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A Malapropism in Lieu of His Attention

When I was in high school, I’d sometimes walk to a friend’s house after dinner and we’d do our homework together. I’m no longer sure why. I don’t think we helped each other much. We’d spread our books on the carpet in front of his family’s big old floor-model radio and listen to whatever shows were good that night. Fred Allen was the favorite.

I soon learned that my friend, Ted, was much better at doing his homework and getting the jokes than I was. In order to get the jokes, I’d have to shift my attention from homework to radio. Ted managed both simultaneously. I’ve always envied that ability to juggle several foci of attention without missing a beat.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago while I was listening to Ruth Hirschman and Ben Cate do their radio show on KCRW (89.9 FM), called “Monday Morning Quarterback.” That the show airs at 12:30 on Monday afternoon should faze no one. It’s still “Monday Morning Quarterback.”

Hirschman and Cate discuss current affairs together and then accept phone calls from listeners. Hirschman is the general manager of KCRW, and Cate is a veteran journalist with a keenly critical mind. Both are always intelligent, informative and, to my taste, very entertaining.

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This particular show gave me an unexpected serving of the sort of treat I always relish--an interesting malapropism. A man called in to ask Cate’s opinion on the latest Democratic presidential primary debates. For the most part, the caller spoke well, and his points seemed quite cogent. Because of my inability to handle a potpourri of thoughts at once, I’m not entirely sure what he said.

He used, or misused, the same phrase in the same way not just once, but several times. He said things such as, “In lieu of Dukakis’ latest criticisms of Gore . . .” and “In lieu of the fact that Jesse Jackson is getting a surprising share of the white vote. . . .” He used other “in-lieu-of” constructions so often that I found myself thinking less about the points he was making than his use of “in lieu of.” He obviously meant “in view of.”

I’d heard “in lieu of” used for “in view of” before. “In view of” is an English idiom of long standing, meaning “in consideration of, on account of.” In lieu of is a borrowing from French, meaning “in place of” or “instead of,” lieu being French for place . Obviously, the caller’s repeated misuse of “in lieu of” was more than slightly disconcerting.

Even when used properly, I’ve always considered “in lieu of” to be rather precious, because “instead of” is so handy and so homely.

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(I was tempted to say “homey” to avoid the ambiguity inherent in “homely.” Homely has two almost opposite meanings: On the one hand, it means easygoing, relaxed, natural; on the other, it means coarse, unrefined, ugly. “Plain” suffers from the same ambiguity, but less severely. Small wonder that we have uneasy feelings toward such ambiguous words.

I wish “homely” didn’t mean ugly. I’d like it to mean only homelike and natural. Unfortunately, passing laws and circulating petitions wouldn’t help. Language doesn’t respond to that sort of treatment, and all my efforts would have the impact of a kazoo at a rock concert.

Speaking of homely and home reminds me of another common malapropism. The phrase “home on,” “home in” or “home in on” has a kinship with the notion of homing as in “homing pigeons.” I’m not an authority on pigeons, but I believe that homing pigeons fly about in circles until, in some as yet undiscovered way, they get their bearings and sense where their home is, at which point they home in on it and make a beeline for it. As the crow flies, so to speak.

But what I’ve heard in recent years far more often than “homing in on” is “ honing in on.” The confusion is not hard to understand, I think. My own explanation is related at least in part to old movie thrillers--the ones that involved vaudeville knife-throwing acts. Honing means sharpening; sharpening evokes knives, and knives evoke the knife thrower whose wife stands stolidly against a wall while a knife homes (or “hones”) in--"thunk!"--on a spot an eighth of an inch from her ear while the audience wonders when he’s going to home in on a spot halfway between her ears and later plead accidental uxoricide due to a case of butterfingers.

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Whenever I hear someone say “honing in,” I think of that movie scene, and I’m distracted from the context at hand. That’s the trouble with using the wrong word. The most serious--perhaps the only really serious problem with malapropisms is that they sidetrack the listener away from what is being said. The guy who kept saying, “in lieu of” lost my attention almost entirely.

About two weeks after I heard the in-lieu-of man on the radio, I was the doubles partner of Ben Cate himself in a tennis match. I congratulated him on “Monday Morning Quarterback” and, at the end of the match, I told him I planned to write about the misuse of “in lieu of.” He said the caller’s use of the phrase hadn’t bothered him at all. That is one of the many reasons why he talked intelligently with the caller, while I, in his place, would have wondered how to avoid stepping all over the caller’s ego while straightening out his idiom. I would surely have missed his points and blown the whole conversation.


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