Friday, June 19, 2009
My linguistic good deed for the week
Words are important because they have meanings, and we humans are the only ones who use them with understanding. Jabbering parrots and mynahs and the like are only imitating what they hear, without comprehending any of it. Trust me, the occasional canine on America's Funniest Videos who actually seems to be saying “I love you” knows not what it is doing.
It is with ’bated breath, therefore, that your humble correspondent wishes to point out a pair of words that I hear misused more and more frequently. Even the supposedly erudite (not to mention bold and fresh) Bill O'Reilly of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel (the one President Obama dislikes so much) chose the wrong one a few nights ago.
I am speaking, ladies and gentlemen, about the confusion that exists in America regarding the words ancestor and descendant. I rather doubt that any such confusion exists in England, the place where English was invented.
An ancestor, according to the dictionary I checked, is a person from whom one is descended; a forebear; a progenitor. A descendant, on the other hand, is a person or animal that is descended from a specific ancestor; an offspring. You will have to ask the editors of that particular dictionary why an ancestor is a person but a descendant can be either a person or an animal. Curious.
It’s very simple, really. An ancestor, friends, is the earlier party in the relationship. A descendant is the later party. Your grandfather is your ancestor. You are his descendant. Your grandchildren are not your ancestors. Your grandchildren are your descendants. You, on the other hand, are their ancestor.
Got it? All righty, then. Mind how you speak in the future.
Oh, and go forth and multiply. Otherwise, although you are undoubtedly someone’s descendant, you won’t ever be anyone’s ancestor.
Here is a picture of what can happen when you go forth and multiply.
We are off to Alabamistan this weekend with a few descendants of our own.
Perhaps next we will discuss the difference between a first cousin once removed and a second cousin. Or not.