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The Word Guy: My 'complements' to the chef

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 9:05 p.m.

Linguistic misunderstandings can cost you a lot of money. Just ask the Connecticut man who misinterpreted this notice in The New York Times: “Complementary Dinner — A five-course wine-pairing menu will be served March 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Saul, 140 Smith Street (Dean Street), Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.”

“Since the dinner was complementary,” he writes, “I invited my girlfriend and another couple to join me. The dinner — appetizer, entree, dessert — was superb, and the selection of wines was amazing.

“At the end of the dinner, I praised the wine steward, the chef and the waiter. Then the bill appeared. I said I thought I did not have to pay since the dinner was ‘complementary.' The restaurant manager explained the difference between ‘complementary' and ‘complimentary.'

“He had me there, and I was embarrassed over the fact that I had confused the two words, which certainly have very different meanings. It was a very expensive dinner, and the wine particularly so — not at all complimentary.”

This story prompts me to consider other usage distinctions that could make a dramatic difference. Would you react to each of the following situations with glee, or would you flee?

1. You're on trial for murder, and you're told the person presiding over your case is a “disinterested judge.” Glee or flee?

2. You're inexperienced and uneducated, but you're applying for a job with many perquisites? Glee or flee?

3. You're on a dating website looking for someone who's a nonconformist. A possible match writes, “I love to flaunt convention!” Glee or flee?

4. Your boss asks you to build an aquarium teaming with fish. Glee or flee?

5. You're a maker of fishing implements, and your boss tells you that you've made “a great gaff.”

Glee or flee? Answers:

1. Glee. “Disinterested” means “unprejudiced, objective.” “Uninterested” means “not interested.”

2. Glee. “Perquisites” means “benefits, extras.” “Prerequisites” means “requirements, qualifications.”

3. Flee. “Flaunt” means to “show off, ostentatiously display.” “Flout” means “to defy, scorn.”

4. Flee. “Teaming with fish” means working with a team of fish to build it. “Teeming” with fish means “full of fish.”

5. Glee. A gaff is a pole or hook used in fishing. A gaffe is a blatant mistake.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send email to Wordguy@aol.com or send regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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