Idioms and foreign-language phrases can add color to your speech and writing and help you present a professional, knowledgeable image. Unfortunately, many people misunderstand or misuse those phrases, unwittingly undermining their efforts to impress.
It even happens to professional writers. In the 24 hours before I wrote this, a reporter for one major newspaper used “per say” in a story. He meant “per se,” Latin for “in itself,” as in “The agreement wasn’t a legal document per se.” And a reporter at a large daily paper used “in mass” in a story, when the actual phrase is “en masse.” That one’s a French phrase for a group that’s acting as one.
Often, these phrases wind up being misspelled or misused because we learn them by overhearing them. Ever see someone write that we live in a “doggie-dog” world? If that seems a little odd to you, it’s because the actual phrase is “dog-eat-dog,” meaning viciously competitive (nothing about “doggie” sounds vicious or competitive). Or, when someone doesn’t want to reel off a long list, they’ll mention a couple items and end it with “ex cetera.” Of course, they mean “et cetera,” the Latin phrase for “on and on” we normally abbreviate as “etc.” (and not “ect.”)
In calling attention to these errors, am I being too picky? Perhaps. But the words and language we use reflect our personality and our intelligence. If you use a fancy phrase correctly, you may impress your companions or readers. Use it incorrectly, and they may snicker at your attempt to look smarter than you must really be. Plus, you probably want to ensure that your words are as accurate as possible.
Some of the most commonly misused words and phrases follow. If you’re writing or saying them incorrectly, commit the correct versions to memory.
“Mute point.” If you’re trying to say that something is beyond the point of practical debate, you mean to say that it’s a “moot point.” “Whether your state’s legislature approves gay marriage became a moot point after the Supreme Court decision.” Since “mute” refers to something soundless, a mute point wouldn’t say a lot.
“Walla!” I see many people use this or variations as a way to say “Ta-da!” or “There you go!” The French word they’re actually trying to use is “Voilà,” pronounced “VWA-lah.” The only “walla” I know is half of a city’s name in Washington State.
“Notta,” meaning none at all. This is another incorrect take on a foreign word, this time “nada,” or Spanish for “nothing.”
“Fox paws.” We may not know what the fox says, but why do we mention his feet when someone makes a mistake? We’re actually trying to say “faux pas” (pronounced “foh-PAH”), a French phrase for a blunder, usually one with a social consequence. “Calling his supervisor’s husband by her ex-husband’s name was a faux pas.”
“For all intensive purposes” sounds pretty dramatic, but it’s actually an incorrect version of “for all intents and purposes,” a venerable legal term that means something effectively addresses something without specifically doing so. “For all intents and purposes, that ‘all other tasks as assigned’ in your employment contract means you do need to wax my Mercedes.”
“Peaked interest.” If something catches your attention, it “piques,” not “peaks” your interest.
“Bonnafied.” When something is legitimate, some people will tell you that it’s bonnafied. The phrase they’re actually aiming for is “bona fide,” which is Latin for “good faith,” as any decent attorney knows.
“It doesn’t jive.” If one piece of information doesn’t match up with another, it doesn’t “jibe.” “Jive” was what Barbara Billingsley spoke so eloquently in Airplane! “Carl, this payment doesn’t jibe with the vendor’s invoice.”
“Capeesh.” After the “Godfather” movies were released, Americans started using this word to confirm understanding, although they just couldn’t spell it correctly. In Italian, it’s “capisce,” as in “I need that report by five, capisce?” (Keep in mind that trying to sound like a gangster may not resonate well with your employees.)
“Like a trooper.” Soliders are dependable, and we refer to them as “troops.” But the correct phrase actually uses the word “trouper,” a reference to old-time theatre performers who put on their shows regardless of health issues, bad weather, or rundown stages.
Finally, you might hear capitalists praise “Lassie fair” economics, but it has nothing to do with attractive collies. “Laissez-faire” is a French phrase that essentially means “let it go,” implying that the marketplace performs at its best without government intervention.