Sunday, July 13, 2008

Word of the Week: altercation

A friend and I were driving and listening to the local news on the radio. One of the news stories was about a guy who was killed the previous night. Along with telling us where he was found, the newscaster also mentioned that the deceased had been in an altercation earlier in the evening. No other information was given, but my friend and I took this additional bit of information to mean that the fact he was involved in an altercation had something to do with his death.

Immediately after that news story my friend asked me the definition of altercation. I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was a fight -- a physical fight. My friend wasn’t sure, but he tended to agree with me. Both of us agreed that, in any event, “altercation” was vague.

When I got home, I looked altercation up. Here’s how defines it: “a noisy heated angry dispute; also: noisy controversy synonyms: see quarrel.

Clearly, I was wrong in thinking an altercation is a physical fight -- it is verbal. That being the case, it would have been lots clearer (to more listeners, I’d venture to say) had the newscaster simply said the guy got into a heated argument earlier in the evening.

So, the question I couldn't help wonder was why the newscaster didn't use argument instead? Did he think listeners would've thought less of him if he'd used a simpler, more widely-understood word? I don't think many would have minded. Indeed, if anything, I think more listeners would simply have understood what he said and would have listened for the next news item, rather than get distracted (like my friend and I did) trying to figure out what he meant.


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