Thursday, February 09, 2006

Transpiration

Do not use the word 'transpire'. Why? Because if you use it to mean 'occur', you are both incorrect and polysyllabic. If you use it correctly, people will be confused. But if you must use it, please use it correctly.

Transpire comes from Latin roots: 'trans-' means across, 'spire' means to breathe. It was used to describe gas (water vapor, etc.) passing through pores. It soon gained the meaning 'to leak out, to escape from secrecy to notice' (from the OED). Thus, the moment when something transpires is the moment in which it becomes known. "What transpired at the press conference?" means "What was revealed?" Another acceptable use: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has a transpiration problem."

I rarely see this word used correctly. Instead, I am constantly seeing it used by AP reporters to mean "happen, occur". Even the surprisingly permissive OED says that this usage is wrong. But this happens to be a case where the word has been misused at least since the late 1700s. Does a strong precedent of misuse grant legitimacy to the usage? No.

Sure, languages are living. But not Latin. Lingual rigor mortis. Fairly fixed. Such Latinate words like 'transpire' should convey some meaning that is derived from its original meaning. Why do these reporters feel the need to use 'transpire' instead of 'happen'? It is far snootier. I'm not impressed. Often, one must decide whether to be pedantic or to be incorrect. But one should strive not to be both.

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