I hear people misuse words all the time, and — true confession — I've been known to misuse a word or two myself.
But there are two words that seem to have more misuse than others: erstwhile and penultimate.
I noticed the "erstwhile" thing nearly a decade ago, when I was on the board of my homeowners' association. A resident got up to complain (note to HOA newcomers: people always complain, so don't get excited) about something and, in a voice dripping with sarcasm and a look of scorn on his face, referred to us sitting at the table trying to look pleasant as "our erstwhile board here."
"What-what?," as England's King George III was reputed to have said over and over in one of his lunatic phases. Had we been ousted without our knowledge?
So after the meeting, I asked the gentleman what he meant by that description, "erstwhile board.
See, "erstwhile" means "former" as in "my erstwhile friend."
"I was being sarcastic," the man said. He went on to say that the board members seemed to have such a high opinion of themselves that he was trying to take us down a notch with flowery language that would underscore how uppity we were.
"I think you meant 'esteemed' board, didn't you," I suggested helpfully. You know, the way senators call each other "my esteemed colleague" when they really mean "the dirty, low-down rat who voted against my pork barrel bill."
Since then, I've heard many other people use the word "erstwhile" when I'm sure they meant "esteemed," sometimes sincerely, sometimes sarcastically.
As for "penultimate," it isn't the pinnacle of the ultimate; it's the next-to-last item, as in "she reached her pinnacle in the penultimate song."
I won't even go into the time a man declined to help me drag my kayak onto the beach, saying he had "prostrate problems" (perhaps he was tired?) or the letter to the editor I once received from a woman who said that just because her new boyfriend had sexually molested her preteen daughter, he didn't deserve to be in a "penile institution" for the rest of his life.
Hey, lady, where else?
Master of language
Speaking of word mastery, the three-day festival celebrating the master of words, William Shakespeare, has been moved from its usual mid February date to April 18, 19 and 20 in downtown New Port Richey.
This was excellent news to those of us who shivered through A Midsummer Night's Dream two years ago, when temperatures dropped as the dew fell, making the audience members huddled under their blankets look like Claude Monet's Haystacks — or maybe a field full of oversized corn muffins.
That same kind of weather kept me and many others away last year, and had us cheering when the new dates were announced.
This year's play is a shortened version of Hamlet, one of the Bard's most popular and accessible works.
There have been at least seven movie versions, including those with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in 1948, another with folk and rock singer Marianne Faithfull (Mike Jagger's erstwhile girlfriend) as Ophelia in 1969, and still others with Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke in the title role.
The director of this year's play is Angela Sarabia, an attorney in the State Attorney's office, whose extensive theater resume includes the role of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at a community theater in Jacksonville and the lead role in a student production of Night of The Living Dead while she was at the University of Florida.
The three-day Shakespeare by the River festival starts at 7 p.m. April 18 with a performance of Hamlet at Richey Suncoast Theatre for all us wimps who get the vapors in the night air, followed by outdoor performances in Sims Park at 2:30 and 7 p.m. on April 19. (Let's hope for sunshine and cool river breezes.)
There will be lots of activity April 19 in and around Sims Park besides the plays. Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park will do "Amazing Birds of Prey" from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; the colorfully costumed Society for Creative Anachronism will do sword fights during that same time; and across the street at Queen of Peace Hall, there will be a fine arts show from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and discussions of Shakespeare's sister based on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.
On April 20, the New Port Richey Library will show four BBC films in the "Shakey Film Fest." The New York Times called them "cutting edge productions" that are "deliciously far-fetched, yet faithful to the plays."
Midsummer Night's Dream, set in a theme resort, will be shown at noon. Taming of the Shrew, about a bad-tempered female politician who is chosen to lead her party, is at 2 p.m. The penultimate film is Macbeth, about an ambitious chef who decides to slice up his celebrity boss so he can run the restaurant to his liking, at 4 p.m. And at 6 p.m. is Much Ado About Nothing, which has two bickering broadcasters who drive their colleagues nuts, but are actually perfect mates.
As Prince Hamlet would say, "The play's the thing."