"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Sunday, August 7, 2016


There are words I've been using my entire life and then, in one horrifying moment -- usually during a presentation to senior management, or when I accepted my Nobel Peace Prize -- will discover I've completely misunderstood their meaning.
Exacerbate is one of them. I always thought it meant to improve a situation (as in, "Those three scotch and sodas I had before dinner really exacerbated my mood.") but only recently did I learn it means the exact opposite, to make a situation worse (as in, "Those three scotch and sodas I had before dinner really exacerbated my mood.").
Mitigate is another. I thought offering up a defense of "mitigating" circumstances meant I should get off scot-free, whereas it actually means I'm still just as guilty of whatever I was accused of but might pay a fine instead of serving time in the slammer. I also learned as recently as typing that last sentence that it's not "scott-free."
Then of course there are the Toxic Twins of flammable and inflammable, which sound like opposites but mean precisely the same thing: burn, baby, burn. In kindergarten we learned to "Stop, Drop and Roll" if we ever caught on fire, and the day we became familiar with that protocol I ran home after school and asked my mother if the Batman PJs she'd just bought me were inflammable. "Of course they are, dear," my mother replied -- "I insisted on it." We had a difficult relationship.
I used to use nonplussed to express how something didn't faze me, that I took in stride. When I found out it means exactly the opposite I can describe my reaction only as... nonplussed.
And I've never understood how, if capitulate means to surrender, why recapitulate wouldn't mean to surrender again. Let me know if I need to repeat that last observation.
And it's not just the meaning of various words; sometimes there is a relationship between objects that surprises me. I don't think I knew that capers were flower buds until I was in my thirties. Or that cilantro and coriander are from the same plant. Or that Donald Trump has a sister who is a respected federal judge.
There -- I'm nonplussed again. Where's the scotch?

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