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• Failure to communicate

dictionary

“The failure of voters to pass our school budget has significant meaning,” said the teachers union president.

That might seem like an innocuous statement, until one looks at the spin created by use of the word “failure.”

In truth, there was no failure involved. The voters in this particular school district achieved their desire by rejecting the budget proposal.

Of course, this is a common misuse of language. And it’s often common among those in the education industry just as it is with those in the communications field.

The current upheaval in the New York State Senate is a good example. Right from the start, the voting shift of two ne’er-do-well Democrat senators to wrest control from their party and hand it to the Republican side was immediately labeled by both print and electronic media a “coup.”

There was no armed insurrection, no physical misbehavior, no takeover of buildings and radio stations. None of that banana republic or third world activity we often hear about. It was nothing more than a bunch of petulant, greedy, self-serving politicians — redundant, I know — and a behind-the-scenes billionaire twisting procedures around for their own benefit.

Just two examples of mis-use and corruption of our language in a universe of such things.

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• What they meant to say

regretAs a former newspaper editor. I’m well aware of the problems that
can be encountered when trying to craft a correction. Sometimes it’s worse than the original error because of convoluted language. Sometimes you have to explain so much because the error was rooted in complex language and simplifying it would render the correction gibberish.

Great examples of such problems are published at the end of each year by a Web site called Regret the Error, which is a great read anytime of the year.

Here is 2008’s “correction of the year” and some contender for the title.

Humor columnist Dave Barry chose to correct a misspelling he made in a column published by the Miami Herald this way:

“In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.”

Some others:

• From The Age in Melbourne, Australia:

“An article in last week’s Sunday Age, ‘Born to be, um, mild — and possibly damp,’ contained views about biker groups that were inserted in the editing process. As well, the survey of motorcyclists who rode for about three hours every weekend found that many had problems emptying their bladders. The story stated that bike riders could be ‘bedwetters.’ The error was made during editing.

• From the Washington Times:

“Friday’s ‘Pruden on Politics’ column quoted a spokesman for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv saying the newspaper had been encouraged by the Barack Obama campaign to publish a written prayer left by Mr. Obama in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and retrieved by an onlooker. A second Ma’ariv spokesman and the Obama campaign dispute the first Ma’ariv spokesman’s account, and the newspaper refuses to comment further. The column also said the Obama campaign posted a video about the candidate’s visit to Jerusalem on the Internet site YouTube. The video appears to have been posted by an independent blogger who inserted a counterfeit ‘Paid for by Obama for America’ sign-off.”

• From The New York Times:

“A film review on Sept. 5 about ‘Save Me’ confused some characters and actors. It is Mark, not Chad, who is sent to the Genesis House retreat for converting gay men to heterosexuality. (Mark is played by Chad Allen; there is no character named Chad). The hunky fellow resident is Scott (played by Robert Gant), not Ted (Stephen Lang). And it is Mark and Scott — not ‘Chad and Ted’ — who partake of cigarettes and ‘furtive man-on-man action’.”

• From The Guardian of London:

“We said that, in the American TV drama ’24,’ Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorism agent, resorted to electrocution to extract information. You cannot extract information from someone who has been electrocuted because they are dead.”

• From the Press and Journal (UK):

We have been asked to point out that Stuart Kennedy, of Flat E, 38 Don Street, Aberdeen, who appeared at Peterhead Sheriff Court on Monday, had 316 pink, frilly garters confiscated not 316 pink, frilly knickers.

• Best Headline Error:

“The American Family Association’s ‘OneNewsNow’ site has a standard practice of using the word ‘homosexual’ instead of ‘gay.’ They even set up a filter to automatically make the change. This didn’t serve ONN well when a sprinter named Tyson Gay made news at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. He suddenly became Tyson Homosexual when the site’s filter got a hold of an AP story.”

There are many more examples from news outlets around the globe. Just go to Regret the Error‘s site.

• More 2-faced heads

erasing42

Another collection, created with the help of my friends, of unintentionally double-meaning or just plain “Huh?” headlines:

• Pickup crashes on I-95 with boy seated in bed
(Baltimore Sun

• John McCain, senility America’s loss of the Pacific
(Pravda)

• There’s no easy answer for chronic interstitial cystitis
(Manchester, NH, Union Leader)

• Recreation injuries: 213,000 treated in ER
(United Press International)

• Baby-faced chief executives save face better for companies
(Indo-Asian News Service)

• Girl, 10, improves after fatal crash
(Chicago Tribune)

• Irradiated meet in markets soon
(Hilo Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

• Staples to attach Dutch business
(BBC)

• Leading scorpion on first Beijing tour
(Xinhua News Service)

• Two-faced headlines

erasing4A periodic report on unintentional double-meaning or just plain
“Huh?” headlines:

• Highway chief resigns after death in tunnel
(New York Times)

• FDA eyes better regulation of body parts industry
(Associated Press)

• Pickup crashes on I-95 with boy seated in bed
(Baltimore Sun

• John McCain, senility America’s loss of the Pacific
(Pravda)

• There’s no easy answer for chronic interstitial cystitis
(Manchester, NH, Union Leader)

• Recreation injuries: 213,000 treated in ER
(United Press International)

• Baby-faced chief executives save face better for companies
(Indo-Asian News Service)

• Girl, 10, improves after fatal crash
(Chicago Tribune)

• Irradiated meet in markets soon
(Hilo Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

• Staples to attach Dutch business
(BBC)

• Leading scorpion on first Beijing tour
(Xinhua News Service)

And, a quartet of headlines from Australian publications:

• Eye drops off shelf

• Enraged cow injures farmer with axe

• Miners refuse to work after death

• Cold wave linked to temperatures

• Please, watch your language

Each year, dictionary mavens come up with a list of new words being added to their reference works. Among the words this year: mondegreen, norovirus and pescatarian.

The problem is, the editors don’t tend to eliminate words and phrases that have become meaningless due to mis-use, feeble attempts to create new slang based on nothing in particular, or are just annoyingly sloppy talk.

Here is my first “Top 10” list of such examples. Feel free to add your own.

Amazing (so overused it has ceased to be … amazing)

Buck (now being featured on “So You Think You Can Dance,” which means it unfortunately will quickly enter the mainstream slang vocabulary)

Somewhat unique (there are no degrees of uniqueness)

Ultra (the word means extreme, but is used any time the right adjective can’t be thought of)

Mega (once “super” wore out, this replaced it)

No problem (instead of “You’re welcome”)

Basically (it seldom is basic)

Bitch (except at dog shows)

Book (as in to make haste)

Substance abuse (that could include overeating of potato chips; call it what it is)

• News item: Authorities condone, enable bestiality

From the Troy (NY) Record, June 26 edition:

TROY — A Florida fugitive wanted for attempted murder was apprehended on Sheridan Avenue Wednesday after nearly a year on the lamb thanks to a joint effort between local authorities and the Albany office of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, police said.