Who would like to help Dr. Boli compile the reference book (or Web site) he has often wished he had but has never quite found? (Or who would like to point out the thing to him if it exists?)
What Dr. Boli wants is a glossary of universally misused words.
In the days when the essential furniture of every home included a piano (up to about thirty years ago), everyone knew what an “upright” piano was: one of those tall old pianos that lived in the basement. A piano technician would define an “upright” as any vertical piano more than 48 inches tall. After the Second World War, Americans bought almost exclusively those little spinet and console pianos whose bass strings were too short to make any sound other than indistinguishable rumbling noises, and they never called them “upright” pianos.
Now that no one except professional musicians actually wants a piano, the terminology has passed out of ordinary use. Non-musical Americans know that there was some sort of thing called an “upright piano,” but they assume that it means any vertical piano. If you search Craigslist (which has become Dr. Boli’s favorite linguistic research tool) for “upright piano,” you will find that a majority of the “upright” pianos are spinets and consoles. A piano technician will still make the distinction between uprights and smaller verticals, but in the real world the term “upright piano” has changed its meaning.
Photography has changed radically since digital cameras appeared (which was really only a decade ago for most people), and the names for the parts of a camera are changing, too. For example, the word for “lens” is now “zoom.” Dr. Boli first realized that as he puzzled over an advertisement for an antique folding camera that kept mentioning the “zoom.” For the minority who still talk about the “lens,” the word is plural; a single lens is a “len.”
Likewise, the word “shutter” used to mean the thing that opens momentarily to allow light to hit the film, but now it means the flap that automatically closes over the lens—or, rather, the zoom—to protect it when the camera is not in use.
There are many other examples. “Flaunt” almost universally means “flout.” “Penultimate” means “ultimate,” or perhaps “really ultimate.” No one can agree on what the past tense of “lie” is, but it is definitely not “lay.”
Dr. Boli is not as young as he used to be a century and a half ago, and the rapidly changing language sometimes leaves him baffled. It is as though everyone around him has suddenly begun to talk in West Frisian: the language is clearly very close to English, but not quite close enough for him to understand it accurately.
Thus the need for a glossary. Which words in modern American English are almost universally misused, and what do they mean when ordinary people misuse them? Together we can not only come up with an entertaining list, but in the process we may well be compiling something that has never been compiled before: a dictionary of the English of the future.