John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
The word, Bryan Garner reminds us, used to mean a loud argument that does not quite rise to the pitch of physical violence. Think of the noise in the saloon before the first chair is broken over someone’s head. But American English has extended to include all manner of scuffling and outright fighting, particularly, Mr. Garner notes, in police jargon.
Don’t bother with the barn door; that horse has been gone a long time. Bryan Garner thinks that there is a possibility of limiting altercation to “light roughhousing,” short of the point at which somebody gets killed, but I am not optimistic.
There may, however, be a faint possibility of breaking reporters of the habit. If you can persuade them that altercation sounds pompous, or even prissy, you might just be able to lead them gently to other possibilities, no matter what the cop’s report said.
Two people got into an argument, which heated into a dispute, which grew into a quarrel, which swelled into a fight. And maybe not just a fight, but a scuffle, a set-to, a fracas, a scrap. Who know? Maybe developing into a brawl, a free-for-all, a melee. The language is not short of resources to describe disagreements. Take it out and give it a little exercise.