The Ugly American and Other Misused or Misunderstood Sayings

It gripes me – and many others, I suppose -- to hear someone misuse a common saying. On the surface, these irritations are only a matter of taste – or pedantic preference -- but on a second look we might find more obtuseness than mere preference. One incident especially summed it up for me . . .

PREFACE: CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVES, GOOD AND BAD. Recently a friend was scheduled for minor outpatient surgery. A couple of weeks before the scheduled date he received a letter from his hospital stating that the co-payment would have to be paid in advance, and further explaining that payment could be made by cash, check or credit card. This left my friend confused, because the letter said nothing about where or exactly when the payment should be made: (Did it have to be mailed in? Paid at the site? Or what?) And why would the hospital send the letter except to alert him about where the payment would have to be made?
So he called the hospital and talked to a customer service representative, who simply repeated what the letter had said – payment could be made by cash, check or credit card. Questions about the WHERE or exactly WHEN of payment got nowhere – as far as the young lady on the other end of the line was concerned, all questions were to be answered by “cash, check or credit card.” Finally, in clueless exasperation the representative said, “Or they will bill you.” This in explanation of the letter that said payment must be made in advance!
We have all encountered representatives from hell, who show all the understanding of a parrot. On the other hand we have probably had the good fortune also to find representatives who are heaven-sent, who show real understanding – I like to say they had their minds wrapped around the problem.
What does the second kind of representative have and the first lack? The difference, it seems to me, is that the person who displays understanding recognizes the STRUCTURE of thought. She realizes that our beliefs have reasons supporting them, and consequences that follow from them. She recognizes distinctions. Would that school systems trained students in such abilities – but that is another story.
Misuse or misunderstanding of expressions generally occurs because of failure to recognize structure or context – failure to understand the history behind the expression, the consequences of using it in a certain way, or the distinctions that its meaning rests on.
Here are some of the expressions I have in mind:
THE UGLY AMERICAN” is generally used to describe the behavior of Americans abroad who behave badly or otherwise display unappealing attributes. Its original meaning, however, is entirely different. The phrase derives from a 1958 novel, The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, made into a 1963 movie. It is about the fight against Communism in a fictional country that could have been Vietnam. The hero is an American engineer (played by Pat Hingle in the movie) who gets down and dirty to help the people with their local projects. Not only is his work less than glamorous, but he is also portrayed as rather ugly – he is the “ugly American.” But it is he who holds off the Communists, not the American officials such as the Ambassador (played by Marlon Brando), who are often arrogant, rude and/or incompetent. They are the beautiful people, but only outwardly.
So the title of the book is ironic. The character who is outwardly ugly is really the virtuous and valuable one, while the beautiful and glamorous characters are empty suits at best. Those who apply the term “ugly American” on the basis of outward appearance or ill-mannered behavior are therefore making exactly the kind of misjudgment that the book is directed against.

VERBAL” as in “verbal contract.” This is often used to denote a spoken contract or agreement, as distinguished from a written one. But the word “verbal” refers to words (related to “verbatim” etc.) So when we say we have a verbal contract, we are saying that we have a contract expressed in words. And how else would contracts be expressed – in hieroglyphics? There is no distinction between verbal contracts and any other; all contracts are verbal contracts.
The appropriate word for a spoken contract is “oral” (derived from the Latin for mouth). Again, oral contracts and written contracts are both verbal – unless we want to bring back hieroglyphics..

ONE OF THE ONLY,” as in “Jones was one of the only people who came to the party.” This is an irritating example of spinning the logical wheels. The combination of “one of” and “only” in cases like this just doesn’t make sense.
The “one of” puts the person or thing we’re talking about in a category. The category might consist of people who came to the party (“Jones was one of the people who came to the party.”) Or it might be more restrictive, consisting of a few people who came to the party (“Jones was one of the few people who came to the party.”) Or it might be a specific number of people, say three (“Jones was one of three people who came to the party.”) And so on.
As the examples show, we could do without “only” and still communicate the facts perfectly well. So what does “only” do? It adds emphasis. When the category is defined by number or quantity, the “only” means that there were no more than the number or quantity you mention. For example, if we use number to define the category by saying that Jones was one of the three people at the party, we can add “only” and say that he was “one of only three people at the party.” Similarly, if we say that Jones was one of a few people at the party, we can add “only” and say that he was “one of only a few people at the party.”
But what if the category is not defined by number or quantity? Then “only” has no part to play at all – it doesn’t even add emphasis. That’s what happens when we say “Jones was one of the only people at the party.” The phrase “people at the party” doesn’t give us a number, so there is no number for the “only” to emphasize (by contrast with the case of “only three people”). The “only” is left grasping at straws, trying to find some role to play when there isn’t any. We seem to be saying something when we really aren’t. (Not the first time that has happened.)
One final twist: Since “only” means that there were no more than mentioned, it is often used to indicate an unexpectedly small number or a disappointing number – for example, “He was disappointed because only three people responded.” But if you want to talk about just a few things, or about a disappointingly small number of things, do so specifically (as in ”He was one of the few people who came to the party”), and then add the “only” if you wish (“He was one of only a few people who came to the party.”)

SHOT HIMSELF IN THE FOOT,” usually used nowadays to mean that a person has made a crucial mistake – usually a dumb mistake. The expression isn’t really being misused in this way – we can imagine a negligent hunter or soldier, walking with his loaded rifle or shotgun pointed downward and suddenly tripping or in some other way setting off the weapon and shooting himself in the foot. However, this betrays ignorance of the origin of the saying.
Originally, the saying referred to a soldier who wanted to get out of combat so badly that he would wound himself to do so. Therefore he would intentionally shoot himself in the foot. In this way he would get a wound that was too serious to allow him to return to battle, but not serious enough to kill him.

(More misused and misunderstood sayings in the next issue)

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 3, Issue 4, Posted 5:05 PM, 02.09.07