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Column: A Word, Please: Are you getting these common figures of speech wrong?

Common expressions and figures of speech attract more than their fair share of errors. It’s in their nature.

We use terms like “a refined palate” and “sleight of hand” because they come so readily to mind. We don’t think about what the words mean. We reach for them precisely because they’re within easy reach.

That’s why common expressions lend themselves to a lot of mistakes or, if not outright mistakes, bad choices.

Here are a few to watch out for:


“A refined palette.” When you’re talking about a sense of taste, you’re referring to a part of the mouth, the palate. Centuries ago, people thought the palate, which is the roof of the mouth, was where the sense of taste comes from. (Apparently, the tongue was discovered at a later date.) A palette is a board smeared with paint that an artist uses or an assortment of colors used together, like the color palette you use to decorate your home. A pallet is a wooden platform used to stack and move items in a warehouse.

“Wet your appetite.” Actually, it’s whet. You can see why someone would mess that up, right? The word “whet” is pretty much nonexistent outside this expression. You don’t even do that to your whistle. To take a drink is to wet your whistle. So the proper “whet your appetite” is one of those expressions that must be learned.

“Eek out a living.” If you’re terrified of mice but can only find work as an exterminator, you might “eek” out a living. But for most everyone else, you “eke” out a living. This word means, according to Merriam-Webster, “to get with great difficulty.”

“Strike a cord.” Nope. It’s “chord.” It means that you’ve said or done something that resonates with people, the way a musical chord resonates. Confusion of how to spell the musical “chord” isn’t exactly prevalent. So this mistake probably happens because people just aren’t thinking about the origin of the expression.


“Tow the line.” For many years, I heard this expression and pictured a lineup of muscular workers all holding on to a rope and hauling something heavy with it. That’s how I made sense of their “towing” something. But, in fact, they were “toeing” something. To “toe the line” is a reference to a foot race, in which everyone who’s serious about making a showing stands right at the starting line, toe touching it, ready for the “ready, set, go.”

“Chomping at the bit.” You can use this one if you want to. It’s officially emerged as an acceptable variation on the original “champing at the bit.” The idea here is that horses, when they’re restless, might champ on the piece of tack in their mouths — the bit — which is attached to the reins. But apparently their champing can also be referred to as chomping, if you like.

“Slight of hand.” In the 12th century, an old Norse word that meant “cleverness” or “cunning” was adopted as “sleahthe,” which by the 14th century had become “sleight.” Today, according to modern dictionary definitions, it means deceitful craftiness. So technically you can say, “Have you noticed the sleight Joe brings to his work” or “Aha, I thought I detected sleight here.” But no one does. The word lives on only in one expression, where it practically begs to be confused for “slight.”

“Could care less.” This is now an officially acceptable variation on “couldn’t care less.” But use it as your own peril. Lots of people care about preserving the original “couldn’t care less” because, without the negation, the term creates a bit of a logic problem, to say the least.

“An adrenalin rush.” Without an E, “Adrenalin” is a trademark name for levorotatory epinephrine. With an E, “adrenaline,” is a generic word meaning just epinephrine and commonly used to describe physiological responses to stress, including increased heart rate and sweating.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “Mortal Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at