Column: Clearing up confusing word conundrums


I’ve been keeping a list of words I hear that perplex and puzzle even the smartest word nerds out there. Today, I’d like to clear up some of the confusion with some quick-hitting didactic disambiguations.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of mustard. A few years ago, I almost started a mustard review podcast. A few weeks ago, I heard someone say, “That won’t cut the mustard.” Certainly, the person meant “pass muster,” right? After all, “pass muster” means “to gain approval or acceptance.” As it turns out, “cut mustard” is a term that means “to reach or surpass the desired standard or performance.” So, the two terms not only sound alike but have similar meanings. Hopefully that delineation cuts the mustard for you.

Is someone “plum” or “plumb” out of luck? The standard phrase is “plumb out of luck,” which means “completely out of luck.” One of the definitions of “plumb” is “completely/squarely/utterly.” When someone gets a “plum” appointment or job, that means the person is receiving an incredibly desirable job.

Have you ever heard the phrase “wishful thinking”? Or is it “wistful thinking”? This made me think about the term. The correct phrase is “wishful” thinking, which is when a person is thinking of the way he wishes or wants them to be, even when that is unrealistic or overly idealistic. “Wistful” means “full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy.” So, I suppose you could think “wistfully,” but the common vernacular phrase is “wishful thinking.”

In case you’re wondering, you “broach” — not “breach” — the subject. This is a confusing one. Breach means “to break open,” so it kind of makes sense to “break open the subject.” However, broach means “to bring up or suggest for the first time.”

Is my personal milk butler at my “beckon call” or at my “beck and call”? After all, I don’t want to have a milk-spilling incident when I’m pouring from a new carton of milk. Again, “beckon” would make sense; beckon means “to summon.” However, the correct phrase is “beck and call.” To be at someone’s beck and call means that you are ready to respond immediately to someone’s commands.

Do you have any phrases that stump you? If so, let me know; I’ll be at your beck and call.