Thursday, March 12, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


I was always completely comfortable with this word until I ran across it today while copy editing a sentence that started like this:

"Now that you’ve ascertained that the ocean-view room you reserved does indeed have an ocean view ..."

To me, "ascertain" connotes a somewhat lengthy and difficult process of investigation -- like you have to work a little to find out what you want to know. So it seemed a bad word choice in the sentence. I mean, to find out whether your hotel room has an ocean view, all you have to do is look up or maybe take three steps toward the window. I wanted to change "ascertained" to "confirmed." But first I looked it up.

From American Heritage at
ascertain. To discover with certainty, as through examination or experimentation. See Synonyms at discover.

Ignoring my gut feeling, I left the passage unchanged.

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Joel said...

"Ascertain" bugs me. It reminds me a little of "utilize"--which I use, but mostly mockingly (if even self-). I have a friend who insists on using (er, um, "utilizing") "utilize" in work documents when I'm pretty sure "use" would be just as good or better. I guess he thinks it sounds more official or significant or substantial or precise or something. Which to me means that it sounds pretentious. I work with engineers; I think they think they're supposed to sound a little pretentious (and don't get me wrong: they're lovable folk).

There are certain words like that that just get to me. And that's odd, because I'm quite willing to be sesquipedalian and ostentatious, et al. But I like to think that no one thinks I take the breadth or length or obscurity of my words too seriously. I think that's it, actually: "utilize" is a white trash word trying desperately to convince us that it's better than that. Maybe, in fact, it's more the mediocrity and presumption that bother me. Hmmm, like the objective "I" or the misplaced "whom."

June Casagrande said...

"And that's odd, because I'm quite willing to be sesquipedalian and ostentatious, et al."

That made me laugh out loud.

Your post reminded me of a line from the Denzel Washington movie "American Gangster." It was about a serious thug who happened to dress very conservatively, in sharp contrast to his mink-coat-and-gold-chain-wearing contemporaries. His reasoning: "The loudest person in the room is the weakest person in the room."

Words like "utlize" have that problem.


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