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Friday, August 3, 2012

Casting dispersions

Reading a recent article in my local newspaper, I stumbled on this malapropism:
"I cast no dispersions, but I know in my heart there's got to be a better way."
 According to Google, this is a not uncommon mistake for "cast aspersions". "Aspersion" comes from the Latin word  aspergere (sprinkle), and was first used of the act of sprinkling the faithful with holy water. But, who knows why, it almost immediately came to acquire the figurative sense of "damaging imputations or unjust insinuations", a rather genteel version of the image we get from the synonymous "mud-slinging".

In this case, I suspect the mistake was made by the reporter recounting the speaker's words rather than the speaker himself, because the article was rife with howlers:

Thanks to a misplaced modifier, Toronto police acquired an unusual new uniform and weapons:
"A patient walked out of Toronto East General Hospital and was later shot by police wearing a hospital gown and wielding scissors."
I guess budget cuts account for the fact that the police had only one hospital gown amongst them (and goodness knows they're hard enough to fasten up the back when there's only one body in them!) .

Apparently,  the demands of the heart are such that hospitals need an alarm code to cover the eventuality of patients running off to get married:
"The most high profile incidents in the past year have been the two code yellows (the hospital code for a missing, wandering, or eloped patient)."
 Did they really mean "eloped"? Perhaps there's some legal usage of the word I am not familiar with (if so I am sure an eager reader will let me know), although the only strictly legal definition the OED gives is the one it phrases so delightfully.

Of a wife: To run away from her husband in the company of a paramour.

 I'm thinking that definition may be up for review when the lexicographers get to the letter E!

Mountains are to be found in hospital offices:
"a tour of the hospital Friday morning giving a peak inside the security office"
For the difference between "peak", "peek" and even "pique", see this post.

But I don't think the reporter can be blamed for this particular gem of bureaucratese:
"If there's a person in crisis that we believe less lethal support could be used."
I think this means "we probably shouldn't shoot mentally ill patients dead."  It does rather suggest that the speaker thinks that such a thing as "lethal support" could exist, but there are less lethal options available. I tend to think of "lethal" (when being used literally) as absolute; something either kills you or it doesn't.
But perhaps I shouldn't cast dispersions on him for his language use.



  1. I'm late to the party (over 3 years! but an editor colleague shared this blog when I noted a "cast dispersions" seen in the wild), but no one else has commented, so: "Elope" is common nursing home/memory care parlance for a patient who flees the facility without notice or permission. Some residents are known "elopement risks." (My own FIL once called a taxi to take him away from a nursing home. Staff intervened.) So I surmise it's used in other health care facilities with "residents." HTH, Kristi Hein

  2. What you describe is perfectly correct and traditional usage of "eloped" (literally: "ran away"). Sometime in the twentieth century, a specific usage related to clandestine or unauthorized marriage became so preeminent that the more general definition fell out of favor among the unwashed masses, but one still often encounter its original definition in technical or legal documents.
    Historically, it was usually employed to describe the act of suddenly breaking a contract, disappearing in the process ("our housekeeper eloped after two months, taking with him four months' cash advance"), so its appearance in the jargon of health care facilities makes perfect sense.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.