Thursday, April 23, 2009

Words That Should Get a Divorce

"fall" and "precipitously"

As in, "Today we saw stocks fall precipitously."

For one thing, "precipitously" is codependent, following "fall" around like a puppy dog, as if there's no other word in the world it could modify. (I mean, even "profusely," which is way too codependent on "sweating," spends some time hanging out with "bleeding.")

More important, once I looked it up, I saw that "precipitously" is in a weird state that, according to American Heritage, constitutes a bona fide "usage problem."

Per American Heritage, "precipitously" is muscling in on the turf of "precipately." That is, whereas it traditionally meant "steeply," it's being used a lot to mean "hastily" or "rashly."

Personally, I don't see why being in a transitional state constitutes a usage problem. Lots of words are in transition. Perhaps most of them. In this case, the real problem seems to be that the dictionary makers are just being too stubborn to admit the damn usage already.

But this does bolster my position that it's a lousy word. I don't think I've ever heard anyone use it to mean "steeply." Instead, it seems everyone thinks it means "wildly" or "like crazy" or "really, really fast."

Mainly, though, I just don't like parasitic words that can't man up and branch out every once in a while. (Hey, I never said I was sane.)

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Matthew Newton said...

I read this in the NYTimes a moment ago:
"Even the markets dipped shortly after 10 a.m., though it was unclear if the alarm over the planes was a factor. Starting at 10:02 a.m., three main market indexes started dropping precipitously."

Does 'dropping' instead of 'fall' count?

June Casagrande said...

Ha! There it is! That autopilot use of "precipitiously."

Re your question: Do you mean is it okay to use "dropping" instead of "falling"?

Seems to me they're pretty much synonyms, so technically, sure. Is "falling" better? Well, that's a different question. Maybe I think this now only because you called it to my attention, but it seems that "falling" might sound a little better here.

Of course, catch me tomorrow and I may have changed my mind. Maybe today I'm hearing "dropping" as a a little harsher and thereby a little distracting.


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