I got pulled up by a client today for writing that something came ‘in a myriad of colours’. She told me that ‘myriad’ doesn’t need an ‘a’ before it or an ‘of’ after it. Because I’m super-competitive and really don’t like being told I’m wrong, especially when it comes to anything word-related, I immediately consulted Google to check this. And turns out, I’m wrong (and I’ve been using it wrongly for as long as I’ve known what it means).
According to some very in-depth research (I looked at at least one website), myriad comes from the Greek for ‘murioi’ which means 10,000. Modern usage isn’t so specific – it’s now come to mean ‘a great many’. But either way, adding that ‘a’ and ‘of’ is officially bonkers, because you wouldn’t write that it came in a a great many of colours. It’s a bit like saying PIN number which is actually personal identification number number.
So this got me thinking – what other words have I been using completely wrongly for pretty much my whole life? Turns out there are loads. I mean, LOADS.
I think this may well be the start of a series of Emma-is-stupid themed blog posts.
WTF? I hear you say (or at least that’s what I said when I read this). Apparently you should only say poisonous when you’re talking about something that will kill you when you eat it. Not if it eats (or bites) you. So if you say a snake is poisonous, you’re actually saying that it will kill you if you eat it (which it might, but that’s not the point – I’m not flipping David Attenborough for god’s sake). Snakes are venomous, not poisonous.
I thought this meant a small fact. It doesn’t. It’s a false fact. Gasp! It was first used by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe a fact that people believe to be true because it appears in print (‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’). Hmmm, topical…
At least I know I’m in good company – DJ Steve Wright has published a couple of books about (true) small facts titled ‘Factoids’. So that makes me feel better (not really). And also brings me on to…
Don’t panic – when you say someone’s entitled to something, you’re not wrong. But it is wrong to say that a book (or anything else) is entitled [title]. As in The sequel’s entitled Fast and Furious 17. It’s just titled that. Which doesn’t really seem that hard to remember.
When you say that, for example, ‘Paris is the ultimate city break’ what you’re actually saying is that it’s last on the list. Yep, ‘ultimate’ means ‘last in a progression or series’ (think ‘penultimate’). So you’re actually being really mean about Paris. I know we’re leaving Europe and all, but there’s no need for nastiness.
It means flammable. Not not flammable. Even though the prefix in- almost always means ‘not’ in English, in this case ‘inflammable’ comes from the word ‘enflame’. So it doesn’t.
Sometimes English is stupid.
If you grew up in the English countryside in the 70s or 80s, chances are at one point you put your hand on an electric fence round a field just to see what it was like (this was before the internet kids). And you may well have then told your friends at school that you got electrocuted. Well, you didn’t, because then you would be dead – to be electrocuted means to die from an electric shock. So unless your best friend was Haley Joel Osment (dated reference) what you actually got was an electric shock.
The last word
Language evolves. It’s one of the things that makes it great. If enough people continue to use a word one way, even the wrong way, then eventually its original meaning doesn’t matter anymore. And that is a factoid.