Working intermittently on a big old elaborate post which is taking a while to fruiten.

In the interim I’m slapping together, as per usual in such circumstances, another episode of the old blog standby, the word usage and grammar philippic. This one’s rather brief, but I hope it will abate any withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing, Dear Reader(s).

  • guesstimate. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an estimate usually made without adequate information.” The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “an estimate which is based on both guesswork and reasoning.”  Listen, something is either a guess or it’s an estimate! You can have a well-informed guess or a poor estimate, but the former is still a guess and the latter is still an estimate. These species do not commingle. No viable offspring here. Incidentally, I was amazed to find out how long this misbegotten creature’s been around; M-W says 1923, while the OED cites a 1936 New York Times article. The OED is incorrect, however. I searched the Times’ website and the oldest citation there is:

    ‘GUESSTIMATE’ APPRAISAL.; Realtor Coins New Word to Express Careless Methods. [May 6, 1928, Sunday · Section: Classified Ad, Page 197, 135 words]

    Sorry, I can’t tell you any more about it because I wasn’t going to pay $3.95 to see the rest.

  • “an h_____” Lots of people are guilty of this one, even professional broadcasters who should know better. It’s a holdover from British English. I don’t know offhand if it’s the Queen’s English or Received Pronunciation (or even if those are in fact one and the same- I’d have to refresh my memory by consulting Anthony Burgess’ excellent but out-of-print A Mouthful of Air, and I don’t feel like dragging it off my bookshelf right now), in which the “h” sound isn’t aspirated, necessitating the use of an rather than an unadorned a. I suspect this is more of a transgression in the US as compared to the UK and its commonwealths.
  • dissect. My peeve here is both personal and professional. The pronunciation of this word is with a short i, nevermind that all the major dictionaries (save the OED) include, sometimes even preferably, a long i in their listings. They are wrong, no ifs, ands, buts, or wherefores. It is a transitive verb meaning “to separate into pieces: expose the several parts of (as an animal) for scientific examination” (this from Merriam-Webster). The prefix is dis-, the root is sect. Literally, “dis·section.” To pronounce it with a long i is to imply that the prefix is di-, which means twice or double; “dĪ·secting” something is practically meaningless. Have you ever heard someone say that they were going to “dĪ·smantle” or “dĪ·sassemble” an object? I didn’t think so, for those would be gross dĪ·stortions. Lest one suggest that the culprit is the double-s, I offer for your inspection just a few more examples: dissatisfaction, dissemble, dissent. Never are these uttered with a long i. The reason why my peeve is also professional is that those who know better, anatomists, biologists, and surgeons to name a few, are guilty of perpetuating this mispronunciation, and by association misconception, almost as much as the general populace.

illustration by Dan Daily


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