Okay, I can’t stand it anymore. I have to complain about the misuse of homophones that seems to be steadily creeping into common usage, blogs, and — much worse! — publications such as national magazines. I’ve chosen two that are proving as irksome to me as that pea keeping the princess awake.
In recent years, the expression “free rein” has been turning up with increasing frequency as “free reign.”
While I can understand that there’s some logic to the usage of “reign,” which means to rule, in this context it is incorrect.
The expression free rein derives from riding horses, whereby in certain circumstances, you might loosen the bridle reins until they are slack. Giving the horse free rein allows the animal to transport you at its own discretion and/or in a direction of its choosing. There are times, if the terrain is very rough, when it’s sensible to let the horse pick its path without your guidance.
Over time, the expression has crept into common usage to mean allowing someone the freedom to do as he pleases in a particular situation — e.g. John gave Billy a free rein with his modeling clay.
The other misuse that’s particularly bugging me today is the confusion between “broach” and “brooch.” The first word means to introduce a topic into conversation or negotiations. The second word refers to a piece of jewelry which is worn pinned to a woman’s garment.
Therefore . . . At dinner, Alice broached the suggestion of eating turkey on Sundays.
Jenny wore a vintage rhinestone brooch pinned to her wool coat.
But for heaven’s sake, please don’t wear a broach!
Our language is rich, diverse, and large. It’s also quirky and idiomatic, meaning it isn’t always logical or easy. And while I don’t expect folks to always understand the meaning of, say, terpsichorean ululations, I don’t think brooch, broach, rein, and reign are difficult for anyone who claims to have a modicum of education or literacy. What I find particularly egregious — and what’s led to my curmudgeonly tirade today — is when I see such befuddlement in print. Magazine editors, however understaffed and overworked they may be these days, have an obligation to their readers, their publication, and their employer to get it right.