prodigal.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1075118-3,00.htmlhttp://www.iht.com/articles/2006/04/13/sports/ARENA.php?page=2

P.S.: I’m about to start Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which is what prompted this entry. Judging from the description on the book jacket, the author seems to be channeling the secondary definition: “having or giving something on a lavish scale” (NOAD), which carries a connotation of generosity. She writes the book is a “hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature.” 


FACILITATE: “make (a process or action) easy or easier” — New Oxford American Dictionary

The lexicide of facilitate is sad indeed, and all the more so because it died such a quiet, unnoticed death. Nowadays, one facilitates a meeting, or more likely (since active verbs are verboten in the corporate world), one acts as facilitator for a meeting. That’s a mealy-mouthed way of saying, “I’m in charge, underlings!” It almost makes me yearn for the yesterdays of Mr. Dithers and J. Jonah Jameson, where taking command was something to be relished.

Yes, leadership is in vogue, but so is teamwork and buy-in, so that might explain why you wouldn’t want to establish a hierarchy in a corporate setting. That would be unAmerican.

Interestingly, having a leader — someone who cuts off those long, awkward silences by moving through the agenda — does make a meeting easier, which is the original meaning of facilitate (from the French facile). I do have an entry here from  Webster’s New World Dictionary of the English Language (College Edition, 1951) that reads “to lighten the work of; assist; help,” but this is still a far cry from “leading” or “taking charge of,” which is how many use the word today, in doing so facilitating its lexicide.

A little end-note: facility used to bear a meaning in line with its root, the French facile, meaning “easy” — to wit, “ease in moving, acting or doing.” That is the primary definition in all of my older lexicons (and not even that old; the definition I cited comes from the American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1991). You would say a ramp provides facility in moving objects. The more common usage today riffs off the tertiary definition of “something that facilitates an action or process” (ibid.). The sense still exists that a facility should make things easier. Which makes me wonder why we need facilities management teams. 

—Otto E. Mezzo


PERUSE: “read thoroughly or carefully; examine carefully or at length” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Finally, an attempted lexicide that seems to be recovering. Casual users have been abusing the word peruse for decades, taking it to mean the opposite of what it does mean. How many times have I been asked to “quickly peruse” a document, or heard the abashed admission that “I only had time to peruse your proposal,” or (my favorite) the offhand suggestion that something was “not that important — just peruse it if you have time?”

In all these cases, folks used peruse to mean “read quickly,” for which there is one incontrovertible synonym that captures the same nuances: skim. Also closely related are scan, browse, glance at and flip through. In its true definition, study is probably the best synonym, followed by scrutinize, pore over and scan (see note below). So why is peruse used incorrectly? Once again, someone should have dusted off the old Webster’s when the boss-man produced a sheaf of papers and gave orders to peruse. It’s bad enough the poor illiterate misunderstood, skimmed the materials and still managed to impress the board; worse still that he or she propagated the misuse upon being promoted.

Peruse doesn’t seem to have become a corporate buzzword, so its misuse is poorly anchored. As a result, the word seems to be falling out of favor. No dictionary I have consulted offers “read quickly and fleetingly” as a definition. The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition) includes a special usage note warning against this definition. Indeed, its usage board voted it down 58% to 42% in 1999 (although the margin was 66% – 34% eleven years earlier). An article by the venerable Michael Quinion of World Wide Words seems to imply that peruse is not — and has not been — commonly used in the UK in modern times. All of this means the word may soon shed its faulty definition altogether.

Note: Scan traditionally has meant “to look…carefully in order to detect some feature” (NOAD). Probably through the influence of electronic scanners, which examine carefully, but quickly, scan now means both peruse and skim. Interestingly, the distinction seems to be this: scanning the distance takes time and care; scanning something close (like a book) does not.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Reference: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-per1.htm


ENORMITY: 1. “excessive wickedness or evil. Everyone was shocked by the enormity of the crime. 2. a monstrous or outrageous act; very wicked crime.” — The American Heritage Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

Enormity was our very first entry (on August 3, 2006). Here is how the original entry read. An update follows:

Enormity and enormous share the same root: e (outside) + norma (rule). But whereas enormous describes abnormality of size, enormity describes something outside the rule of morality. (Perhaps in our age of moral relativism, the convergence of enormity and enormous is appropriate.) As you can see from the examples below, the lexicide of enormity knows no political boundary.

The enormous irony is that in each case, the speaker wanted to describe something both great in size and honor. One correctly refers to the enormity of the Holocaust, but surely, Mel Gibson (click here for his exact quotation) didn’t mean to say that Christ’s sacrifice was an act of tremendous evil.

So why do learned speakers, including the last three presidents, use enormity inappropriately when a perfectly serviceable word such as magnitude will do? Probably just pretentiousness. They and their speechwriters are guilty of attempted lexicide — if not an act of enormity, then certainly one of ignorance. 

“…the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice.” (Reuters story on “The Passion of the Christ”, Feb. 14, 2004)
“The road ahead will be long and hard, given the enormity of the task.” (Former president Bill Cinton in a joint message on tsunami relief, Mar. 18, 2005)

Incorrect usages: Gibson denies ‘Passion’ is anti-Semitic
Joint Video Message of Former US Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton at the Tsunami Meeting
George W. Bush’s Radio Address (Sept. 3, 2005) 

instead, use: enormousness, magnitude, breadth, greatness, sheer size, vastness, immensity

Note: When using enormity correctly, do not modify it with great. Enormity means “great evil” or an “act of great evil,” so great would be redundant.

UPDATE | February 14, 2009

Since that last entry, controversy has erupted over the correct usage of enormity. To the illustrious ranks of George Bush (both of them) and Bill Clinton, add Barack Obama, who echoed Clinton in referring to “the enormity of the task that lies ahead.” While Webster’s, Random House, Oxford and even American Heritage acknowledge only the traditional definition of “great evil” (and, in fact, include special notes to emphasize the word does not mean “great size”), several authorities have since pointed out that the word enormity once encompassed both definitions.

All fine and good, but you would be unwise to use gay in the sense of “happy, carefree,” even though that was its primary definition until deep into the 20th century. In addition, we at Lexicide oppose the shift in enormity because, while there are a number of suitable synonyms for “large size,” there are none for “great evil.”

Alas, we are, again, in the minority. In a Chicago Tribune survey after Obama’s utterance, more than 80% of respondents said they were fine with enormity however it’s used, with one comment reading, “Obama’s the decider. If he says enormity means enormous, it’s good by me.”

If that’s the case, then save a “Safire 2012” bumper sticker for me.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Reference: http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2009/01/is-enormity-hugeness-change-we-can-believe-in.html


PENULTIMATE: “last but one in a series of things; second to last” — New Oxford American Dictionary

We haven’t yet spotted this gem of a word used wrong, but it’s only a matter of time. A colleague of mine confessed she always thought it was a superlative form of ultimate. I made sure to spare her no grief — by definition, ultimate is the final superlative; nothing can be more ultimate than the ultimate.

Except, of course, in today’s post-armageddon world where the twisted bodies of nuanced and perfect English words lie in tangled heaps, trampled by the marching hordes of business writers, ad wags and lazy journalists. Ultimate today simply means “really great” — like an “ultimate brownie” (an example proffered to me by a class of middle schoolers). Its original meaning of being the last or final in a series is retained primarily in the word ultimatum, although how many times has someone threatened to give “one more ultimatum?”

I blame advertisers for this one. If every huckster of whirlpool baths claims to offer the “ultimate in luxury,” what’s a seventh-grader to think?

Nevertheless, penultimate remains safe until some cretin on “American Idol” uses it, right or wrong. Already, my wife has had a major discussion with her boss on whether to use the word in a document for fear of misunderstanding. Since her boss is a federal judge and the document in question was a court opinion, they wisely decided to use “second to last,” but I urged (or “ranted at,” in her estimation) her to hold the line on penultimate and let some idiot lawyer down the road pay the price. At which point she gave me a penultimatum. It sounded really serious, so I shut up.

— Otto E. Mezzo


LEVERAGE (as a verb): “To use borrowed capital for an investment, expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.” — New Oxford American Dictionary

As everyone who lived through the 1980s (decade of the LBOs, or leveraged buy-outs) knows, to leverage is to incur risk. What it does not mean is simply “to use” or “to exploit,” a definition creeping into vogue among obfuscating business writers today.

This new, timid meaning no doubt owes its birth to a secondary meaning of leverage, which is “to exert power or influence on” (Random House Dictionary). For example, a majority political party can leverage cooperation from the minority. What’s always implied, though, is something to leverage with. If you can’t fill in the leveraging capital (in the example above, it would be: “a majority political party can use its majority status to leverage cooperation from the minority.”), you’re probably using it wrong.

And because leverage is a transitive verb, it’s always necessary to remember what you’re leveraging. You can use power, influence, capital or surreptitiously obtained videos of unspeakable acts involving emus to leverage a result. You cannot leverage a technology or a new business practice. (Utilize, exploit or for Pete’s sake, use the damn thing!) Besides, if you claim to leverage a new technology, what are leveraging it with? Sorry, but your ignorance is not a sufficient fulcrum.

Already, The American Heritage Dictionary, always at the vanguard of rushing to include new (usually wrong) definitions, has added “to improve or enhance” as a secondary meaning for leverage. But even the quotation they cite seems detached from this definition: “It makes more sense to be able to leverage what we [public radio stations] do in a more effective way to our listeners” (Delano Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1997).

Huh? I don’t have the context, but one doesn’t improve in a more effective way. I guess even public radio, manna of the literati, sometimes leverages its own highbrow pretentiousness against itself. Where’s Daniel Schorr when you need him?

— Otto E. Mezzo

Update | January 13, 2008

yes, let’s agree not to use the verb “leverage” when discussing business, marketing, and software. Leverage the word “use.”

Thank you, Gina! (http://twitter.com/ginatrapani/statuses/941183035)

Update | March 4, 2010

I have received mail asking why the “update” is stamped January 13, 2008 — more than a year earlier than the original entry. Sorry — that was the date of the tweet. I stumbled across it by accident, and it shows leverage has been enduring abuse longer than I expected. And speaking of which:

Sighting: yet another webinar

Leverage the strength of collective buying

We leverage best practices…

Leverage strategic partnerships with major vendors

I stopped counting after the third slide. The presenter really leveraged my attention away to a YouTube video of a lip-synching hamster. The twee rodent used not one word wrong and he used verbs.

Update | September 11, 2019

A ten-year anniversary retrospective!

— Otto


VERBIAGE: “Speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.” (from 18th c. French verbier “to chatter”) — New Oxford American Dictionary

My days as a copywriter began in the early 1990s, and the word verbiage was already being carelessly thrown around like puppies at an Ozzy concert. I’m not sure who started the slow lexicide of the word, but it obviously began well before I was born:

“…use concise military verbiage…” — George S. Patton

As destructive with language as he was with the Germans, I would say. By the historic definition of verbiage, Patton’s patter constitutes a grotesque oxymoron; verbiage means over-wordy language, and by definition is not concise.

Why, then, do managers, politicians and other educated folk insist on verbiage when wording, word choice, or copy will do? Like with most other misuses, it probably began with a misunderstanding. We can imagine a thick-headed fellow somewhere (maybe it was Patton) being told to “shorten the verbiage” and taking it as a neutral statement rather than running to the dictionary, which is obviously where he needed to go. Pretentiousness also plays a hand in the lexicide of verbiage, as does that requirement of all business writing — the need to obfuscate.

So now, while the NOAD and Webster’s Revised Unabridged contain only the original (and in our estimation, true) meaning of verbiage, most other dictionaries include the new definition, for which there is a perfectly good and unmistakable synonym: wording. However, verbiage as a word expressing disgust with overly flowery language was already dead by the 1990s when I started writing for a living. I’ll let Washington Irving provide a fitting epitaph for this useful meaning:

“Verbiage may indicate observation, but not thinking.”

— Otto E. Mezzo