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Take My Word

Following the Strait and Narrow Path

November 12, 1986|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

In the Oct. 30 installment of Doonesbury, the first panel says, "OK, we open with a kind of scrapbook, underscoring your straight-laced, Victorian upbringing, etc."

Here's an excellent example of how language changes through misuse. "Straight-laced" is an erroneous substitute for "strait-laced", just as "straight jacket" is often used for "straitjacket".

Confusing "strait and "straight" is understandable. 'Strait" means "narrow," "tight" or "strict"; "straight" has many meanings, among them "upright"; "laced tight" and "laced upright" are not dissimilar; thus, we get "straight-laced".

If you're a dictionary-watcher, you might notice that, while Webster's New International, 2nd Edition (1953), lists only the "strait-" versions and doesn't even mention "straight-laced" or "straight jacket", WNI III, dated 14 years later--1967--mentions them as variants on "strait-laced" and "straitjacket." WNI III doesn't like to act as though it had superior taste or judgment, so it doesn't say that "straight-" is a corruption of "strait"; only that it's a variant, or "var." as the lexicographers put it. A lot of us disapproving old fogies who wish language would stay put, though we know that it never will, would prefer "corr." for "corruption" in a case like this, but we're scorned as elitists.

Seeing "straight-laced" in Doonesbury reminded me of a letter I got in March from someone named Jackie Williams, who seems to collect gaffes, especially from this journal.

Jackie is one of those androgynous names. Is he Jackie, or is she Jackie? I'm going to follow my hunch and guess that this Jackie is not a Jack, but a Jacqueline. Maybe I'm wrong, but there it is. I fished Ms. Williams's letter out of one of my desk drawers.

She says, ". . . some . . . young malapropists grow up to be journalists and some of them work for the Los Angeles Times. I have been collecting errors and submit the following," and she appends a list. She claims to have found "hoard" for "horde," as in "hoards of hungry people;" "wrestle for wrested"--"he wrestled the gun from the suspect;" "reign" for "rein"--"The President was given free reign;" "pour" for "pore"--"He poured over the book;" "hard-corps" for "hard-core"--"He was a hard-corps case;" "pawned for palmed"--"He pawned off the fakes on the unsuspecting victim;" "wrangle" for "wangle"--"She wrangled an invitation;" "due" for "dew"--"The lawn was covered with due;" "palette" for "palate"--"The gourmet has a discriminating palette;" "no-holes-barred" for "no-holds barred"--"It was a no-holes-barred scrap;" "peddled" for "pedaled"--"He peddled his bicycle on the street;" and "shoe-in" for "shoo-in"--"She was a shoe-in for the nomination."

Ms. Williams didn't send me any evidence in the form of clippings or copies, but I'm quite willing to accept her word that these boo-boos appeared. I doubt that there's a newspaper in the country that doesn't produce its share of "duedrops" and "shoe-ins".

I think these journalistic gaffes are fun and probably good for us. One of my favorites from years ago is about a politician who went for the juggler. "Straight-laced" is different from "going for the juggler" and "pouring over the books", because the latter strike literate people as funny, whereas "straight-laced" is not always discernible as a mistake: the misuse has become a "var." and in time will almost certainly be standard.

Some of us older pedants will miss the days when everyone "knew better," but all the while we'll recognize the inevitable crumbling of another linguistic cookie.

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