Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Most Misused Word in CBA

I don't know who started it, but I keep seeing this work in novels published for CBA that is driving me crazy. It is a phrase as much as anything and it seems to appear in the first chapter quite frequently. At first, I thought it was a suspense novelist thing. I saw Brandilyn Collins use it and then I saw it in a Love Inspired Suspense book, which made me wonder if that author had copied it from Brandilyn Collins. But it also appears in Lonestar Sanctuary by Colleen Coble. "Rick watched the feeble horse try to feed, and he fisted his hands. (Emphasis mine) I'll tell you what. If I see this phrase many more times, you won't find me fisting my hands, you'll find me fisting a podium.

Given the context of the sentence around it, I think what these writers actually intend to say with this phrase is that he clenched his fists. Granted, a secondary mean of the verb fist, according to Merriam-Webster online is to clench into a fist, but the primary meaning is grip with one's fist. Interestingly, The 1988 Third College Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary of American English didn't even include "to clench one's fists" as one of the definitions it included. In it, the primary definition is "to hit with the fist" and the second definition is "to grasp or handle."

So here's the thing. When we come to a phrase like this, out first thought is that to fist means to strike with the fist. Now it could be that Collen Coble intends for us to think that this dude is standing there watching the horses eat and hitting his hand with his fist while they do, but I find this unlikely. One doesn't normally fist something unless it is to cause damage or to emphasis a point during a speech. We might, for example, write, "'If he doesn't clean up his act, well...' Bob fisted his hand." We might also write about a child, "I handed him the nickle and he fisted it." But our hand is too large to fit in our fist, so it is use the term in that way.

If you intend to say that a character clenched his fists, why not just say that the character clenched his fists. Of the two phrases, it is the more clear. What can you hope to gain by saying "he fisted his hands" rather than using the correct phrase "he clenched his fists"? The correct phrase is only two characters longer than the incorrect phrase. Are we so concerned about tightening that we are concerned about two letters? We should be more concerned with not confusing the reader. [I fist the table as I write this post.]