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Words Oct. 7, 2004


Strong renter: "Without question, good family values comprise the backbone of successful communities," said a letter from the governor. "My administration is built upon this tenant." Aside from the confusion over tenant and tenet, the governor’s use of comprise might be challenged by sticklers. The oldest meaning of comprise, and some say the only correct one, is "include, consist of." The United States of America comprises 50 states. The whole comprises the parts, in other words. The governor’s letter reverses the order. But many modern authorities say this is OK. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, for one, says that comprised of ("made up of") is now often used in place of the traditional composed of, as in The show is comprised of lesser known Spanish artists. And, CGEU says, comprise is also used to mean "combine to make up, constitute." Lesser known Spanish artists comprise the show. CGEU concludes: "The verb comprise is clearly polysemous. [The Marriage Amendment will put a stop to that. But no, polysemous means "having more than one meaning."] The second edition of the Oxford Dictionary (1989) recognizes all three uses of comprise, as does Webster’s Third (1986). None of them can now be considered incorrect." A victim of plagiarism said of the plagiarist, "I’m sure his book sold better than mine. He’s a big mahatma and thinks he can get away with this sort of thing." Mohandas Gandhi was famously called "Mahatma," which means "a sage" or "a person who is held in the highest esteem for wisdom and saintliness." This is the first time I’ve seen big mahatma. I remember big enchilada, which emerged during the Watergate years. "The Big Enchilada" is how presidential aide John Ehrlichman referred to Attorney General John Mitchell during a taped conversation with H. R. Haldeman about who would be the biggest scapegoat that could be sacrificed in order to save President Richard Nixon from his pursuers. Later, the big enchilada came to mean any big shot. Give credit where it’s do: "With Arkansas lacking a substantial park in the middle of campus like the Grove at Ole Miss, the fans are making due with what they have."

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