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December 3rd, 2003

Thrill to / deep-seated or deep-seeded? / one of the only

by Barbara Wallraff

Thomas J. Wolford, of Lincoln, Maine, writes, “I find your column thrilling, and I get a thrill when I realize that others love language. But I refuse to ‘thrill to’ your column—or to rides at an amusement park. I would be thrilled if you could address this annoyance in your column.”

Flatterer! Still, when I began looking into this, I wasn’t sure I agreed with you. “Thrill to” has been used in the way you don’t like at least since the 1930s. And sometimes it sounds fine to me. But as soon as I began hunting up examples of its use in newspapers, I realized that all the ones I liked were ironic. For example, in an article in The Kansas City Star last month, about teaching phone etiquette to teenagers, I found the sentence “And when making a call, what adult doesn’t thrill to the sound of ‘Yeah?,’ ‘Huh?’ or stunned silence on the other end of the line?” That’s amusing, no?

As for non-ironic uses of “thrill to,” if you try to come up with a synonym, you’ll see what the problem is. I mean, “delight in” or “revel in”? Bah, humbug. People rarely use words like these or “thrill to” sincerely. For the most part, either the words are ironic or they’re hype.

Denise Brennan, of Hamtramck, Mich., writes, “Is there such a thing as a ‘deep-seated’ problem? I always thought the correct expression was ‘deep-seeded,’ but I’ve been noticing a lot of ‘deep-seated’ references in print lately. ‘Deep-seeded’ makes sense: a deep-seeded problem would be one that’s been buried deeply, like a seed.”

The verb “seat,” when it’s referring to “an immaterial thing, a quality, feeling, etc.,” can mean “to have its seat or abode in a certain place.” This may not come up very often nowadays, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word in this sense has been a part of our language for at least four hundred years. In 1602 Shakespeare used it in Hamlet: “See, what a grace was seated on this brow.”

If we were inventing English from scratch today, “deep-seated” probably wouldn’t catch on, because it does sound as if someone is stuck in a butterfly chair. If you don’t like the expression, though, just use “deep-rooted” instead. That has a similarly ancient and honorable lineage. And as you say, it makes sense.

Kay Kelly, of Albany, N.Y., writes, “I have a pet peeve about current usage. Example: ‘Bobby is one of the only straight-A students in his class.’ It should be ‘one of the few’ or ‘one of only a few.’ Is my thinking correct?”

Yes. The word “only” singles out a particular one or a particular group. To be sure, we can say “the only straight-A students in the class.” But there we’re considering the straight-A students altogether as a unit: only them. Note that if we turn your example around so that the sentence starts with “Of the…,” we wouldn’t dream of saying “Of the only straight-A students in the class, Bobby is one.” We’d say “Of the few straight-A students …”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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