Saturday, November 20, 2004

Journalists should know the language

Yes, there are plenty of examples out there, people using "literally" to mean, well, figuratively, etc., so there are no surprises here.

I'm reading this story, No More Reality TV For Ozzy: Been There, Done That, which has no byline, but is from Reuters, from whom I expect better than, well, than this.

Here's the quote -

"Ozzy had a concise answer when asked if they would have more children.
""Are you f**king mad?'"

Do you see what's wrong?

Well, let's see. According to Merriam-Webster Online, the word "concise" means, "marked by brevity of expression or statement: free from all elaboration and superfluous detail".

The concise answer would have been "no".

Another linguistic sniggle... On Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, David Cross says that the misuse of "penultimate" bothers him less than "literally", because "they were shooting for ultimate, missed by one."

It's a funny line, but they're usually more wrong than that.

Again to the dictionary -

ULTIMATE
Function: adjective
Etymology: Medieval Latin ultimatus last, final, from Late Latin, past participle of ultimare to come to an end, be last, from Latin ultimus farthest, last, final, superlative of (assumed) Latin ulter situated beyond

1 a : most remote in space or time : FARTHEST b : last in a progression or series [their ultimate destination was Paris] c : EVENTUAL [they hoped for ultimate success] d : the best or most extreme of its kind : UTMOST [the ultimate sacrifice]
2 : arrived at as the last result [the ultimate question]
3 a : BASIC, FUNDAMENTAL [the ultimate nature of things -- A. N. Whitehead] b : ORIGINAL [the ultimate source] c : incapable of further analysis, division, or separation
4 : MAXIMUM

Ok, here's the complication.

"Penultimate" means "next to last, so it's only missing by one if you're shooting for definitions 1a, 1b, 1c or 2.

So, if you said that The Osterman Weekend was the penultimate Sam Peckinpah movie, you missed by one. It is the ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie by definition 1b.

Unfortunately, people are usually shooting for definition 1d when they use "penultimate". Now, The Wild Bunch is arguably the best and/or most extreme Peckinpah effort (I might prefer to argue Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia in either example, but I chose the more familiar for the sake of this), so if you say The Wild Bunch is the "ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie", you would have presumably made a reasonable point.

However, if you call it his "penultimate" movie, you've not come anywhere near the target. He made ten movies after that. You may have wanted "ultimate" but "best" or "most extreme" would have probably worked best in themselves for clarity's sake. Oddly enough, it seems to me that when a lot of people use "penultimate", they don't want either of those and are really searching for "quintessential", but that's a sniggle for another day

For the record, Convoy is, in fact, the only acceptable answer to the question of what Peckinpah's penultimate movie is.

And, hey, while I'm in this neighborhood, I discussed the word "masterpiece" at some length in this entry. It's actually a pet linguistic concern of mine.

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