Words that lead to nuclear disaster

Francis Chin

HAVING typos and misspellings in your writing gives the impression that you’re careless or sloppy or just feeling sleepy. But it’s no big deal because most readers are quite forgiving. They understand that when you write, you may press the wrong keys, and that you have forgotten to do a Spell-check (pressing the F7 function key when using Microsoft Word).

Let’s discuss something more serious – using an ambiguous word or expression that can lead to different interpretations. You may not know that many words or phrases look similar but are worlds apart in meaning or implication. Here’re some examples:

Infamous bombing

The most famous example of ambiguity is the Japanese word, mokusatsu 黙殺  which could mean either “to ignore”, “to put aside for later consideration” or “to drop a topic by refusing to follow on it”. It could also mean, “I have not reached a decision yet”. It doesn’t mean to reject.

The government of Japan used the term as the response to Allied demands for unconditional surrender in World War II. US President Harry Truman decided to drop atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he interpreted it as the Japanese’s rejection of the offer to surrender. Although we may never know, it was possible that the Japanese government was still considering its decision, and not because it refused to surrender.

Here’s another true story: In 2004, I was working with an exhibition company. One day I saw a stack of brochures promoting an exhibition on franchising. One paragraph said: “Among exhibitors who have signed up is the infamous Mxxx School.”

I took a copy of the brochure to the marketing manager and told her “infamous” was obviously the wrong word to use. But to her, it simply meant well-known, and as 60,000 copies of the brochure had been printed, she did not want to make any change.

Three weeks later, the CEO called me to an emergency meeting asking me (as the company's unofficial wordsmith) to help draft an apology to salvage the situation because the “infamous” school was going to sue us blind!

To help you remember that “infamous” has nothing to do with “famous”, note that the noun for “famous” is “fame”, but the noun for “infamous” is “infamy”. When Japanese warplanes bombed US ships in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, then US President Franklin Roosevelt declared that it was “a date which will live in infamy”.

[Latest update in 2016: Do you call a certain widely-reported orange maned sex predator famous or infamous?]

Bemused, but not amused

In a former life, I worked as a sub-editor for a yellow rag, editing and correcting reporters’ raw copies. One entertainment reporter wrote a piece on TV actress Zoe Tay, saying Zoe was not “bemused” by certain rumours about her.

What the reporter meant was that Zoe was not amused. The reporter was showing off her vocabulary “power” by selecting what she thought was a chim word which turned out to be completely wrong. Well, you and I and every school mama know that “bemused” simply means confused, bewildered, and not a fancier term for “amused”. (Chim means “profound” in a caustic sense.)

Historic founding of Singapore

Another mixed-up pair are “historical” and “historic”. “Historical” refers to anything older than your great-grandpa. So, a school’s historical society is a bunch of kids talking about old history topics. “Historic” means of great significance, the turning point, which could have happened yesterday or a millennium ago.

The 1819 Treaty signed by Raffles and the Temenggong of Johor to hand Singapore island over to the British is an historical piece of paper (old, yellowed paper), but it also signified an historic event (seminal, changing the course of history) where the British were able to hoodwink the Johor government into giving up sovereignty over Singapore for a song (almost).

Things fall apart

“Seminal” is one of those odd words that have two or more completely different meanings. Chinua Achebe, who died on March 22, 2014, was regarded as the grandfather of modern African literature for his seminal or ground-breaking novel, Things Fall Apart (click here for more on Achebe whose clear, luminous writing could be read even by lower-primary school kids).

The second meaning relates to semen.

Cleave to your spouse

Another weird word is “cleave” (past tense “clove”, adjective “cloven”, noun “cleavage”), the only word in the English language that has diametrically opposite meanings, said my English grammar teacher in secondary school.

The first meaning is “cling together”; the second meaning is “break apart, split”.

“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife…” (Mark 10:7) The King James Bible English here simply means married men must stick to their wives!

“And he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of the ashes: and he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar.” (Leviticus 1:16,17)

In plain words, when offering a sacrifice to God, pluck the feathers, then split the wings (presumably using a cleaver, a heavy butcher’s knife for cleaving dead bodies).

By the way, when discussing the English language, the authorities to quote to back up your argument should be either Shakespeare’s works or the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. The development of modern English began from these two sources.

Saintly beauty

When Mother Teresa died in 1997, there were calls for her to be “beatified” (say “be-air-tee-fied”, i.e. to be declared a saint by the Roman Church). The Singapore local newspapers whose kampong-reared sub-editors hadn’t seen this rare word before, re-spelt it as “beautified” (the process of letting a facial therapist dab cream on your cheeks so you glow like a young girl). Kampongs are villages where people get by rearing chicken, plucking coconuts, tending vegetable gardens, and letting the world go by.

A statement of blessing (such as those red strips of paper with Chinese words pasted on the doorframes of Chinese homes to welcome the Chinese New Year) is known as a beatitude. The most quoted beatitudes are those uttered by Jesus in Matthew 5.

By and by

Here’s another confusing pair: “presently” and “currently”.

“The doctor is busy now, but he will attend to you presently,” i.e. by and by he will see you. “Currently” means “now”, not by and by.

Compare to a summer’s day

Managers and other critters that inhabit the office cubicle zoo like to produce comparison tables of data as proof that they are working hard. They would say something like, “Comparing Table A to Table B, we find the following…”

“Compare to” means liken to, as in “Shakespeare compared the world to a stage” (the world is like a stage). And, according to a newspaper survey, “young people in the Internet age are compared to monkeys – constantly chattering, easily distracted and cannot keep still.”

But when comparing data in Table A and data in Table B, the phrase should be “compare with”, which means to make a comparison in order to note the difference.

And when dusk falls, send this e-mail message to your sweetheart: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” If you don’t know where I plucked these saccharine sentences from, then you obviously don’t know your Shakespeare!

Life’s short, don’t revert

Life is short, so save time and energy by not typing extra words that mean the same as the preceding ones. Examples are “revert back”, “the reason why”, or “furthermore”.

“Revert” means to go back to a former situation or an earlier version, as in, “The new targets are impractical; we’re reverting to last year’s numbers.” Don’t use it when you want readers to reply or respond to you. Just say, “Please reply by the deadline next Monday.”

Cross the line & you’re dead

That reminds me of the confusion between “dateline” and “deadline”. A dateline is simply the date, time and place at the start of a news article or report, such as: “Singapore, Friday, April 12, 2013 – The government has announced new plans for…”

A deadline, on the other hand, is the day when a task or a project has to be completed, or you’ll be dead. But of course we’re less murderous than the ancients. In the days of the Roman Empire where huge numbers of prisoners-of-war were captured, the guards simply drew a line in the sand and warned that anyone crossing it (perhaps in an attempt to escape) would immediately be killed, no question asked.

Recently, US President Barack Obama used “red line” in place of “deadline” when warning evil dictators like Assad of Syria not to kill too many of their own citizens. Assad ignored the warning and crossed Obama’s red line by killing even more people.

Ordinary folks like us stick to “deadlines”. Although we aren’t going to spill blood when people ignored our deadline, we have to be willing, unlike weak-kneed Obama, to take serious action like giving a warning or sacking the culprit.

At the end of the day, take care of your diction (your prudent choice of words), and your writing will be lucid, lucent and luminous (sorry, lucent and lucid both mean “clear” but I can’t resist the alliteration).

This article first appeared in April, 2014, on the internal Web site of a Singapore institute of higher learning whose staff were demonstrably unlearned in their vocabulary


The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the nearest building to have survived the infamous atomic bombing