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June 21st, 2006

Meanings of inform / shoo in, brooch, broach, breach and breech

by Barbara Wallraff

Richard Dudman, of Ellsworth, Maine, writes: “People often say things like ‘Such-and-such has informed my thinking.’ Is that correct usage, or am I right that ‘inform’ means simply ‘to tell’?”

Dear Richard: One of the oldest meanings “inform” has is “to give form to; shape; mold.” (And an early meaning of “information” is “the process of forming a person’s mind or character.”) “Inform” can still mean that, though of course you’re right that it usually means “tell.” So “informed my thinking” means “formed my thinking,” and the phrase is perfectly correct.

I wonder if “inform ... thinking” gets your attention, though, because it’s often surrounded by pretentious jargon. As in, “It was not a linear process, but rather, a recursive one in which their behaviors informed their thinking, their reflecting began to modify their behaviors, and their reading further informed their understanding.” (Translation: What they did and what they read changed what they thought, and what they thought, in turn, changed what they did.) Or “With her revisionary eye, she can triumph over the cultural unconscious that has informed her thinking and can find the axis, the point of connection that enables her to begin to make and, thus, to be.” (Translation: She’s creative.) Those are real sentences I found on the Web, and the reason I didn’t tell you the authors’ names is that ridiculing people is not my idea of fun. People tempted to write “informed ... thinking” might do well to ask themselves whether they’re perhaps getting a little too fancy. But sometimes the phrase really is the simplest way for us to say what we mean.

Debra Wells, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “Your recent column that discussed ‘toe the line’ reminded me of a few other misuses I see frequently. Would you mention ‘shoo-in’? So often, it seems, someone thinks it refers to sticking a foot in the door or some such, resulting in ‘shoe-in.’

“Additionally, ‘brooch-broach’ and ‘breach-breech’ cause unintentionally hilarious mistakes. Our local paper wrote an ominous piece about ‘breeches in airport security.’ I wrote to ask about potential pants-threats.”

Dear Debra: Thank you -- good points all. “Shoo-in” started out as horse-racing slang. It meant a fixed race or the horse that wins it, and it’s related to the verb “shoo,” which means “drive or urge” in a certain direction -- as in “I shooed him out the door.”
As for “brooch,” it’s a decorative pin, usually worn by a woman. This word is easy to confuse with “broach,” because the two are pronounced the same way, with a long “o,” to rhyme with “coach” and “poach.” But “broach” has just about all the other meanings associated with either word, the most common of which is to “bring up” a subject.

A “breach” is a rupture, gap, violation, breakup or breakout. When a whale leaps out of the ocean, that’s a “breach” -- and so is a violation of security procedures. A “breech” is a part of a gun, the human behind (hence “a breech delivery” of a baby) or, as you say, pants, which people wear to cover their bodies’ breeches.

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

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