Many of the phrases we use in everyday conversation come to us from media or other people. It seems to fit the occasion so we repeat what we’ve heard. More than ever before I hear people misusing words and phrases without being aware of their mistake. In some cases I think it’s because many among us don’t have English as a first language and can’t necessarily make sense of a word or phrase and substitute something that makes sense. So let’s review a few of these mis-speaks and offer the right phrase.
Have you heard the phrase wreck havoc? The meaning of havoc is wide-spread destruction so to ‘wreck havoc’ would be to disrupt the havoc. The correct phrase is to wreak (pronounce reek) havoc. Wreak is a word that is seldom used except in this context. It means to cause, so now it makes sense, wreak havoc means to cause wide-spread destruction.
Tongue-and-cheek is a phrase meaning to say something flippant, something untrue to make a joke or fool someone. In this case most people do know what it means, but the correct phrase is tongue-in-cheek, not speaking with a straight tongue, like crossing one’s fingers when telling an untruth.
Do you know someone who has you at their beckon call? The intended meaning is to have you respond right away whenever they call. The definition of beck is; a gesture used to signal, summon, or direct someone. The correct phrase is beck and call.
For all intensive purposes. Here’s a phrase that has evolved because of the way the correct phrase sounds: for all intents and purposes. Intensive means concentrated on a single subject or activity (intensive study, intensive care, intense emotions). The word intents means; aim, purpose, objective. The phrase means ‘in all important respects’.
A phrase that means, I’m giving you a break, some slack, often comes out as “I am giving you leadway.” The literal meaning is: I’m offering you an easier way. But the correct word is leeway, room for free movement within limits; “I’m giving you leeway.” To be in the lee (protected from weather) of something like an island, a ship or a building is to be in the protected space because of the bulk of the object (island, ship, building) making activity easier.
It’s a doggy-dog world! More like a doggy-do world. This phrase is an approximation of the correct phrase which is “dog-eat-dog” world. This refers to a state of high competition where the weaker members are eaten by the stronger. Chew that one over for a while.
Some misunderstood idioms can become quite amusing: Nip it in the butt is a case in point.
The correct phrase is “nip it in the bud” to stop something before it becomes bigger, harder to manage. When pruning a tree, (nip) cut off the bud before it becomes a branch.
Here are a few more samples:
Hanging on tender hooks – wrong – the correct phrase is hanging on tenterhooks (hooks used to fasten cloth on a drying frame or tenter). It means being in a state of uncomfortable suspense.
Please don’t take me for granite. Don’t take me for granted either.
There is no statue of limitations. I wonder what it would look like? The correct phrase is statute of limitations (statute being a law)
Looking for an “escape goat.” There shouldn’t be any goats escaping here, it should be “a scape goat” which is a person or animal which takes on the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems. The concept originally comes from the Bible, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert with the sins of the community.
And if you think that’s the lot, you’ve got another thing coming!
One of the most common misquoted sayings. The correct (but incomplete) phrase is; “you’ve got another think coming” meaning “think again.” It really only makes sense if you recite the whole phrase: “if that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.”
And if you think I’m going to keep going…… you’ve got another think coming!
See you next week.