Get the lead out. and the led in.

I was reading a major newspaper this past week—a newspaper that I trust to get words right—a paper with the prestige of the New York Times. Okay, it was the New York Times.​

In one of the articles I learned that someone had been "lead" by another into some mistake. Before I continue, an admission: I can never catch my own typos and errors, but I have a keen eye for others', and as soon as I saw this I thought, there's that word again, the one practically designed to trick and deceive us.

Lead.

Now let's dispense with the chemical element right away. Number 82 on your periodic table, lead carries the symbol PB. LE would have been nice, or even LD, since neither combination is being used, but instead PB was selected as the abbreviation for the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Incidentally, I knew that, but didn't know the atomic number. I contacted Siri for that, and she told me that lead (rhyming with seed in Siriland) is number 82. Thanks, Seeree.

Now the verb presents its own problems. (So does presents, but let's not go nuts here.) First off it looks like that plumbum istuff n which case it rhymes with Fred, but the verb lead—to guide or conduct (another one)—rhymes with seed. Easy. But the monkey wrench arrives via the past tense—led—which rhymes with Fred well enough, but also rhymes with that Latin stuff they used to use to make pipes (and apparently still do in Flint, Michigan.)

For a proofreader to miss that is understandable, provided the error doesn’t occur in the lead (rhymes with seed but can be spelled LEDE in journalist jargon). Honest, I didn't make that up. So when you see a sentence like this: "The reporter led off with a lede that pointed out the dangers of lead in the water supply, something he hoped would lead to improvement," just relax and let it go. It's probably sort of right anyway. 

 

To be doubly sure, read the article with a nice bright LED light.

Fortuitous doesn’t mean lucky—it means occurring by chance. So if a tree on your property—the only tree on your property—gets uprooted in a windstorm and lands on your roof when it could have gone any one of another 340º on the compass and missed the house entirely, that’s fortuitous. It isn’t lucky; in fact, it’s unfortunate…which brings me to the word the TV commentator should be using: the very simple and effective word fortunate.

Fortuitous is another example of reverse sophistication. I don’t know if it’s true in other countries, but it sure does happen a lot in America. We pride ourselves on our linguistic casualness, coining new words and phrases all the time without regard for any grammatical accuracy.

  •      My bad.

  •      A fun time.

  •      That impacted me.

And yet, when we get a chance to use a simple and correct word in its most logical way, we opt for something unnecessary or incorrect.

Like opt.

Guilty.​​​​​​​​