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The Word

Pony up

A tasting bar of malapropisms

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
April 13, 2008

BACK IN FEBRUARY, when the presidential primaries were still delivering chills, thrills, and spills, Peggy Noonan celebrated the ride in her Wall Street Journal column. "If there is a part of you that loves politics, loves the sheer brunt force of it, the great game of it, you are waking up each morning with a spring in your step," she wrote.

"Brunt force"? Reader Marcia Scowcroft admires Noonan's prose, she said in an e-mail, "so it surprised me not only that she wrote it, but also that it got past the WSJ editors!"

For Scowcroft, and for most traditionalists, the appropriate term would be either brute force (raw, unsubtle, animal strength) or blunt force (a blow that bashes, rather than stabbing or otherwise assaulting, its object). Brunt is not an adjective but a noun, generally used to mean the worst part of an assault or a blow: "Oil sensitive stocks bore the brunt of the selling."

In the past couple of decades, though, there's been a new brunt in town, apparently a blend of the adjectives blunt and brute. Brunt force can sub for either of the older phrases: Google News turns up "She died of brunt force trauma," where blunt force is standard, and "the brunt force of Cox's swing," which would be better as brute force. Unless, of course, brunt force is just a wordy brunt, as it is in "The platform took the brunt force of the wind."

Its success may be unusual, but brunt force is hardly the only malapropism pushing its way into our lexicon. Judi Chamberlin of Arlington e-mailed recently to point out one in a recent Globe story: "Queue the soundtrack here."

Cue, she notes, is the right verb - we cue actors, cue music, cue up recordings so they're ready to play. Though queue is also a verb (and a noun), till recently we've pretty much left it to the British, who do it at shops and bus stops.

But computers and their offspring have brought queue into the mainstream. Your documents wait their turn in a print queue, your movie choices are listed in your Netflix queue, and your MP3 player can queue a file in your playlist. The cue/queue confusion, like the ever-spreading diffuse for defuse, is born of genuine semantic overlap, so it may be tormenting editors and peevologists for decades to come.

It's harder to account for pony up to the bar, a blend discussed recently by Nancy Friedman at her blog Fritinancy. The standard idiom, she notes, is belly up to the bar, meaning "crowd so close to the bar that your belly presses against it." The new version appears to combine pony up (pay for the drinks) and belly up (get close). Or maybe the speaker thought pony up described some kind of locomotion?

Pony up sticks out like a sore hoof, but some blends are so subtle that they snare you before you know it. Reader Norman Waksler e-mailed recently to note the spread of plays a factor: "Something should either be a factor, or play a part," he rightly observed. But by the time I'd read "play a factor" 50 times on Google, it had already begun to sound normal. If factor wants to get up and do something, instead of just sitting there being, I'm not sure we can stop it.

Play a factor has probably spread through the spoken language, where we tend to tolerate near misses. It's easy, in speech, to seize on a word that's not quite right. I recently heard a BBC correspondent refer to the economy's "bare-knuckle ride"; of course he meant white-knuckle, as in "holding on for dear life," not bare-knuckle, a fight with the gloves off.

And Daniel Schorr, on NPR, once said Iraq was a potential "lodestone around the neck" of any presidential candidate. A lodestone is magnetic iron, pointing you to the north; the weight that drags you down is a millstone. But the transcriber seems to have guessed what Schorr was getting at; in the print record, the word is spelled "loadstone."

It's probably worth noting that mistakes like these don't cause much trouble. We might like our language polished and perfect, but it isn't; it's full of little missteps and approximations, and we communicate nonetheless, ignoring and revising and guessing as we go.

And sometimes, yes, the "mistake" catches on. Run the gauntlet is routing run the gantlet; healthy has all but replaced healthful. But then, pants, peek, and lengthy were once deplored, along with contact, the verb. Did our grandparents fail us when they let those into the language?

If so, it's time we forgave them. So pony up to the bar, folks; let's queue the music and dance.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.

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