Two Ways to Fall

Alex Wagner on Alex Wagner NOW, MSNBC, on May 21, 2014:

What are some of the pratfalls for Republicans in these hearings?”

Sometimes more than a few members of the U.S. House of Representatives remind us of a bad vaudeville act, but we can be fairly certain that no more than a handful have had the misfortune to “slip and fall onto the buttocks” – the definition of pratfall. The word is applied metaphorically to a humiliating mishap or danger, but even this doesn’t excuse Ms. Witt from confusing it with the one she meant: pitfall. Malapropism* alert!

Pitfall has a good five centuries on pratfall, which came into use only in the 1930s. It orginally referred to an animal- or human-capturing pit flimsily covered or camouflaged (a kind of shoveled-out trap and snare.) Today we use pitfall to mean “a hidden or barely perceived problem or danger” And doesn’t that put it close enough to the metaphorical meaning of pratfall to let Ms. Wagner off the hook? Not really. Precision in word usage** is something anyone who strives to be well-spoken should take very seriously, and that goes twice for people in the broadcasting field.

 *See also Malapropisms: Here to Stay?

**See also To Be Precise…

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