More Miscellaneous Misuses

 Annoying little things that have crossed the radar.

Air on the side of caution

Uh, no. It’s err.

But, as the poet said, to err is human, to forgive divine.

Just desserts

Those who grew up in Toronto in the 1980s may remember a restaurant of this name, which served nothing but cakes and fruit pies.

The moniker was a play on the phrase just deserts, which (with the emphasis on the second syllable of deserts) means ‘due recompense’.

With the emphasis on the first syllable of deserts, the phrase would mean ‘solely arid wastelands’.

Re- plus back

In the space of two days I saw both return back and reply back.

The back is redundant, as it’s built into the re­- prefix already.


This is heard fairly often and seen as well, but it’s an error for remuneration, if the meaning is intended to be ‘compensation’ or ‘payment’ rather than ‘renumbering’.

It’s a very old and persistent error, however: the OED cites examples from the early fifteenth century to the present.

It probably arose as a typo or, in speech, as an example of what’s called metathesis.

That’s a fancy word for transposing the initial letters of two words or syllables (e.g., Cake Blassels for Blake Cassels). A colloquial name for this is a spoonerism, named after the Revd William Archibald Spooner (1841-1930), an Oxford cleric who was apparently apt to metathesise in sermons, with unintentionally comic effect. (Most of the examples attributed to him are probably apocryphal, however; concocting spoonerisms became something of a late Victorian parlour game.)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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