Words I get wrong

February 1, 2009

Whoops, trip, fall flat, collapse of stout party. An email conversation revealed to me that all those hours paying to Increase My Wordpower with the Reader’s Digest have not entirely paid off. I discover that, probably since I first heard or saw the word, I have been using ‘opaque’ in two contradictory ways – to mean ‘transparent’, which it doesn’t, and to mean ‘resistant to light’, which it does. How has this happened? Plainly there is a fuse in my internal dictionary. I look at ‘opaque’, and it seems to mean ‘see-through’, even though I really do know that it means the opposite (I have incidentally only just worked out the pun in ‘Snowpake’, the brand of white-out that used to be peddled, like Tippex, to erase a typing mistake).

Actually, that should be Tipp-Ex, which (bizarrely enough) was invented by the mother of Mike Nesmith, he of the woolly hat in The Monkees, and a surprisingly good musician in his own right. Equally surprisingly, Tipp-Ex is still selling.

Why has this happened? I’ve done a bit of searching of my C: drive (I am old enough now to need an F: drive implant, I suspect) and all I can come up with is ‘frosted glass’ – which is what I see when I read ‘opaque’. And of course, frosted glass resists light. I think I must have been confused at some stage by looking through lightly frosted glass. So here is a word which I know and don’t know at the same time. It makes me wonder what other words I have topsy-turvy. But then words are cheekily ambiguous (this defence is not going well). I remember a student being completely thrown by Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘S.I.W.’ (i.e. Self-Inflicted Wound), because she was a gymkhana entrant. So when she read that the figure in the poem had been ‘buried with the muzzle that he kissed’, she felt sorry, very sorry indeed, for the horse.

Good old words: always ready with a tripwire. There are also bastardly (note the neologism there) words like ‘ingenuous’ and ‘disingenuous’ which have the sheer effrontery to mean exactly the same thing. And, worst of all, ‘rent’, which was my undoing when trying to learn Economics, since it meant something quite different from ‘a charge levied by a landlord’ in the Economics text-book. Still, I can do ‘flaunt’ and ‘flout’, which Zadie Smith gets muddled up in ‘White Teeth’.

I can recall my first encounter with some words very clearly, since they are my first love, obviously excepting ‘opaque’, which is a loathsome spotted reptile of the lowest order. This includes words I first bumped into before I was ten. One of these was ‘specific’, and do not ask me what I was doing with it in my head at that age: just assume I was an obnoxious child. I remember seeing it, and making the connection with what I had been speaking and visualising as ‘spacific’ (after the Ocean), and finding it a kind of wonder that it was what it was, with its odd ‘e’.

I do always have to look up ‘tremolo’ (I want the first ‘o’ to be an ‘e’). I am a ‘one s’ man with ‘focused’. And I have always scoffed at the mistake made in Georgie Fame’s cash-in hit ‘The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde’, in which they ‘put all the money in a dewlap bag’, when the composers meant ‘burlap’, a dewlap being a loose fold of skin. Popular music is full of howlers, as in The Zombies’ album ‘Odessey And Oracle’, which couldn’t be corrected because the album’s cover-designer perpetrated the howler before they could get to it. And, higher up the chain, there is Browning’s notorious error in thinking a ‘twat’ was an item of religious clothing, in ‘Pippa Passes’.

The meaning of the word was obviously opaque.

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