Not long before the election of 2004, CBS News thought it had a hot story about President Bush's supposed service in the National Guard. The story cooled when bloggers questioned the weak evidence on which the network relied. The Washington Post editorially scolded CBS for rushing to judgment: "CBS erred even more with a defensive, even pugilistic response."
"Pugilistic"? Like a show-off sucker at a carnival booth, the editorial writer took a lusty swing -- and missed! He or she wanted "pugnacious." It's an adjective to fight for. Merriam-Webster dates "pugilism" and its derivatives from 1790. A pugilist was a boxer, a practitioner of the manly art of self-defense. The roots go back to Roman times, when "pugnus" was a fist and the verb "pugnare" meant to fight man-to-man.
A pugnacious man (or woman, for that matter) is bellicose, belligerent, contentious, feisty, quarrelsome, touchy and truculent. These days, pugilism wanes but pugnacity thrives.
Last month The New York Times reviewed changes at the top of the massive Getty Trust, the country's biggest art philanthropy. It became so rich and so powerful that "innumerable institutions and scholars became noticeably reticent to second-guess the Getty." Was "reticent" the right word? It's defined as "reserved, restrained, taciturn, inclined to be silent or uncommunicative."
"Reluctant" might have been a better choice than "reticent." It carries a connotation of unwillingness. The scholars wanted to stay out of public controversy. In this regard, they were hesitant, loath, firmly disinclined to talk with reporters. Regrettably, some news sources occasionally feel that way.
You will have guessed rightly that we're talking today of words that are close but win no cigars. Consider, if you will, "farther" and "further." The editors at Merriam-Webster devote three columns to chewing upon the distinction. Their advice boils down to this: Use "farther" when the meaning implies literal or figurative distance. Use "further" for matters of degree.
Thus, Seattle is farther west than Olympia; and in the play, Hermia gently begs Lysander, "lie further off -- do not lie so near." It was as she liked it. If your choice of farther/further is in doubt, rely upon your writer's ear. Sometimes you will want an echo for "star," sometimes for "spur." Sound it out!
Several months ago I ventured a rhetorical question: Do writers write for a "putative" audience or do they write primarily for themselves? Vicki Wagner of Canton, Ohio, read me in the Repository and gently rapped my knuckles: "Why couldn't you have used 'supposed' rather than 'putative'? Were you writing more for yourself than for your readers this time?"
I was writing for myself. The devil was in me. Every writer has known the irrepressible urge. Each of us has a cache of lovely words like "putative" -- words that catch the passing eye, words that ring and resonate, words that leave a happy taste upon the tongue. These are rhinestone words, weekend words. We trot them out for Mardi Gras.
I remember writing that column. At some point I opened the drawer of adjectives for Saturday night. There lay an "imagined audience" and an "understood audience," and, yes, a "supposed audience" and even a "hypothetical audience." Some were too shiny and some were not shiny enough. But suddenly, there in a little velvet pouch, untouched for many years, was a "putative audience." Hey, Vicki! You know what I mean? Fat Tuesday!