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Last Words - Respectable Pedigrees
by Alec McEwen

ADMINISTRATE, ORIENTATE. A woman of my acquaintance mentioned these verbs as examples of incorrect usage that she had heard recently on the radio. Although the two words are sometimes regarded respectively as American perversity and British pomposity, each of them claims a respectable pedigree and they are interchangeable with the more common North American forms, administer and orient. Administrate, as an alternative to administer, has existed since at least 165 1, yet the OED's references might suggest that it should be confined to the administration of sacraments, oaths, and medicines. Both words have a single Latin origin, meaning the management of affairs or the performance of an office. Fowler's Modern English Usage objects to administrate as an example of long variants, those "needless lengthenings of established words due to oversight or caprice." Such criticism may have little influence on a present society that often prefers long-winded expressions, such as at this point in time and momentarily to now and soon. When orient entered the language in the early 18th century, it was associated with religious customs. Christian churches in northern Europe were constructed so that the longer axis lay in an cast-west direction, with the chancel and altar at the eastern end. Human burials were also arranged with the corpse's feet facing cast. In both practices, the object of veneration was placed so as to catch the first light of the rising sun. Orientate, which appeared about 100 years after orient, was treated as its synonym, but by that time both words had attracted the extended meaning of rotating oneself or a map to find some particular direction. A modern Muslim, for example, required to turn toward Mecca five times a day for religious devotions, may orient or orientate the prayer mat by means of its built-in compass, even though the holy city may tie in some other direction than east from the worshipper.

Whereas administer and orient have alternative verb forms, culminate offers no such choice. In an article on the sexual exploitation of patients by a local psychologist, carried by the Calgary Herald in April 1991, the writer reported that one woman's experience "culminized in her husband leaving her for a time." To culminate means to attain the highest, or a decisive, point, a stage that may not have been reached by the husband's temporary estrangement. The true culmination of the incident appears to have come when the patient's complaint against the practitioner was dismissed by his professional disciplinary committee for "insufficient substance."

PREFERABLE, RATHER THAN. In its commentary on Canada's economic forecast, a July 1991 Financial Post editorial opined that "a stable and durable recovery would be preferable for business planning rather than another boom-and-bust cycle." Apart from its being a platitude, the observation uses two ill-connected expressions that mean essentially the same thing. It is quite obvious that a person who finds A preferable to B will, if offered the opportunity, select A rather than B. The editorialist could have avoided such Clumsy construction by reorganizing the sentence to read, for example, "business planners would prefer a stable and durable economy to another boom-and-bust cycle."

FOREWORD, FORWARD. Even Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Which has seldom met an incorrect" - didn't like, goes so far as to say that "no one confuses" foreword and forward. Well, almost no one. One such offender was Maclean's, which in its July 8, 1991, issue referred to Keith Spicer's "vividly written personal forward" to the report of the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future. Whatever criticisms may be fairly levelled against the Wayward commissioner, his prefatory remarks appear in the published document under a correctly spelled heading.

STATUS QUO. "The status quo is not going to lead us into the future," announced Alberta's minister of agriculture last year, in connection with grain transportation subsidies. Status quo, meaning the existing state of affairs, usually describes a situation for which either change or preservation is advocated. The association of status quo with a leadership role is somewhat akin to the remark by baseball's Yogi Berra that "This is like deja vu all over again."

PENULTIMATE. It must be the search for impressive or emphatic words that produces such solecisms as true facts and very unique. If ultimate means final, then shouldn't penultimate be even more extreme? Unfortunately not, for the penultimate month of the year is merely November. A memorandum issued in 1986 by a prominent, penny-pinching Wall Street investment dealer instructed his staff to recycle envelopes by licking only one side of the flap the first time they were used. The "further extension of this will he to lick only the left third, lick the middle for the next trip, and the right side for the penultimate voyage." But who gets the last lick, and where?


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