Monday, July 26th, 2010

image of pet peeveIs it just me? Or is “hone in” a phrase that makes you wince and look away, same as you would if you were watching a kid get a sound spanking while you were waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store?

“Hone in” is one of those English-language mashups that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get used to. I know that a changing language is a vibrant language, and I’m all for that. I’ve got bookshelves that groan under the weight of entertaining books filled with entertaining portmanteaus (mashups) and malapropisms (sound-alikes) but, for whatever reason, “hone in” belongs to that very special subset of mashups that drives me all the way up a rubber wall.

“Home in” is the phrase you want if you’re trying to find something, such as the professional photographer profiled in a story I ran across on NPR’s web site. He received a gift of the last roll of Kodachrome film and wanted each shot to be perfect, so he used a digital camera to home in on the perfect exposure. Only they didn’t write “home in”, they wrote “hone in.” I thought maybe it was a transcriber’s error until I listened to the podcast and found the phrase “hone in” was only in the print story. They didn’t say it on the air.

“Hone” means to sharpen. For most of my life I hardly ever heard anyone use the word “hone” even when they knew what it meant. It’s pretty old-fashioned, like saying “whet,” which also means “to sharpen” and, like “hone”, has survived mostly in folk songs like There’s A Hole In The Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza, and in phrases like “whet your appetite.” Outside of quirks like that, nobody says “whet” any more.

And then, in the last five or ten years, everybody started to say “hone in” I can’t figure out why. Before this started happening, the only time I ever heard anyone say “hone” was in worn-out phrases like “hone your skills.” It was a word as archaic as “thou” or “twas”, yet now everybody’s using it. But they’re using it wrong.

There’s a special ring in hell for grammar nerds who correct other people for goof-ups like this. Misspellings I take a pass on; I can’t spell for love nor money, and I don’t expect others to know the spelling of every English word by heart. I’m passionate about the use of apostrophes, but comma placement is a mystery to me. I admit there are depths to the English language that I’ll never understand.

But “home in” seems so simple to me. You go home, you don’t go hone. It’s insignificant, I suppose, just one of those changes I should bow to and stop obsessing over, but I still wince whenever I hear it, and die a little bit when a writer uses it in print. I can’t look away while a perfectly good word takes a beating.

[Exposed: The Last Roll of Kodachrome by Brad Horn and Claire O’Neill on NPR]

Go Hone | 12:43 pm CDT
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