Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words 7 (Commonplace Book)

Precipitant, precipitate, precipitous: All three come from the same root, the Latin praecipitare ("to throw headlong"). Precipitous means steep, like a cliff. It should no be used, as it often is, to describe actions (e.g. "precipitous departure"), as it can only describe physical characteristics. Precipitant and precipitate both indicate a headlong rush and are almost indistinguishable, but the first tends to emphasize abruptness, and the second rashness.

Precondition, preplanning, prerecorded, etc. Almost always redundant; "pre-" adds nothing and should be deleted.

Prescribe, proscribe. The first means to set down as a rule or guide; the second means to denounce or prohibit. If you get bronchitis your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and proscribe smoking.

Pristine. Does not mean simply sparkling or tidy, but pure and unchanged from an original condition.

Prodigal. Does not mean wandering or given to running away, a sense often wrongly inferred from the biblical story of the prodigal son; It means recklessly wasteful or extravagant.

Prone, prostrate, recumbent, supine. Supine means lying face upward. Most, but not all, agree that prone and prostrate mean lying face downward (a few say it can also mean face-up). Prostrate should mean throwing oneself down, in submission or for protection, and should not be used to describe someone sleeping, for example. Recumbent means lying flat in any position and indicates ease and comfort.

Prototype is a word for an original that serves as a model for later products of its type. Most qualifying descriptions -- first prototype, experimental prototype, and so on -- are redundant.


Darius Kazemi said...

Geoff, just wanted to say I've really been enjoying these troublesome words posts.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

Here's one of mine:

"I recieved good praise for it." Is it possible to recieve bad praise?

Matt Brady said...

Is there a typo in the "precipitant/precipitate/precipitous" entry? You mention "precipitous" twice and don't mention "precipitant". I thought maybe "precipitant" was supposed to be in the place of "precipitous" the second time the latter was used. Anyway, how is "precipitation" related to these words? Is it derived from the same Latin word?

I find "pristine" interesting, because it was probably originally used synonymously with "clean" as an exaggeration, as in the toilet is so clean it is like it has never been used. But like probably happens quite often, this exaggeration was used enough to make the word just mean "clean" to most people.

Jason Powell said...

"Is it possible to receive bad praise?"

As an actor who's been reviewed several times in local newspapers, let me just say ... yes.

Geoff Klock said...

Darius: thanks

matt Brady: yeah, I fixed that. Sorry.

VoE and JP: yeah, Jason Powell is right: do you want to be brave and share an example?

phobic said...

That was a fun bit of etymology. Thanks for brightening my day.