August 30th, 2006
Where it's at / overtake vs. take over / exorcised or exercised?
by Barbara Wallraff
Evelyn Strebel, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “My pet peeve is to hear blatant errors from writers, newspersons and others who are just doing their jobs. My favorite peeve of all is ‘where it’s at.’ Please tell me if I am out of date, incorrect or just plain cranky.”
Dear Evelyn: When “where it’s at” simply refers to location, you’re none of the above -- you’re right to be peeved. A weathercaster would sound ignorant, for instance, if he or she said, “The Gulf of Mexico is where the hurricane is at right now.”
James B. Larkin, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes: “Lately I’ve been seeing and hearing ‘overtake’ where the context requires ‘take over.’ The dictionary is quite clear about the distinction: ‘overtake’ means ‘catch up with, pass, exceed,’ and ‘take over’ means ‘assume control of.’ Must readers guess what is meant?”
Dear James: Let’s hope not. You’re right that “overtake” and “take over,” when used correctly, have little more in common than their syllables. Strange to say, “undertake” is more nearly a synonym of “take over” than “overtake” is. (“I undertook the project because he was neglecting it.” “I took over the project from him.”) Another strange truth is that sometimes a single word will evolve differently in different times and places until it acquires two nearly opposite meanings. Here “oversight” is an example: It can mean “scrutiny, supervision” or it can mean “a mistake.”
Sara Vanderclute, of Fayetteville, N.C., writes: “When describing someone who is outraged about something, is the correct word ‘exorcised’ or ‘exercised’?”
Dear Sara: To “exorcise” a person means to get an evil spirit out of him or her. I’ll admit that exorcism isn’t my field of expertise, but as far as I know, people can’t do it to themselves. People who are outraged or furious are “exercised.” The idea is that their emotions are getting a workout.
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