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July 7th, 2004

Top seeded or top ceded? / daughter's mother-in-law / near miss

by Barbara Wallraff

Allan R. Clegg, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “I object when sports writers use the term ‘top seeded’ to refer to the athlete or team most favored to win. The proper usage as I was taught would be ‘top ceded,’ derived from the verb ‘concede.’ Every time I see ‘top seeded,’ I visualize some jock walking about with a lush growth of kelly-green grass atop his head. In the interest of preserving our language, help!”

Dear Allan: What an image! I’m as interested in preserving our language as you are, believe me. But the sports term really is “top seeded.” In a tennis tournament, for instance, the better players are “seeded” the way you’d plant valuable seeds in a garden some distance apart, to give them room. That is, players are given seed numbers and then matched with competitors in a way that prevents the “top seeds” from playing each other in the early rounds.

Hal Waltzman, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “The English language has many words denoting family relationships, such as ‘father,’ ‘brother,’ ‘cousin’ and ‘mother-in-law.’ Is there a word that denotes the family relationship of my daughter’s mother-in-law to me?”

Dear Hal: Anthropologists would call your daughter’s mother-in-law (and father-in-law) your affinal kin. But let’s get real: Terminology like that is never going to catch on in the everyday conversation. And English doesn’t have an everyday word with the meaning you’re looking for. The word I think stands the best chance of being adopted into English comes from Yiddish: “mechutonim,” a plural word that covers your son-in-law’s whole immediate family. It’s pronounced “mek-a-to-nim,” with a little extra sound coming from the back of your throat when you pronounce the “k.”

Yiddish also has words for specific members of your son-in-law’s family. His mother — the person you were asking about — is your wife’s “mechutonesteh.” (English spellings of Yiddish words vary; these spellings come from A Dictionary of Yiddish Slang and Idioms, by Fred Kogos.) If I were you, though, I might hold off on using “mechutonesteh” and try to help the broader word “mechutonim” catch on: “Oh, how nice! Here come the mechutonim now.”

Kay L. McCall, of Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: “The term ‘near miss’ doesn’t make sense to me, because when two airplanes avoid hitting each other, they do miss each other. I think that should be called a ‘near hit.’ Do you know how ‘near miss’ became the commonly used term?”

Dear Kay: “Near” is what’s called an antagonym or a contranym: a word with two opposite meanings. People have been using “near” in both ways for at least 500 years. Oddly enough, “close” can mean the same thing as “near” in both senses. For instance, “a near relative” is a close relative is a relative. The “near future” is the future close at hand. But “near equivalents” and “near certainties” aren’t equivalents or certainties — they’re just the nearest, or closest, things to them. If you don’t like the term “near miss,” feel free to say “near collision” — it means the same thing. Go figure!

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

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