Say What?

Mar 222007
Authors: Justin Sandell

I wasn’t doing much of anything the other day when the word “pedagogical” surfaced in my mind. “What’s this?” I thought. I had seen the word a time or two before, but I wasn’t sure of its meaning. Upon looking in “Webster’s,” I was rather surprised to find that it has to do with teaching. For example, a textbook is a pedagogical work. This word really wants to mean something else, though. It lends itself very well to subjects regarding feet, and indeed it seems much happier in this sentence: “The smell inside was overwhelmingly pedagogical, as if the entire house had been somehow shrunken and stashed in someone’s shoe.”

This set me to wondering how many more unfortunate words might be out there, stuck doing a job they plainly aren’t suited for, while their true meaning fairly emanates from them by their very sound – words that have a master’s in communication, but ended up flipping burgers or working in a factory. A random sampling of the dictionary produced no shortage. So in the interest of just doing what’s right, I’m going to bring to attention a few of the most egregious (and that word has found a perfect fit) examples and give them new meanings.

“Oviparous” is a delightfully spirited little word that sorely needs a career change. It’s unfortunately used to describe an animal that reproduces by laying eggs. But when I hear the word oviparous I sense an attitude of uncaring paired with one of dismissal. It’s got a lot more punch when used in this sense, and here it can show its true spirit: “Already thinking of her next mark, she answered his pitiable goodbye with an oviparous wave.”

“Ombudsman” is a word that was somehow given a meaning nearly opposite what it should have. An ombudsman is a sort of go-between for the public when they have complaints against an institution or corporation. Often working in the media, an ombudsman investigates and tries to resolve the issue. This sounds like a rather benign individual, unless you’re on the wrong side of the investigation, but still, why give him such a malevolent sounding name? The word ombudsman conjures up images of a dark underworld entity that, while not causing bad things to happen, reveals himself to the recipient of grisly misfortune sometime prior to its happening. See if this doesn’t sound a more appropriate use of the word: “Jim had always been able to talk himself out of any bad situation, so he wasn’t even nervous, but when he saw The Ombudsman watching from the shadows he became frantic with fear.”

I’ve exposed some undeserved suffering to this point, but none have suffered so acutely as poor “lugubrious.” “Webster’s” defines it as “mournful often to an exaggerated degree.” I’d say if anybody is mournful, it’s lugubrious itself. To my ears, lugubrious can’t mean anything but thick and slimy, and yet such a visceral, stimulating word is grinding its days away describing the dark and shadowy world of depression. Here’s the kind of work it ought to be doing: “The last time I saw Eddie, he was doing a fair impersonation of a slug, as his sinus problems had him in quite a lugubrious state.”

As I said, this is just a small sample of what I’d wager to be hundreds of misplaced words. I’m going to keep my eyes open, and from time to time I might just throw one in where context allows its greater meaning to shine through. I encourage you to do the same. After all, language is a chimerical thing, and changes constantly. If we all do our pourboire, some day we might see more entertaining words in everyday dysprosium.

Justin Sandell is a freshman open option major. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Relies and feedback can be sent to

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.