A Lesson in Ordinary Word Usage

SpaceX sent into orbit the world’s first spaceflight with no professional astronauts. The crew included a billionaire and three ordinary people.

That phrasing – “a billionaire and three ordinary people,” as reported by the New York Times – caused the word “ordinary” to get an unusual amount of attention last week. This according to the Bible of all dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and its week-in-review of words – a must-get digital subscription for all you logophiles out there.

Some felt the NYT’s usage of “ordinary” was “overly solicitous of the egos of billionaires,” according to MW.

There are 2,755 billionaires in the world, according to Forbes’ annual list, released in April 2021. (Jeff Bezos was the wealthiest for the fourth year running, with a net worth of $177 billion.) There are 7.9 billion people in the world. This definitely means billionaires are not ordinary, but that doesn’t mean the other three people are ordinary simply because they’re juxtaposed with one. 

Thus, the problem. More than that, even if the billionaire were not there, “ordinary” does not accurately describe three people who were about to be strapped into a rocket, bound for outer space. 

None of MW’s definitions of “ordinary” are very flattering. “Of a kind to be expected” is the first definition, followed by “Of common quality, rank or ability,” and lastly, “deficient in quality.” 

Usage changes word meanings over time. In our colonial past, it may have been a compliment to be an ordinary, common man. It was a way to distinguish oneself from aristocrats or dilettantes. Picture a brawny, self-reliant kind of man pulling himself up by his bootstraps, making his fortune and way in the world rather than inheriting those things. Conversely, I don’t believe calling a woman “common” was ever a compliment.

What got me thinking about word usage was a reader who wrote last week and said he was no longer going to read this newspaper because he disagreed with an “article” in it. He said the writer of this “article” was ultra-conservative and, because we published it, so were we. He didn’t like that. (Those who accuse us of being too liberal may be surprised to hear this, but I’ve said more than once that we get criticism from both sides.) 

It bothers me when people use the word “article” when they mean “column.” If he’d said “article of opinion,” fine – because that’s what a column is. Any of the columnists or guest columnists whose writing we publish are expressing their opinions – not mine or ours as a newspaper. This is sometimes difficult for people to understand because if the newspaper doesn’t agree, why would it publish that piece? 

A newspaper is a place for the free exchange of ideas, whether through news reporting or opinions. The range we publish reflects the diversity that exists within our communities. We’re proud to publish that range, proud that our communities are composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities – by definition, not ordinary.