There are certain phrases that occasionally pop up in conversation, or I’ve read in a book, that I think I know what they mean but find out later that I don’t or have misunderstood their proper usage. “Lingua franca” is one such phrase – I always thought it meant “mother tongue”, but that’s astray from its actual meaning of “common language”. One example often given is that English is the “lingua franca” of air travel – pilots and air traffic controllers communicate with one another in English around the world, regardless of their native language.

“Hoi polloi” is another one, although this is one phrase I understood correctly to mean “the common people”. I read somewhere that people are incorrect in saying “the hoi polloi”, since that translates as “the the common people”. It’s like when you receive an invitation that says “Please R.S.V.P.”; it’s redundant: “Please respond if you please.” But I don’t worry about the redundancy since I wasn’t planning to attend anyway, open bar or not.

Not all the phrases and idioms that flummox are based in other languages – “moot point” comes to mind. It’s commonly used to mean an idea rendered irrelevant due to some other action. Grammarians (and some Lutherans) argue about the meaning, with many taking the tack (or is that “tact”?) that the actual meaning is an idea that is debatable; one with room for discussion. However, over time the agreed-upon meaning has settled on “It’s been decided so shut up, already”. I used to work for a boss who always used the phrase, “It’s a mute point”. Believe me, I wished he would’ve shut up, preferably before opening his mouth.

Here are a few other phrases I’ve found that are commonly misused or misunderstood, or at least I wish they were:

  • Au courant — contains raisins
  • Carte blanche — to exceed one’s credit limit; alternatively, to drive one’s aunt to the store
  • Cum laude — a vociferous expression of sexual pleasure
  • De rigueur — a dead person; related to femme fatale; a deceased woman
  • Ex cathedra — someone who no longer attends church
  • Faux pas — my step-father
  • Good Samaritan — a person offering assistance (vs. a “Bad Samaritan”, who is someone when asked to assist another replies, “I’d love to help but can’t because of my neuralgia.”)
  • “He doesn’t know his ass from his elbow” — someone who has difficulty shopping for pants
  • In his cups — a man wearing a brassiere
  • In loco parentis – commonly used by teenagers to express, “My parents are crazy!”
  • Je ne sais quoi — literally, “This is the extent of my French.”
  • Klatuu barada nikto – “I think I am a robot, therefore I am a robot.”
  • Mano a mano — man-to-man; the feminine is “Chica to Cheek”
  • Mi casa es su casa — from the Spanish for “empty refrigerator”
  • Voulez vous coucher avec moi – “I didn’t realize I asked you to sleep with me; I was just singing along with the radio.”
  • Persona non grata — someone who doesn’t like hard cheeses
  • Quid pro quo – from the Latin and thought to be the first tongue-twister (say it 3x fast)
  • Robbing Peter to pay Paul — willing to risk a misdemeanor to avoid a felony
  • Shoulda, coulda, woulda — filled with remorse and too lazy to form a complete sentence to express such a feeling
  • Sic transit gloria mundi — becoming nauseated whenever utilizing public transportation, anywhere in the world, esp. w/someone named “Gloria”
  • Veni, vidi, vici­ – attributed to Julius Caesar, who was the first to mispronounce the phrase
  • Zeitgeist — a hard cookie offered to teething babies.
While English has most of its roots in Latin, over time the language has embraced a panoply (from the Greek for playing multiple rounds of Monopoly) of expressions shanghai’d from other languages. German chocolate cake, French’s mustard, Swiss Miss cocoa, Spanish peanuts, and Hawaiian Punch are all examples of such influences on the vernacular. The public transportation system in Chicago is known as the El, which is Spanish for “the”. Therefore, Chicagoans move around the city riding “the The”. That’s hard to say, so residents wrapped their mother tongues around the more easily-pronounced nickname “the El”, which was in common use within the local Chicano (from the Spanish for “Chicago”) community.

Speaking of Chicago — I once attended a business meeting where the discussion centered around the particulars of a government contract with the state of Illinois. While most of the services would be offered for workers in Chicago, there was a component required for Springfield employees as well. A confused look crossed the face of one of the attendees, who asked aloud, with representatives from the state on the conference line, “Why the hell do we need to offer the service to anyone in Springfield?” I leaned over and quietly said that Springfield was the state capital of Illinois, hence… I believe, at that moment, my co-worker wished he had made a mute point.