THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Word

The unkindliest cut

When a compliment hides an insult

By Jan Freeman
January 25, 2009
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The adjective kindly isn't on anyone's list of insulting words -- yet. But reader Areve Alexander has her suspicions about it. "Is the word kindly ever used to describe anyone under, say, 45?" she asks in an e-mail. Or, she wonders, is it like feisty -- a word that compliments and condescends in the same breath?

The usual sources were silent on the question, so I searched Google News for real-life examples of kindly in action. Of the first 20 results, seven clearly applied the adjective to an older person: A "kindly uncle," "kindly old grandfather," and -- ahem -- a "kindly but clueless grandma." Not all the kindly folks were old, but they were older, it was clear, than the person describing them.

In another seven examples, the "kindly" folks -- neighbor, social worker, cashier -- weren't obviously older or younger than the writer.

The remaining uses were generic or inanimate -- kindly notes, acts, dispositions, and so forth. (In some of these cases, I would have used kind instead, but I couldn't formulate a rule to tell you why; there's just too much overlap between kind and kindly.)

Is this evidence of creeping ageism? Could be. I repeated my quickie research on the first 20 news stories using kind as an adjective, and found no sign of age bias at all. So though kindly is a fine word, it wouldn't hurt us to pause a moment before using it, to make sure it doesn't suggest "harmless, doddering, over the hill" -- and perhaps to check whether plain old kind works just as well.

. . .

UNDER A SPELL: Part-time business students are in a bind, a Globe story reported last Sunday; they have less time to study since the tough economy means they "now have more work then ever."

Yes, "then ever." The mistake caught the eye of Joel Relihan, head of the classics department at Wheaton College, who was already tracking its spread among his students -- and wondering if we really can't tell then from than anymore.

I told him I doubted things were that dire. True, then for than is a fairly common spelling error, and one that spellcheckers don't catch. Then and (unstressed) than sound almost the same, and like other homophone pairs, they can be hard to keep straight. But then for than, like principle for principal, is not a confusion of sense -- it's just a spelling error.

For some reason, though, the Confusable Words industry -- dozens of websites use that label -- wants to scare us into thinking of spelling mixups as serious misunderstandings. "Check your dictionary," they intone. "Use than to make a comparison. Use then when referring to time."

But this is ludicrous. The person who types "he's bigger then me" isn't accidentally using then, the word that refers to time; he's just spelling than the way it sounds. In fact, than was often spelled then until the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "I had rather be a doore keeper in the house of my God, then to dwell in the tents of wickednesse," reads the psalm in the 1611 King James Bible.

Should students (and journalists) learn to spell correctly? Of course. But there's no need to overreact. The writer who mixes up hanger and hangar needs a spelling tip, not a brain transplant.

. . .

REBOOTING AN IDIOM: Not long ago, Mark Hussey of Pepperell noticed a Globe columnist's reference to a politician with an "up from the bootstraps" life story. He was surprised to find some 700 online uses of the new version, "up from the bootstraps," where he would use the standard "(pull oneself) up by the bootstraps." "I doubt it will ever make sense," he writes, "but will it someday be considered correct?"

That we can't predict. The proof is in the pudding, as we now say; idioms often turn opaque as the centuries pass. But bootstraps are hardly mysterious; they're the loops of leather or fabric attached to boots to help you pull them on.

As for the idiom, it dates at least to 1860, where it appears in a comment on metaphysical philosophy: "The attempt of the mind to analyze itself [is] an effort analogous to one who would lift himself by his own bootstraps." That is, it's literally impossible. Metaphorically, though, it means to succeed by your own efforts, without a boost from anyone else.

But is "up from the bootstraps" a reanalysis of the phrase, with "bootstraps" now imagined as some sort of litter that plagues the lives of the poor? Or is it just a random preposition change -- like "bored of" for "bored by" or "bored with" -- initiated by people who weren't really paying attention to the idiom? We may never know. But then, if the traditional "up by the bootstraps" continues to outpace the rogue version by 90 to 1, we may never need to.

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