Words disappear all the time because the ideas they represent go out of use or fashion, because a trend or event brings a new word that supplants the old, or sometimes, simply, through ignorance, confusion or neglect. For journalists and other lovers of language, the death of a good word is tragic.
A case in point: A caption with the Oct. 31 front-page article “In front of TV, president fumes with frustration” described a White House news briefing and said, “Away from the podium, Trump staffers fretted . . .” There was no podium in the photograph. What we see is the White House press secretary standing on a stage behind a lectern. The word “lectern” is in danger of vanishing from the English language through ignorance, confusion and neglect, perhaps because Greek and Latin are no longer taught in schools as a foundation for understanding the roots of Western languages.
Allow me to help:
A “podium” is a low, temporary platform that raises a speaker a few inches above an audience. “Podium” comes from the Greek word for “foot” — the same root as our word for “podiatrist” (a doctor who specializes in treating the ailments of feet); so, speakers place their feet on a podium to be better seen and heard. (A permanent platform that raises a speaker much higher is called a “stage.”)
A “lectern” is a piece of furniture, usually with an inclined top, and these days often accessorized with a light and a microphone, behind which a speaker stands to deliver a speech. “Lectern” comes from the Latin word meaning “to read” — the same root as our word for “lecture”; so, speakers read their speech and often lecture from a lectern. Recently it has become fashionable or simply expedient to use the word “podium” to describe that piece of furniture behind which a speaker stands to read and lecture; but, as the saying goes, calling a dog’s leg a tail doesn’t make it a tail. Journalists and other writers, public officials and other leaders and teachers and other literate citizens are the bulwark against blather in an increasingly illiterate society that takes time only to express itself — often badly — in 280 characters or fewer.
Precision in language is essential for clear, concise, correct communication. When words are conflated and their meanings mixed, the result is confusion and misunderstanding. The history of words such as “inflammable,” “literally,” “fulsome,” “bemused,” “decimate,” “shambles,” “fantastic,” “ironic” and “legendary” exemplifies the richness and specificity that have been lost in recent years as almost no one seems to know what these words are intended to describe. It is particularly painful to watch and hear bedrock news institutions contribute to the decay.
What is lost other than words? Consider this: It is as true today as it was 100 years ago that immigrants, people with limited education but a desire to speak better, and others who are learning to read take language lessons from newspapers . It is vital for journalists to provide teachable moments with every word they choose.
George Chartier, Alexandria