Verbal Abuse: Matriculate

“There had been abuse in my family, but it was mostly musical in nature.”—Terry Bohner, right before things get a little weird.


This week, we debut a new feature called “Verbal Abuse” designed to stop the rampant misuse of certain words.

Language is fluid, and words often change their meanings. In fact, the field of linguistics has catalogued at least 20 processes through which semantic change occurs. Such changes don’t happen overnight: They result from years, sometimes centuries, of slow transformation, as more and more people use an old word in new ways. In the sixteenth century, for example, bully meant “good fellow”—a label we’d apply to someone quite different today.

Just because people can change the meanings of words, however, doesn’t mean they always should. As with disturbing trends in animal haberdashery, some things just need a swift and decisive termination. Let’s start doing our part to end verbal abuse, beginning with the word matriculate.

Matriculate has a very specific and constrained set of meanings:

  • Verb: To enroll in or to accept a student at a college or university
  • Noun: a person who has matriculated.

Anyone who watches professional sports on TV knows what it’s like to listen to former athletes and coaches wield mind-numbing platitudes and obvious observations like nunchucks in a Food Lion parking lot. They also enjoy mangling the English lexicon, making most intelligent viewers want to go brush their teeth with arsenic paste. In particular, football commentators love to talk about quarterbacks “matriculating the ball down the field.” Although some people might marvel at this polysyllabic panache, matriculating has absolutely nothing to do with throwing a football.

The television jockocracy is not alone in its abuse of matriculate: I have repeatedly overheard people say things like, “Let’s get some thoughts matriculating.” Sorry, peeps, I think you mean percolating.

Please, help stop verbal abuse. Spread semantic awareness, and we can save matriculate together.

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