Erstwhile, desultory, inchoate

McWhorter, in Defining Creole, uses erstwhile frequently. The reason I am putting these up today is that it is a good example of misunderstanding a word that doesn’t appear in context very often. It means former or earlier, like erstwhile forms of the language. I had a vague notion it meant ’really’, probably conflating it with earnest.

Here’s an example of desultory: “She had suddenly begun speaking, after sitting silently through several hours of desultory discussion about the Resistance” It is easy to see from this quote how I might have got the idea that desultory meant without enthusiasm, which is one of its definitions, but jumping from topic to topic, randomness, is more essential to the meaning. I did not know that sense of the word.

A word I see lots of people misuse in inchoate. It means the beginning stage of something but people conflate it with chaos. I’ve heard people of education speaking in the media use it to mean chaotic.

Lesson: it pays to look words up.

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