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Commentary: Expressions We Only Read

By Paula LaRocque, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Certain words appear frequently in literature, but seldom in speech. How often do we say, for example: "She stood waiting angrily, arms akimbo"?

Akimbo describes a familiar posture. It means standing with your hands on your hips, elbows thrust a bit forward. The word comes to us through Middle English, and it means, literally, "in keen bow" - or, bent like a bow. That "keen bow" refers to the angle of the arms and elbows. And, of course, that posture's attitude is confrontational or belligerent.

We largely learn the meanings of words through context and action. It doesn't take us very long to understand the meaning of yes or no, or good or bad, or cookie or water. The speaker's attitude and actions teach us the meanings of those words. And when we learn to read, we still depend largely upon context to give us the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Our understanding of words is refined as we see them used in multiple settings.

It can happen, though, that for some reason we seem only to hear certain words and expressions. Or, conversely, that we seem only to read certain words. That oddity can pose small problems in perception.

For example, I thought for most of my childhood that akimbo, which I often read but never heard, meant standing with your arms folded. I must have decided that from context, which suggested a certain stubbornness or belligerence. So folded arms made sense to me.

It can happen to adults, too. A friend says that until recently he thought the expression "for all intents and purposes" was "for all intensive purposes." He said "for all intensive purposes" made sense to him until he saw the expression written and found it made even better sense.

Another acquaintance used to say "vanilla folder" and then one day saw in a catalog that it was "Manila folder." He said he thought "vanilla folder" meant that it was a plain vanilla color.

Another friend said "six of one and a dozen of the other" when referring to something that made no difference. He knew the expression meant that from its contexts. Then he read the expression somewhere and saw, of course, that it was "six of one and a half-dozen of the other." He said he was at once embarrassed and pleased - embarrassed that he'd said it wrong but pleased that he now understood it.

Even writers can have odd blind spots about certain words. The novelist Danielle Steel once created a character who - as Ms. Steel wrote - "cavorted in her deck chair." Now, cavort is a word we probably read more often than we hear, but it's not an uncommon word. And I confess I don't see how we could learn the word in any context and not realize that in order to cavort, you must at least get out of your chair.

Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, Championship Writing, and On Words.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us. ___________________ I'm Paula LaRocque