Confused words

Former NME writer David Quantick, writing about Keith Chegwin (hey, it’s a living) in today’s Telegraph, says:

Acts such as Milton Jones and Stewart Lee spend years developing an individual style and to have it mined by poltroons is insulting…

Poltroon? Poltroon means “an utter coward”. I can’t see quite how that fits In Quantick’s sentence: what’s so cowardly about nicking other comedians’ stuff?

Harry Hutton, on the excellent but now sadly moribund Chase me, ladies, I’m in the cavalry website, once made the point that people trying to be archly archaic often use “poltroon” when they actually mean “buffoons”, or something else. I suspect that’s the case here: “mountebanks” or “rapscallions” would have served Quantick’s point better and made more sense. As indeed would “whoresons”.

Come to think of it, “moribund” is another word journalists get wrong, thinking it means “dead”. It means, of course, in terminal decline, lacking vigour or (in a person) on the point of death but haven’t quite karked it yet. But such is the systemic decline in good English in the media that you’ll quite often come across sentences like “The market in Betamax videotapes is moribund”.

“Systemic” is yet another word journalists have a lot of trouble with, confusing it with “systematic”. “The media reports skeptical arguments very poorly. I think it’s a systematic problem with science writing,” I read on a blog yesterday. The writer meant “systemic” –  of or relating to the whole system, rather than a particular, localised part of it. “Systematic” means that it’s all done to a set agenda or plan, as in “Police carried out a systematic search of the building”.

There you go: three clarifications of easily confused words, all stemming from a why-oh-why article about Cheggers and a writer who’s trying to be clever but is actually showing off his ignorance. Isn’t English wonderful?

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