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OPINION: Time to focus on the different problem

by Bernadette Kinlaw | April 26, 2021 at 1:51 a.m.

I once again need to deplete my pile of scribbled notes. The notes are in my head and contain words and phrases I tell myself I need to write about. I hope I don't get any paper cuts.

I'm reiterating the need to omit the word different from many, many sentences. Some writers seem to forget the definitions of different. Merriam-Webster offers unlike, dissimilar, distinct, various, another.

If you have three flavors, you don't need to say you have three different flavors. Three flavors means three. It might mean vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. It will never, ever mean two vanilla and one chocolate. (Don't tell me about Tillamook ice cream's three vanilla flavors: Old-Fashioned Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, and French Vanilla. You know what I'm saying.)

Why, then, do I find these curious examples in The Washington Post?

"Guests can customize the visit based on the experience of people with four different kinds of impairments: physical, sensory, cognitive and height."

"Those I've tried — ground beef and spinach, roasted sweet potato made luscious with four different cheeses — encourage further exploration."

"Those national titles were in six different sports (women's lightweight rowing, men's cross country, men's hockey, women's hockey, men's indoor track, men's rowing)."

"Anthony Berkeley proffers six different solutions to the same crime."

"There have been seven different winners through seven races this season ..."

"Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is assembled in Washington state and South Carolina from parts produced in at least nine different countries."

The word different need not be eliminated from the language. But it's often used when it's unneeded. Here are some examples from The Post in which the word is appropriate.

"Dak Prescott showed how the NFL's contract rules are different for quarterbacks."

"We hadn't yet entered the national forest — our final destination — but it was clear we had arrived somewhere else, somewhere vastly different from whence we came."

"The 1896 Games were different from the worldwide sports spectacle of today.''


I've been hearing the word pernicious often lately. That fact is either a terrible sign about our world or a sign that pernicious is a word that people hear and want to use in a sentence right away.

Here's Merriam-Webster's description of pernicious: highly injurious, destructive or deadly. Its root is a Latin word meaning destruction.

The word has a few synonyms that sound equally useful: baneful, noxious, deleterious and detrimental.

Here's an example of its use from a Post opinion piece:

"The challenges of distance learning, the isolation from friends and supportive adults and the stress and strain of the economic fallout from the pandemic are novel and pernicious burdens for students in communities across D.C. and the country."


Recently I read the word forebear in a story. Forebear is an ancestor or a forefather. But it sounds funny to me.

It made me think that the subject's parents, grandparents or great-grandparents are grizzly or some other kind of bears. The fore part simply means the thing that comes before. Merriam-Webster, though, explains that the bear part of the word is a form of the verb to be: "Strangely, the '-ar' is a form of the suffix '-er,' which we append to verbs to denote one that performs a specified action. In this case the 'action' is simply existing or being — in other words, '-bear' implies one who is a 'be-er.'"

I don't think I will use forebear. Maybe I've read too many John Irving books (he loves bears), but I'm sticking with forefather (despite its implied sexism). Oh, foremother is a word, but I have rarely heard it.


Here's another swim through a stream of consciousness. I read on Nextdoor that a person offering to mow lawns called himself the Grass Guy. I immediately wondered whether he was married to a person who tackled unwanted plants, the Weed Woman. Then I realized grass and weed are slang words for marijuana. Maybe the unlikely people in this imaginary couple in fact supply pot?

I had to leave those nutty thoughts to contemplate the origin of the terms grass, weed and pot.

I found a few websites supplying the history of marijuana, including its slang words. I loved the explanation for pot, then I was disappointed because it wasn't certain. (See

Marijuana is called pot because "pot" is a shortened version of "potación de guava," which may have been a Mexican beverage made by steeping cannabis leaves in wine or brandy. Accent on the "may" — no one is 100% for sure.

The origin of grass is simple:

By the 1960s, marijuana generally consisted of dried, crumbled stems and leaves. As a result, people commonly referred to marijuana as "grass." From NPR:

"Weed seems to have resulted from confusion. A University of Cincinnati historian, Isaac Campos, told NPR that weed could be a shortened version of the word 'locoweed,' a species of plant that grows in southwestern and northern Mexico ... It was often eaten by cattle or horses but had terrible effects on them. This word was sometimes used interchangeably with marijuana in late 19th-century Mexico, so when stories about marijuana started to make their way to the U.S., the two plants got conflated."

University of Chicago linguist Jason Riggle added that a California bill from 1913 that aimed to criminalize the cultivation of marijuana ... "referred to the drug as 'locoweed.'" (See

I'll end bluntly with this interesting word fact: Whereas other nicknames for marijuana are being used less and less each year, one that we can't use in the family newspaper is the only word for cannabis that is used at a steadily increasing rate. You have been warned.

Sources include Merriam-Webster, The Washington Post, Way of Leaf, Green State, NPR, Reach Bernadette at

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