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Top 10 Misused Words Of The 1870s

05/21/2015 10:58 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016
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Usage criticism hasn't changed much since the 1870s. Then as now, language critics were appalled by the profusion of illogical usages, incorrect meanings, sloppy writing mistakes, and newly invented terms that weren't real words. They even blamed the same culprits -- declining educational standards and a society where "anything goes."

The most prominent post-Civil War language critic was essayist Richard Grant White. In his monthly column in The Galaxy, and in his books Words and Their Uses and Every-Day English, he instructed millions of concerned readers on what not to say.

Modern usage mavens would recognize -- and no doubt applaud -- White's apocalyptic tone. He was convinced that English was in a dire state and sinking fast. The only real surprise would be which words White singled out for criticism. Even the fussiest language stickler these days would have a hard time explaining what's wrong with the terms on this 1870s list of shame.

10. Presidential. This word is "not legitimate," in White's opinion. The problem? "Carelessness or ignorance" has saddled it with an extra i. The word should be presidental -- like incidental, regimental, and experimental. The jarring phrase presidential campaign, declares White, is a good example of "inflamed newspaper English."

9. Scientist. White finds this new coinage "intolerable both as being unlovely in itself and improper in its formation." He suggests sciencist as a slightly better alternative. He admits, however, that even sciencist illogically combines a Latin-based word (science) with a Greek ending (ist). It's best to say man of science. (Presumably, woman of science would be okay too.)

8. Dress. This noun is misused "by one sex only," notes White. According to tradition, he explains, dress refers to everything a person wears, including underclothes. Men still abide by this correct meaning -- no man calls his coat or trousers his dress. Women, on the other hand, say dress when they mean gown.

7. Railroad. White claims that this "abominable" word also suffers from a lack of logic. Everyone knows -- or should know -- that road means "the ground ridden over." Train tracks are not a road -- they're a way, or "that which guides a course." The correct term is therefore railway. And while we're at it, let's stop saying depot when we mean station.

6. Affable. This term, according to White, is supposed to mean someone of a high social class who has a friendly and gracious manner toward inferiors. However, people are starting to apply it to anyone good-natured, which White considers "a deplorable sign of the leveling power of democracy." Newspaper reporters -- a bane of White's existence -- write about "affable" hotel-keepers and "affable" steamboat captains, although these men's customers are probably their social superiors.

5. Lady. This word is problematic in the same way as affable, only worse. White thinks that it's lost its meaning by being applied to any adult female. His case in point -- a streetcar conductor who asks passengers "to move up ... and 'let in this lady,' as Bridget McQuean ... struggles at the car door with her basket of clothes." Like many Americans of the time, White had a low opinion of the Irish immigrants who streamed into the United States during Ireland's potato famine. He could no more imagine an Irish laundress being a lady than he could imagine a steamboat captain being a gentleman.

4. Will. Shall had been on the wane since the late eighteenth century, but White thought shall/will distinctions were worth preserving. Simple future, he explains, should be expressed I shall, you will, he/she will. For emphasis or to express determination or a threat, flip the verbs -- I will go! but You shall go! Chalk up this one up as a partial success for White. Thanks to him and other like-minded sticklers, schoolchildren continued memorizing the shall/will rules -- although not following them -- well into the twentieth century.

3. Donate. White considers this so-called word "utterly abominable." Some "presuming and ignorant person" has created it from donation. It is much such a word, he says, "as vocate would be from vocation, orate from oration, or gradate from gradation." White was apparently unaware that orate actually was a word. At least, it was included in the 1879 version of Webster's Dictionary.

2. Reliable. This word is so bad, White puts it in the category of "words that are not words." Just because everybody says it, as far as he's concerned, that doesn't make it a word. The big problem with reliable is that it's not like other -able adjectives, which can typically be paraphrased as 'able to be (verb)ed'--for instance, lovable, curable, drinkable. Reliable cannot be defined as "able to be relied." White is resigned to this nonword's continued existence, however, because it's so useful. "To some sins," he writes despairingly, "men are so wedded that they will shut their ears to Moses and the prophets."

1. Jeopardize. In White's opinion, this monstrous term is the worst of the "words that are not words." No right-thinking person would dream of using it. Which word should people use instead? Why, jeopard, of course. Never mind that jeopard, a verb meaning to put in danger, was virtually obsolete by the 1870s. White reasons that -ize normally turns nouns or adjectives into verbs -- equal/equalize, civil/civilize, patron/patronize. Jeopardize breaks this rule by using -ize to turn a verb into another verb that means the same thing. That means jeopardize can't really be a word.

White's objections to jeopardize are totally logical. In spite of that, the term has somehow become an ordinary item of the vocabulary, while jeopard has completely disappeared. The same is true for White's other nonwords. Attitudes toward usage don't change, but language does. The illogical linguistic atrocities of today are the donate, reliable, and jeopardize of tomorrow.