Had I bothered to check the calendar, I might not have been so rash. It was, after all, the Ides of March. On that pleasant afternoon, there wasn’t much shaking at the old-folks’ home and I found myself surfing the web, eventually landing on the Star Beacon website. Taking a leisurely scroll through the national news on my way to the sports news, I came upon the headline “Scientists home in on the real ‘fat gene’”
“Hone!” I seethed. “You idiot, the word is hone. You ‘hone in’ on something. You don’t ‘home in.’”
Back when I was a productive member of the human race I would have been satisfied with simply finding the error. Now, I have nothing but time on my hands. Time to trudge through the websites of countless language mavens in order to amass a mountain of evidence that “home in” isn’t merely wrong, it is most sincerely wrong.
(Author’s note: I was not leveling my accusations at the good folks in the Star Beacon newsroom. The story in question is from the Los Angeles Times. I was certain the error was imported from the West Coast.)
Perched at my laptop, I honed in on “honed in.” The search was but a nanosecond or two old when it became clear that I should have been homing in. At merriam-webster.com I came upon this: “. . . use of it [hone in] especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.”
The situation worsened at grammar.about.com, where Richard Nordquist writes, “home in, not hone in, is the correct phrase.” According to Nordquist, the phrase was first used in the 19th century to refer to what homing pigeons do. Later, it also came to refer to what aircraft and missiles do.
In an excerpt from Merriam-Webster Dictionary of American Usage, 1994, Mary McCrory and William Safire get kudos for their 1980 chastisements of George H.W. Bush, who, during the presidential campaign, talked about “honing in on the issues.” “Safire observed that hone in on is a confused variant of home in on and there seems to be little doubt that he was right,” at least according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, 1994.
I stand corrected. No I don’t; I can’t stand to be wrong. I’ll sit corrected.
In breaking news on the linguistic front, German is sounding more and more like American English these days. According to a story by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson on the NPR website, the Germans have borrowed more than 10,000 American words since 1990. One of the more widely used borrowed words is “sorry,” which the Germans pronounce “sogh-ee.”
Why is it so popular? Well, Anatol Stefanowitsch, an English linguistics professor at the Free University of Berlin, told Nelson: “I mean, ‘sorry’ is quite a useful way of apologizing because it doesn't commit you to very much. It's very easy to say ‘sorry.’”
Early on in this piece I suggested the editor who used “home in” in the headline was an idiot. Before I close, I want to say to him or her, “I’m sorry.”