Columns » Words


by and


“Klitschko improved to 48-3 with his 43rd knockout in the mandatory defense, while Austin fell to 24-4 with four draws and 16 knockouts. Neither Austin nor [boxing promoter Don] King, both of whom had called Klitschko heartless before the bout, showed up at the postfight press conference.”

If boxer Ray Austin and his promoter, Don King, called Austin’s opponent “heartless” before the fight, they probably weren’t using the word the way it’s most commonly used, to mean “harsh, cruel.” That wouldn’t be considered an insult by a prizefighter, at least not while he was in the ring. At home, maybe.

Professional boxers are expected to behave harshly and cruelly, to strike their opponents as often and as hard as they can until the other man goes down. Boxers who do this become champions and are described admiringly as possessing “the killer instinct.”

I suspect that Austin and King applied “heartless” to Austin as a synonym for “gutless” — that is, “cowardly, unwilling to stand up and fight like a man.” Both heart and guts are considered organs of courage, so the Austin-King usage is understandable if uncommon. Random House says that using heartless in this sense is “archaic”:

“Commonly used in an earlier time but rare in present-day usage except to suggest the earlier time, as in religious rituals or historical novels.”

If a fighter is big enough and tough enough he can speak as archaically as he likes, I imagine. Remember when Muhammad Ali told Sonny Liston “Methinks thou hast retreated and stepped in it, forsooth”? Nobody accused him of archaism.

“Employees failed to report an allegation of abuse by a 14-year-old mentally ill resident … ‘It’s hard to say [the children] are safe when you continue to see these incidences occurring.’ ”

I think he means “incidents.” An incident is an occurrence or event. Incidence is the rate or range of occurrence of something, as “The incidence of missed free throws by our players is most distressing.”

Add a comment