or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 18, 2006

Say What?

Remember what I said yesterday about borrowings from foreign languages? "When we borrow entire phrases...we generally keep them intact: 'hoi polloi', for instance, or 'auf Wiedersehen'."

It was true yesterday, and it's still true today. From a letter to the endlessly wonderful Miss Manners:

I would rather not have a "co-best man" if I could avoid it, would hate her to have to share the limelight per say and I think she would absolutely love being able to do this for me.

Now, I understand why someone might spell that Latin phrase "per say". That's exactly how it's pronounced. However, someone who writes it that way is someone who definitely doesn't know where it comes from, has probably never seen it in print, and possibly doesn't know what it means. The writer clearly doesn't: he's used it incorrectly, even if he spelled it right and the misspelling is the work of a misguided editor.

The expression is "per se", which is Latin for "by itself", and it means "inherently": "Cannabis, per se, is not evil (though it makes you act like a doofus)." What he appears to want to say is "the limelight, if that's the right word" or perhaps "the limelight, such as it is".

This useful site, Common Errors in English, has this to say:

This legal term (meaning “in, of, or by itself”) is a bit pretentious, but you gain little respect if you misspell “per se” as a single word. Worse is the mistaken “per say.”

Couldn't have put it better myself.


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