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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-10-18)

I am indebted to my friendly neighbourhood astrologer (whose daily claptrap appears in our morning paper, next to the crossword puzzle) for starting this column. He or she advised those born under Capricorn that we would “do ourselves no favours by embracing fanciful fallacies at the expense of realities and truisms.”

Regular readers of this feature will remember an early column about pejorative words and especially the way in which adding a suffix can turn a neutral word into a damaging one. The classic downer is “-ism”: add it to a neutral word like “commune” to make “communism” and lo! The Evil Empire.

Where our astrologer erred was in using “truism” as a neutral word, presumably meaning “truths.” But “truism” has been a pejorative for a long time. It does indeed mean “a self-evident truth”, but is universally understood to mean “a commonplace or trite statement”, a truth so self-evident as to be unbearably tedious. I think I’ll stick to my fanciful fallacies for now, and take my chances.

From the front page of the same newspaper, a few days later, comes a statement from our Agriculture Minister on measures to provide cut-price food supplies for the poor (or should I say the financially disadvantaged): “The government will closely monitor their impact to mitigate against possible consequences.”

Here’s the old confusion between “mitigate” and “militate”. “Mitigate” means “mollify…lessen the severity of”, which you might well want to do with possible consequences. But you can’t mitigate against something; you simply mitigate it. One would think that the common root of “militate” and “military” would explain that the word our minister was seeking was “militate” – to “contend with” or “fight against”. He wants to militate (fight) against possible adverse consequences, and some praise is due to him for realising that there are likely to be some.

Another two words often confused are “flaunt” and “flout”. “Flaunt” means “to display ostentatiously; to show off”. “Flout” means “to mock; to treat with contempt; to defy (orders, etc)”. They could hardly be further apart in meaning but unfortunately they can often crop up in a context that links them. A recent example that I came across described a block of apartments in which all the windows facing the street had yellow curtains except one. It had red and white striped curtains. The owner of that apartment had flouted convention by flaunting his brighter décor and thus demonstrating his independence. So I suppose the proximity of the two words makes some degree of confusion inevitable, but it’s worth avoiding.

Incidentally, our newspaper astrologer changed course the day after advising me to stick to truisms for safety’s sake. I am now required to hurl caution to the winds, take chances, embark on new enterprises and more. There must have been some pretty hefty shuffling of the planets during the night to justify such a reversal, but who are we to know?

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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