Saturday, December 3, 2011

Backpedaling on Backpeddling

The other day, my attention was drawn to an odd headline on a consumer advocacy news site:

“[Major Retailer] Backpeddles on Adding Service Contracts on Appliances” [I paraphrased this so as not to "out" the ignorant editor"]

Backpeddles? Hmph. No such word. The word the editor wanted was “backpedal.”

I left a comment on the site: “The persistence of spelling and grammatical errors in the site, even in the headlines, really distract from your message…The word you want is ‘backpedal,’ as in ‘reversing direction.’ Not ‘backpeddle’ - there is no such word.”

I got back a reply (“Thank you”) right away, and shortly thereafter, the headline was edited to read:

“[Retailer] Backpedles on Adding Service Contracts on Appliances”


The word “backpedal” was coined in the 1850s or 1860s, when early bicycles were starting to become popular. In those days, “cycle machines” had fixed gears; that is, there was a single gear with pedals attached in such a way that whenever the bike was moving, the pedals (and the feet) had to go round and round with them. There was no derailleur, as there was only a single gear. To move forward, the rider would push the pedals in a forward direction. To slow or stop the bicycle, the rider would push backwards on the pedals, that is, the rider would backpedal. Unicycles and kids’ tricycles, which also have fixed gears, are ridden in precisely this way.

In the case of this news story, the retailer is reversing its direction on how it handles service contracts. Though it sells (peddles?) the appliances, it is backpedaling on its policy.

People often mix up pedaling (that is, using the feet in some way, such as on a bicycle, pipe organ, etc.), with peddling (that is, selling things). Soft-pedaling means treading lightly in dealing with a difficult issue.

Some would argue that common use legitimizes misuse, and that “backpeddles” now is an acceptable variant of “backpedal.” Other commonplace misuses include the recent acceptance of “enormity” (meaning a horrible thing) to mean “of enormous proportion” and “decimate” (meaning to destroy one tenth of something) to mean “to destroy completely.” I deplore this trend. Why not be precise? Why not use the correct word and the correct spelling and the correct meaning? Laziness and ignorance are not sufficient reasons for abandoning the wonderful variety of words we can employ to communicate effectively and precisely.

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