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The Words They Are a-Changin’

A word in a Palm Beach Post editorial last week sent me to the dictionary. The word was staunching, its

“No no no!” I exclaimed, dyspepsia invading my theretofore repose. “Staunch is an adjective. The writer meant stanch, the verb.”

Just to make sure I was right, I consulted my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition,

My, how times change. That was not the way it used to be. I checked my 2000 edition of the stylebook of The Associated Press, where I once worked, and was gratified to find this: “Stanch is a verb: ‘He stanched the flow of blood.’ Staunch is an adjective: ‘She is a staunch supporter of equality.’”

Then I dug into my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, published in 1998. Under

What’s happened here is clear. People have mistakenly used staunch for stanch so often that the dictionaries finally are conforming to the erroneous usage and listing the definitions accordingly. So, once again, those who do it right must accede to those who do it wrong.

My favorite example of this dumbing down of the English language is the word personable. Decades ago (before I was born, of course), the word had one meaning: comely, attractive, handsome in appearance. But over the years, people mistook it to mean “good personality.” That’s what the word sounds like, after all; the mistake is understandable. Merriam-

Dictionaries also yield to common spelling errors. Rarely is the word tranquillity spelled correctly. It almost always is given one l: tranquility. Both Webster’s and Merriam-Webster’s spell it as: tranquillity or tranquility. Originally, there was no second spelling. But so many people got it wrong that they decided, what the hell, we’ll let them have their way, at least part-way.

Not long ago, the Washington Post spelled it tranquility. When I called the paper about it, the copy editor explained that most people spell it that way, so they’re following the crowd. I can’t really blame them; they have much more important issues to worry about. Such as whether the country will survive Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency.

Incidentally, the day after the Palm Beach Post editorial used the word staunching in place of stanching, a Post story by Sarah Peters lauding a cop’s emergency medical action mentioned his application of measures to “stanch the bleeding.” Ms. Peters is a fairly new reporter.

There is hope.

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