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The stickler's dilemma

How much do we let a word's origins limit our usage of that word, and do we pretend we can't see down to the roots of a word?

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A friend and I exchanged greetings the other day warmly, but with a standard formulation: "How are you?" and "Very well, thanks, yourself?"

Then he asked again, to get me to repeat my response. "Very well, thanks," I said.

His concern, he soon acknowledged, was whether I would just blurt out, when I was in a nonprofessional setting, "I'm good."

A while back I decried in this space the use of "I'm good" as a reply to "How are you?" And immediately I started to hear "I'm good" almost everywhere, including out of the mouths of many who are near and dear to me.

Ouch. If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn't have written that column.

This is the problem with getting known as a stickler. You have to be always "on." And you can't pretend you don't have views on, or in some cases actual knowledge of, the language issues at hand.

The upside of this, though, is interesting questions from friends. I had a quick ping a few days ago from someone at another publication asking whether dilemma was really the best word choice for the context of the passage she was working on.

She recalled that I had once counseled reserving dilemma for situations involving a choice between two options. But the passage at hand referred to a state of general perplexity, in which clear options hadn't yet presented themselves.

Dilemma comes from Greek through Latin, from "di," meaning "two," and "lemma," meaning "premise." Is it really being too much of a stickler to say, "Save it for instances where you have just two choices"?

The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't think so: "It should be used only of situations where someone is forced to choose between two alternatives, both unfavorable to him."


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