Opinion | Off the Cuff

My incorrect use of certain words

I simply did not know the sunny-side-down implication of the word ‘prone’

  • By Susie Boyt
  • Published: 20:00 October 14, 2012
  • Gulf News

I hate being in the wrong. It is true that few people actually relish it, but I fancy that I mind it more than most. The smash to the ego that being wrong delivers can only be mended by one thing: Acting as though you are completely in the right.

You must keep the high-end self-talk going! This is the most right you have ever been! It’s a game of double or quits, but you can’t help noticing that you get wronger and wronger by the minute. Then you start thinking idiotic things like you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, when the truth is you and sheep really don’t get on.

You try to construct a bit of a theory to give yourself some dignity. Who was it who said the millennium bug wouldn’t strike and all the taps wouldn’t gush and the cash machines would work fine on New Year’s day 2000? Who said the H1N1 virus wouldn’t kill 10 per cent of the population? Who knew chocolate Philadelphia would come to our shores in 2012? Me!

My father once drank a pint of sour milk to prove it wasn’t bad; I retain some chips off that block.

Next thing you know, you are so wrong that all you can think of doing is the emotional equivalent of the arm sweep that children do when losing at board games. Before long, everything is in ruins and £1 million (Dh5.9 million) in paper money has been trampled into the carpet. Days later, metaphorical green plastic houses are still turning up in the butter to choke you ...

On Saturday morning, the emails started arriving. How the mighty had fallen. It was as though George W. Bush’s command of the English language was superior to my own.

These emails were all of one accord: In a column where I had described how I almost screamed at the dentist who said I should designate one day a week to my “pamper-my-teeth” day (how about my teeth get off their fat bottoms and make a fuss of me one day a week?) I had used the word “prone” incorrectly. I know.

In my shaky defence, I had used it in a purely figurative way, perhaps of my own invention, to mean susceptible, vulnerable, at risk. The problem? The person described as feeling these uncomfortable feelings was lying in a dentist’s chair. Since prone’s primary meaning, as you know, is lying face down — something so rare as to be almost unheard of in the tooth-care world, even for those of us who have “highly nervous patient” written in red on our notes — I was wrong. There, I’ve said it. I may have eyes at the back of my head, all mothers do, but I have never quite claimed to have teeth there. I had wanted the secondary meaning and not the primary one; the icing, if you will, without the cake.

Grammatically, practically, medically (and what’s more, anatomically), it just would not wash.

Can you ever use a word figuratively while sidestepping its primary meaning? Could a person lying in a dentist’s chair be accident-prone while gazing at the ceiling and swallow some of the metal implements to prove it? Could a person lying face-up on a stretcher be prone to exaggeration, for in reality he is just a bit tired and has worked it up into an acute appendicitis attack? I know not. These are mighty cloudy areas.

“Supine, supine, supine!” the legion of correctors clamoured, armed with virtual Tipp-Ex and erasers. A high court judge wrote with such kindness in relation to my error that I was quite moved. A man on an oil rig said it was an easy mistake to make. A lady even suggested I had put myself at fault deliberately in order to swell my mailbag and impress my peers.

The problem with “supine”, a word that frankly embarrasses me, is that it carries a sense of languor — arty-looking cats spring to mind; chunky bohemians with wifelets. It has a physical confidence to it wholly unassociated with the perils of dentistry. (It is also a grammatical term, in Latin, indicating the accusative and dative or ablative forms of a verbal noun in the fourth declension, or the future passive infinitive, do let us not forget.)

I realise now that I have been using the word “prone” incorrectly all my life. I simply did not know of its sunny-side-down implications. It’s not quite the end of the world, but my eyes in the mirror, just now, are filmed with trespass and regret.

I am afraid I have probably misused it in every book I have written. If I were on the ninth step at Language Murderers Anonymous, I would write notes of apology to at least one copy editor and make suitable amends. Small monogrammed leather gifts from an immaculate stationers spring to mind.

In Bush-ese I stand before you, shoulder to shoulder with my mistake, contrite and correctified.

— Financial Times

Gulf News
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