The English Pedant – Before you go ballistic, look it up

Those of us who take the very basic step of consulting a dictionary now and then occasionally find that a word that we use without thinking actually means something else.


Looking a word up like this is very easy nowadays, when you can have a dictionary on your smartphone or just google the word anyway and that will come up with a definition.

Two that have caught me out in recent years are ballistic and temerity. You might want to take a moment or two to mull these over and determine your own interpretation of them.

Ballistic. The most common use is in the expression “to go ballistic”, meaning to go crazy, explode with anger or fly into a rage. It just sounds right. It sounds explosive and dangerous.

We know the term “ballistics” from police shows on TV, but that should really give us a warning sign that we’re barking up the wrong tree. The Oxford Online dictionary defines ballistics thus: the scientific study of things that are shot or fired through the air, such as bullets and missiles.

One thing that literally goes ballistic is a ballistic missile, but does the ballistic stage mean the point at which all hell breaks loose?

Actually, no. When it goes ballistic is when the engine, rocket or whatever was driving it ceases to have an effect and the missile starts descending under the power of gravity alone.

You have the temerity to tell me this missile is pre-ballistic , still relying on artificial forces?

I was disappointed when I discovered this, but as a pedant, also glad to know the real meaning.

It was the same with temerity. I was among the countless people who used it as a substitute for audacity.

Look them up, though, and you will find that audacity means boldness but temerity means rashness.

There’s a big difference between being bold and being rash. The former is generally considered a positive attribute but the latter a negative one. Sadly, the Oxford Online has already caved in to the unthinking masses and attributed to temerity the quality of boldness, leaving Merriam Webster to back me up on this: it sticks to the definition of temerity as “the quality of being confident and unafraid of danger or punishment especially in a way that seems rude or foolish”.

Either might get you killed if it prompts you to take action in a dangerous situation, but wouldn’t we prefer to be thought of as having died through bravery, rather than stupidity?

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