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Last Words - Worlds in Series
by Alec McEwen

CONSERVATIVE, PRESERVATIVE. When a Toronto restaurant that advertised in an issue of Now magazine asserted: "Our foods contain no conservatives," it may have been making a political statement or simply trying to allay its customers' fears of having to bite off more than they could chew. Although conservative, like preservative, correctly describes an agent that prevents decay, it appears less commonly in that sense today. In earlier times, a possible distinction was that preservative often applied to medicines, whereas conservative seems to have had a broader meaning. As claimed by a treatise published in 1398, in words rendered into modem spelling, "Honey ... cleanses and tempers bitterness and is therefore put in Conservatives." Well, honeyed words, anyway.

NOISOME. Adding the suffix -some to certain nouns can produce an adjective. Noisesome, if any such word existed, might be a synonym for noisy, but it would perhaps be inapplicable to tree blossoms. Kildare Dobbs, writing in the Idler, described a Malaysian tree, called the Midnight Horror, as having a flower that gives off a noisesome stench. The odour, sufficiently powerful to attract pollinating bats, is evidently smelly but silent to human senses. No doubt the writer meant noisome, a word that has no direct association with noise; it derives from noy, an old expression meaning annoyance or injury.

INTER, INTERN. A review of Matt Cohen's Emotional Arithmetic, appearing in paragraph magazine, refers to a woman who suffered interment in a Nazi camp. Later we are told that a self-appointed protector was interred with her. Perhaps the natural association of graves with detention camps misled the reviewer, yet the appearance of interment and interred in a single long sentence suggests intentional usage rather than typographical error. Since neither character underwent burial during the confinement, internment was obviously the right word to describe a shared incarceration.

SERIAL, SERIES. Sam Waterston, an unassuming and likeable actor, is reported in the TV Times to have defended his participation in the television program "I'll Fly Away" by pointing out that although "The word 'series' has gotten a very bad name ... Charles Dickens is a good example of a very good serialized writer. His works came out once a week in newspapers, it was the series of its time." A serial is a single work that is broken into a number of consecutive parts for publishing or broadcasting. The so-called TV mini-series, consisting of at least two episodes that combine to form an entire film, is really a serial. A series, on the other hand, is a sequence of stories that have the same central theme and characters, yet are self-contained because each story has no necessary dependence on earlier parts of the same work.

BEGGING THE QUESTION. An editorial in the Calgary Herald asserted that Yitzhak Shamir's refusal to exchange land for peace "begs the question of just what the Israelis are prepared to trade" during the negotiations with their neighbours. Begging the question is not the same thing as posing or raising a question, nor does it mean sidestepping an issue, though it is sometimes used in both those senses. It is the "vulgar equivalent" of the Latin petitio principii, a term of logic indicating an argument that accepts a conclusion on the basis of a premise the truth of which has yet to be proved. A modem example of begging the question might be a statement that evading the payment of income tax is justifiable because everybody does it.

CHALK, CHOCK. The Globe and Mail quoted an Ontario farming official as saying that "Quebec is chalk full of supply management commodities." This alleged alkaline abundance was intended to refer to milk, not limestone. What the official meant to, and probably did, say was chock full. Perhaps the error arose from the North American habit of pronouncing chalk and chock as though they were homonyms. Chock full, meaning crammed to capacity, was originally choke full. Chuck full, another variant, still survives in some regional dialects.

DESERTS, DESSERTS. In a blurb for The Trial of Ned Kelly, a Toronto law-book publisher questions whether the notorious, armour-suited, Australian bushranger had received his "just desserts" when he was hanged for murder in 1880. Perhaps the condemned felon's hearty last meal included a sweet dish, but the intended word was desert, or more commonly deserts, meaning something that is deserved.

PRE-EMPT. Floyd Laughren, the Ontario treasurer, was reported to have excused his unwillingness to be specific about rumoured tax increases by saying, "I don't want to pre-empt myself." Pre-emption, which is often used in an opportunistic sense, means to take something that belongs to another person, or to forestall an occurrence; it is not the equivalent of premature action. No doubt there are certain things that the minister's critics wish he would do to himself, but pre-emption is not among them.


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