A recent commenter on Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders mentioned that we semi-educated types often use the term per se incorrectly, attempting to sound more high-falutin' than we really are. Having just used the term myself in some post within the 24 hours preceding this, I was perhaps more sensitive than I might have been normally to this criticism--enough so that I feel a little frozen in even attempting to think of a sentence that I would use it in. So let me take a more lighthearted approach to this and give an 'example' of a way I might use the term in a sentence.
"It wasn't a crime, per se--my hand just happened to slip into her wallet as I was helping her across the street."
I am not a hundred percent sure that this is the way I do use it, but it's a starting point. I guess in my mind, per se means, in actuality, or as strictly or legalistically defined, or even more informally, 'as you might ordinarily define it yourself'.
So what's the root of this phrase? I'm guessing Latin. Legalistic Latin is the way I'm betting it's come down to us. Time to take a look...
per se: Latin for 'of, in or by itself, or oneself'. Intrinsically. Essentially.
So I think my sentence above is a little bit off, as I somehow felt it was. A better sentence might be "The fact that my hand slipped into her wallet as I was helping her across the street wasn't a crime per se--it was bringing it out again with that fifty and taking off down the street that put me on the wrong side of the law."
Now I'm curious about common misuses of the word. How do people most typically make mistakes with it?
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