Words at Work

Kathy McIntosh: A potpourri of words isn't necessarily a mishmash

Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed WordMay 21, 2014 

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Kathy McIntosh


I recently read there are no true synonyms, that we should seek the word that exactly fits the intended meaning. I understand that different words have different nuances, but sometimes Burt Bacharach is right: "A synonym is a word you use when you can't spell the word you first thought of."

My first thought for this article was that I wanted to cover a variety of subjects. Would that make the article a potpourri? Mr. Bacharach might find potpourri one of those words difficult to spell and to pronounce (long o in pot, ourr rhymes with purr, i rhymes with ee). Its first definition is a fragrant mixture of dried flowers and spices. It is a French word literally meaning rotten pot and was the name given to a stew borrowed from the Spanish olla podrida. In addition to its aromatic meaning, potpourri also can mean any mixture of unrelated subjects or objects.

Dictionary.com lists synonyms for potpourri: melange, pastiche, hodgepodge, mishmash, patchwork. Merriam-Webster online included more synonyms, many of them culinary. Among them was that ever-popular crossword answer, olio. A visit to the site could lead you to explore a number of their suggested synonyms.

Let's begin with the word "tender." Unless Elvis was on a search for cash, he was grammatically incorrect when he sang "Love Me Tender." He needed an ly. I still like the song. Tender has many meanings: as an adjective, it means having a soft or yielding texture, chewable, gentle, fond or loving, solicitous, delicate, mild. It also can mean sensitive or touchy.

As a verb, tender means to offer or present, and is generally used formally. It also can mean to tenderize or make softer.

The noun tender can mean the proposal that has been made, or a caretaker, or a railcar that supplies the rest of the train.


Reader Linda Jarsky tendered two suggestions. She contends that everyone says "eck cetera" rather than et cetera. Don't do that, please. Linda also noted that people write or say, "Please RSVP," which is a lot like begging, since RSVP is French for "Please Respond."


Alert reader and editor Gretchen Mullins found an ad for a clothing stylist that urged women to be sure to wear a brioche. Oops! They probably intended (unless they have a French bakery on the side) to suggest wearing a brooch. This is sometimes (but not recently) spelled broach, which means to bring up or to pierce. So wear a large decorative pin and call it a brooch, which rhymes with pooch.


Another reader brought a news item to my attention. It noted that the "Idaho State Police is investigating." Bertha Barton asked whether the verb should be plural. It depends on your style guide. Associated Press style prefers, "Idaho State Police are investigating."

The rose petals in this potpourri go to my readers. Thanks for sharing.


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