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Not Reluctant to ‘Denigrate’

A man named Jim Marugg, who evidently has an admirable concern for the niceties of language and for precision in its use, has written to ask, “Would you join me in stamping out the word denigrate ? It is always misused, it being mistaken for disparage, I suppose; whereas it is clear from its root that it means blacken (one’s reputation) or defame. I thought I had the job pretty well done about 10 years ago, but it has popped up again.

“I suspect reticent isn’t far behind, mistaken as it was for reluctant some years back.

“These things are contagious. One misuse begets another. No one is immune.”

I feel as though I must have slept through something or other, but I admire Mr. Marugg’s discriminatory powers. There’s a hiatus in my consciousness regarding the temporary loss of the word denigrate . I hadn’t noticed its disappearance; nor had I marked the confusion of reticent with reluctant . I don’t mean to imply that Mr. Marugg simply imagined these phenomena. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if denigrate had disappeared in a total eclipse for 10 years or so, and I just hadn’t noticed.

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As for the reticent-reluctant muddle, I feel reasonably sure that it is quite common, since the two words not only bear a resemblance to each other, but have similar, though not identical, meanings. Reticent means “shy, reserved, undemonstrative,” while reluctant means “unwilling, grudging.”

Reticence implies a less forceful personality than reluctance. The reluctant person might go along grudgingly, but he’d probably let you know that he thought it was a lousy idea. The reticent one, going along, perhaps grudgingly, would keep his feelings to himself. Refusal to go along at all displays reluctance, not reticence. Stating your unwillingness is a mark of reluctance; saying nothing at all or just shrugging and saying, “What the heck . . .” would be a pretty good sign of reticence. The two words are so close to each other that it would be astonishing if they didn’t occasionally cross-breed, but they are hardly interchangeable.

Most people are quite casual about words, taking them for granted and giving them hardly a thought. The other day, I heard a perfect example of this thoughtless use of words--an example of a misuse we’ve all heard thousands of times. During an excellent show on National Public Radio called “Morning Edition,” an articulate young woman, discussing the famous pyramid that has been installed at the entrance to the Louvre, mentioned that the pyramid is “literally the tip of an iceberg.”

In time that would lead to a lake, or, au moins , a wading pool, at the Louvre. Literally means, literally, “literally,” that is, “according to the letter, not figuratively or metaphorically.” So if that rather large pyramid were literally the tip of an iceberg, and a spring thaw hit Paris--well, think about it.

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“It literally blew me away!” “She was literally coming apart!” “He was climbing the walls! Literally!” I’ll never forget hearing a senator complain about having “Senate bills literally coming out my ears.” A disconcerting image. As far as I know, no one has actually taken a count, but it is my impression that this application of literally is the most common misusage in the language, at least in the United States.

There’s another blooper that has proliferated in recent years. Apparently, a lot of people think penultimate is a really impressive word, and, without checking it out for meaning, they use it to mean “the most” or “the last word.” “Man! That movie was the penultimate!” “The skiing up there is the absolute penultimate!” The word actually means, “almost the last"-- paene , almost and ultimus , last. It is properly used for “next to last.” “They blew the pennant race in the penultimate game of the season.”

Possibly those who misuse penultimate harbor a vague mental overlay of penultimate with another polysyllabic p-word, pluperfect . The pluperfect is essentially a verb tense. Verb tenses have apparently been given short, if any, shrift in the schools during recent decades, so for any of you who might have missed out, the present perfect is, typically, “I have arrived”; the pluperfect, or past perfect, is one step removed from the present perfect: “I had arrived.”

I’ve often heard pluperfect used in a non-grammatical sense, as in “That guy is a pluperfect swine” and less respectable variations on the theme. Purists will argue that “pluperfect,” meaning “more than perfect,” is an abomination, since perfection is an absolute and cannot be improved upon. They might as well knock the coach who says, “I’m leaving him in at tackle because he always gives a hundred and fifty percent.”

“A hundred and fifty percent” is superpluperfect, but sensible people accept that sort of thing as locker-room-style poetic license, I think.


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