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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 Please tell me if I am out of date, incorrect or just plain cranky.”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.”

Often, though, the phrase means something like “the place to be.” For instance, a recent article in the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald quoted a graduate student in astronomy as saying, “Mars is where it’s at for my generation.” It’s a colloquialism, to be sure, but it’s succinct, clear and well-established. More formal language -- such as “Mars is the most promising focus of study for my generation” -- would have been wordier and possibly faintly pretentious. From now on, will you please try not to be cranky about it’s at” except when it’s just a one-word-longer way of saying “where it is”?

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.”

There are words and phrases that mean pretty much the same thing with the pieces in either order: “The water flowed over the dam”; “The water overflowed the dam.” But just as often, the order is crucial. “Overblown” means “excessive,” while “blown over” means “past.” “Overcome” means “defeat, prevail,” while “come over” is a friendly invitation. “Overhand” is a way of delivering a baseball or tennis ball, while “hand over” means “give, probably reluctantly.” And let’s not forget “overhang,” which means “something that projects out or looms above something else,” and “hangover,” which means -- well, you know as well as I do, though of course your and my knowledge of hangovers is only abstract. “Overtake” and “take over” are a distinct pair like this, and long may they remain so.

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.

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

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