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The Word Guy: Fighting a Battle to the 'Def'

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 9:18 p.m.

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.

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