In Paris yesterday, at a seminar to which I had been invited as a visiting examiner, one of the students displayed the word “catachresis”, and then asked whether people knew what it meant. There was no response.

His talk was actually about his ongoing research into the best way to scaffold teaching, and he was using this word as an example of a word that students generally don’t know. The problem he was working on was how to introduce new vocabulary to students in a way that will best help them to learn and remember these new and unfamiliar words.

He then explained that catachresis (pronounced KAT-A-KREE-SIS) means something that is used incorrectly. For example, he said, if you use your TV remote control as a hammer, that is an example of catachresis.

One of the seminar attendees then mentioned that the most common use of the word is in the context of language: Catachresis usually refers to a word that is used incorrectly in speech or writing.

Since I was the native English speaker in the room, I felt a responsibility to chime in. “For example,” I offered helpfully, “if you keep giving your cat too much food, then your catachresis.”

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