“Intensive Purposes”

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t always gotten sayings right. Homophones, similar words, it’s easy enough to get a phrase wrong. Some are so common, it’s likely you might not realize they aren’t the actual saying. Here’s a few I’ve recently cleared up in my editing:

(For the purposes of this article, the incorrect phrase will be bolded with its intended meaning following. The proper saying will be bolded and underlined in the paragraph following)

Intensive Purposes. (Meaning: “For every functional purpose; in every practical sense; in every important respect; practically speaking.”)   The one I saw this morning editing, and what sparked this blog post. I actually thought this was the saying myself up until a couple of years ago when I was corrected. It makes sense, “for all intensive purposes…” the purposes are important, intense…but no. The correct form is Intents and Purposes. So why isn’t intensive purposes correct? Because the saying comes from a 16th century English law, originally “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.” Shortened to “intents and purposes” it’s now easily mistaken for “intensive purposes”

Per Say. (Meaning: As such; as one would expect from the name). A mistake that’s easy to understand (after all, it basically just comes out and says “as it says”, right?) the saying is actually Per Se. Why? Because it’s Latin. Se might not be an English word, but in Latin, “se” means “itself” (or himself or herself depending, but we’ll just stick with “itself”). Therefore, per se means “by itself”.

– Wallah. (Meaning: There it is, ta-da, presto). Another misunderstanding of a foreign word. When people write “Wallah!” they generally are trying to write what they’ve heard “Voila!” (a French word coming from the words vois [to look] and la [there or it]) as. While it might more technically come out to “look there!” it’s generally used (in France and in the English-speaking world) as “Here it is!” or “Ta da!” (for example “You add some ribbon, and voila! A new dress!”)

As added incentive to use the proper spelling, “Wallah” is itself a word meaning: “One employed in a particular occupation or activity” (coming from a Hindi word [vala] meaning “pertaining to or connected with”). Not what I think people mean when they say something along the lines of “Wallah! A new dress!”

– Say “I”. (Meaning: I agree). Perhaps it isn’t a foreign language misunderstanding, but this one is a replacing a common English word with one a little more obscure. Aye. Say “I” generally makes sense in the context (If you consider it something along the lines of: “If you agree, volunteer yourself.”) but “Say ‘Aye’”  makes even more sense, quite literally meaning “yes“. So “say ‘aye’ ” is asking people to say yes to a vote.

– Bunker Down. (Meaning: to take shelter; to assume a defensive position to resist difficulties). This mistake comes from a combination of places, I think. 1) taking the military phrase “bunk down” (meaning to go to bed) and 2) misunderstanding the proper phrase Hunker Down. While it might make sense to have “bunker down” as an extension of “bunking down” a bunker generally is “a bin or tank especially for fuel storage, as on a ship” or “an underground fortification” While it is possible to make “bunker” a verb, the verb forms are bunkered, bunkering, and bunkers, never just bunker. Hunker, on the other hand, means “To squat close to the ground”, “To take shelter, settle in, or hide out”, or “To hold stubbornly to a position” Bunker might make sense if you ignore the noun/verb problem, but hunker undoubtedly makes more sense.

– Reek Havoc. (Meaning: to cause a lot of trouble or damage). The “havoc” part of this saying doesn’t need much explanation. After all, havoc means: “wide and general destruction : devastation”. So, since you have the destruction part of “cause a lot of damage” all you need is the “a lot”. Reek means “to give off or become permeated with a strong or offensive odor” so, metaphorically, it could make sense. Someone who “reeks charm” gives off a lot of charm, so someone who “reeks havoc” causes a lot of destruction. The saying, however is Wreak Havoc , which makes slightly more sense with one of the meanings of “wreak” being to “inflict or take vengeance”. Rather than giving off havoc (“reeking” havoc) someone is inflicting havoc (wreaking havoc).

– Hone In. (Meaning:Directing yourself towards/zooming in on a target). Like the others, hone in generally makes sense. Meaning “to sharpen” or “to perfect” it’s possible to understand hone in as sharpening your direction or sight towards a target. The correct saying, however, is Home In. Coming from the idea of homing pigeons which were commonly used in the 19th Century to deliver messages, home in now covers anything that’s directing itself towards a target (such as missiles). So HOMing pidgeons=HOME in.

Of course, this might be starting to fall under the “popular use changes the lexicon” phenomenon. With enough people using this saying incorrectly, it’s possible it will start being accepted as “hone in” (even if that’s not the original saying).

– Maul It Over. (Meaning: take your time to think about something). One of the funnier mistakes I’ve found, I’m sure it comes from “maul” sounding similar to “mull”. Of course, a maul is a heavy hammer and to maul is to beat, bruise, mangle, or handle roughly. While I suppose it’s possible to maul a thought, people generally are looking for the slightly less violent Mull It Over. While interestingly enough, to mull something can mean to pulverize it, mull over a thought is using mull’s second meaning: “to consider at length : ponder” You are considering a thought at great length, not beating it up.

– Mute Point. (Meaning: a point that has been rendered irrelevant). While this “mute point” might have originally meant “[a point that is] to be definitively determined by an assembly of the people” it currently means (at least in the US) that the point is irrelevant to whatever is happening. And that’s why mute makes sense, yes? Someone who is mute can’t talk, you don’t need to talk about that point, wallah (cough, voila) you have a mute point. Properly, however a “mute point” is actually a Moot Point While the definition of “moot” might not help explain why it’s “moot” not “mute” (moot meaning “subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty”) a moot point comes from a law student practice (starting in the 16th century) of participating in “moot cases”. Using these practice or hypothetical cases, the students could discuss hypothetical case law. Thus, a point in a moot case was hypothetical, and often not relevant to actual cases, bringing us Moot Points.

– Squash Their Hope. (Meaning: Kill someone’s hope; stop someone from hoping something will happen). This mistake may make the most sense to me. You’re trying to kill someone’s hope. If you squash a bug, you kill it. Ergo “Squash their hope” makes sense. Though a valid conclusion, the saying is actually Quash Their Hope. Perhaps a little more obscure (but two hundred years older than the word “squash”) quash means “to make void, annul, crush.” So, while “squash” might be the same sort of idea (crushing something) quash brings along all sorts of other fun meanings. (Not only are you crushing someone’s hope, you’re defeating it forcibly.)

– Ripe with Conflict. (Meaning: Conflict abounds). Ripe makes some sense here. Something that is “ripe with conflict” means there’s a lot of conflict going on. Ripe fruit means it’s really full and ready to eat. It doesn’t completely make sense, but who says idioms have to? Well, idioms don’t, but the proper saying (Rife with conflict) makes just a little more sense. You see, “rife” means: “plentiful” or “abundant”. So something “rife with conflict” is abundant with conflict. Makes just a little more sense than “ripe”.

The main problem with these misunderstood sayings is, as I’ve pointed out, most generally make sense if you don’t think about them too much (you can even make an argument for some going both ways, as I know since my fiance and I spent the better part of a meal debating “hone in” and “bunker down” when I originally talked about writing this article). As long as a saying generally makes sense, people don’t tend to think about them too much. After all, someone might tell you to “take a knee”. If you aren’t a sports person, it might not make sense why, as Urban Dictionary puts it, that means “taking a temporary break from an activity” but you can come up with some reason for it (kneeling would be taking a break…) If you heard the saying a few times as “take a T” you could likewise more than likely come up with a reason for it (T…it’s a sports metaphor…Take a timeout? That works).

Misusing several sayings isn’t about not understanding the words, it’s about not hearing something correctly, and coming up with something that generally makes sense. Idioms are, after all, figurative. They only generally have to make sense.

Just, generally, the actual saying has a reason it’s the way it is, and thus makes a little more sense than its alternatives.


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