The Word Guy: Fighting a Battle to the 'Def'
We expect dictionaries to correct common mistakes in a word's spelling, definition, pronunciation and usage. But, sometimes, a dictionary creates a mistake, changing the use of a word forever.
That's what happened when Samuel Johnson was compiling his famous dictionary during the 1750s. Until then, “internecine” had meant, “fought to the death, murderous.” It had been derived from the Latin prefix “inter-,” an intensifier meaning “completely,” and the Latin verb “necare,” meaning “to kill.”
But the good Dr. Johnson misinterpreted the “inter-” to mean “between, mutual.” So his dictionary gave “internecine” an entirely new definition — “endeavoring mutual destruction” — and people quickly began using “internecine” to describe a battle that was mutually ruinous or fatal to both sides.
Then, building on this new denotation, people started using “internecine” to mean “internal, intramural.” Soon any internal struggle, no matter how trivial, was being described as “internecine,” and this is the dominant sense of the word today. People use “internecine” to describe everything from family feuds to mafia wars to interagency rivalries.
Usage experts, mindful of the word's original meaning, still cringe at this extension. In “Modern American Usage,” Bryan Garner admonishes, “Careful writers will respect the word's traditional roots in belligerency and find other words to describe petty squabbles.”
But use “internecine” in its original “murderous” sense, and you risk confusion. Consider Henry David Thoreau's description of a fierce battle between armies of red ants and black ants in “Walden”: “It was internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other.”
Was Thoreau emphasizing that the battle was vicious, or that it was an internal conflict between two species of ants? Most likely, he intended the former. As a Latin scholar, he was surely familiar with the origin of “internecine.” Besides, the entire passage emphasizes the savage nature of the battle. Nevertheless, even the thorough Thoreau leaves some “ant”biguity.
Appropriately, the pronunciation of “internecine” has proven to be just as controversial. Dictionaries have endorsed as many as five renderings: in-tur-NEE-sin, in-tur-NEE-sine, in-TUR-nuh-sin, in-TUR-nuh-seen and in-tur-NEH-seen, the last being the most common. Fight it out — intensely — among yourselves.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse , as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- U.S. Steel, Penguins, government leaders call press conference at Consol
- Clues to Chief Justice John Roberts’ thinking on new ObamaCare case
- Iraqi family, torn apart for opposing Saddam, reunites in Pittsburgh
- CT scans can find smokers’ lung cancer early
- Pirates trade Davis to A’s for international signing bonus money
- NFL parity makes playoff chase a multi-team muddle
- Stores creating Thanksgiving dine-and-dash dilemma
- Starkey: No explaining Steelers, AFC North
- Horse racing industry banks on Wolf
- For Steelers, a fight to finish for playoff berth
- Pitt notebook: Chryst keeps Panthers motivated amid adversity