Friday, February 26, 2010

Annals of peevology: "Fix"

A true scholar, Maximilian Schele de Vere was usually more interested in explaining than in denouncing language. But in "Americanisms: The Language of the New World" (1871), he joined in the widespread condemnation of our national fondness for fixing things:
Fix, to, may be safely called the American word of words, since there is probably no action whatever, performed by mind or body, which is not represented at some time or other by the universal term. It has well been called the strongest evidence of that national indolence which avoids the trouble of careful thought at all hazards, and of that restless hurry which ever makes the word welcome that comes up first and saves time.
Whatever is to be made, whatever needs repair, whatever requires arrangement -- all is fixed. The farmer fixes his gates, the mechanic his workbench, the seamstress her sewing-machine, the fine lady her hair, and the schoolboy his books. The minister forgets to fix his sermon in time, the doctor to fix his medicines, and the lawyer to fix his brief. At public meetings it is fixed who are to be the candidates for office; rules are fixed to govern an institution, and when the arrangements are made, the people contentedly say: "Now everything is fixed nicely." Americans must have had an early weakness for the word, for already, in 1675, the Commissioners of the United Colonies ordered "their arms well fixed and fit for service." (Quoted by J. R. Lowell.)* It is not to be wondered at, after this, that Americans should be so continually in a fix -- an expression which, in England only slang, is here used in serious language.
"A poor woman and her orphan chicks,
Left without fixtures, in an awful fix." 

*Schele de Vere (and Lowell) were mistaken in calling this fix an American invention, according to the OED. Its earliest citation for the sense -- "To adjust, make ready for use (arms, instruments, etc.); to arrange in proper order" -- comes from Pepys's Diary (1663): "I found ... the arms well fixed, charged, and primed." But the 19th-century usagists took for granted that most extensions of fix beyond the basic meanings --  "attach, fasten, set" -- were the work of American yokels.

Friday, February 19, 2010

News to me: "Shed one's wedge"

A Guardian article on literature's Top 10 Unreliable Narrators (thanks, Chris!) includes this paragraph on Martin Amis's 1984 novel "Money":
John Self is one of literature's most repulsively addictive narrators. The book might be* subtitled "A Suicide Note", but it is in fact a love story, with Self dreaming up ever more extravagant ways to shed his wedge while pursuing entirely corruptible Selina Street, among others. The fact that Self might never have actually existed, revealed towards the end, is Amis's sly take on the death of the self.
Um, "ways to shed his wedge"? Sounds dirty, but that's probably just because of all the other phrases in which a guy is said to be X-ing his Y. My second guess was that it meant "commit suicide," as in "shuffle off this mortal coil." I figured the Internet would clear it up in seconds, but no -- the usage is surely there, but it's buried in heaps and heaps of wedge issues and golf wedges. Ditto for Nexis cites.

But yes, the OED has the answer, in a 1993 addition: A wedge is slang, originally criminals' slang, for "A wad of bank notes; hence, (a significant amount of) money." Among the citations is one from the Times of London, 1981: "Top villains ... share an idiosyncratic argot (‘wedge’, for example, for a stack of money)." Did the thin end of this wedge ever make its way into American usage, I wonder, or is it strictly a British thing?

*I would probably have written "the book may be subtitled A Suicide Note"; I'd be tempted to read "might be subtitled" as meaning "could be," but in fact, that is the subtitle.

The return of Grammarnoir

I once was wary of National Grammar Day, founded in 2004 by Martha Brockenbrough's Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), thinking of it as just another excuse for ignorant kvetching. Then, last year, John McIntyre redeemed the March 4 holiday by making it the occasion for a grammar-based pulp fiction serial. The holiday looms again, and this year's dark tale, "Pulp Diction," is already under way (Part 2, with a link to Part 1, is here).

If you haven't read it, or even if you have, you may want to start with last year's "Grammarnoir," in which I was honored to have a cameo as a language moll lurking about in a dark raincoat.

Speaking of mysteries, is anyone minding the store at SPOGG? The National Grammar Day website is a year out of date: "WHO HAD THE WORST GRAMMAR IN 2008? FIND OUT!" it blares. The list of links is full of outdated and abandoned sites. Martha may not be locked up "in the Big House," except in the plot of last year's "Grammarnoir," but do the forces of evil have her tied up in a windowless, wireless-free room somewhere?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

News to me: "Refried beans"

I didn't think about it when I lived in San Diego, eating Mexican combo platters as routinely as we eat pizza in the East. I didn't think about it back when I was copyediting the food section of the Boston Globe. Decades have passed, and now, at last, Trader Joe's has answered the question I was always too dim to ask: Why do we call them "refried beans"? Are they really fried twice? 

Apparently not. According to the Fearless Flyer that arrived in today's mail, the name results from a mistranslation: "In colloquial Mexican Spanish, the prefix re is often used to mean 'very.' So frijoles refritos should actually translate to very fried beans, not refried beans." A number of  other websites say the same, and concurs, citing Diana Kennedy's "Cuisines of Mexico." (Kennedy's a reliable source, or at least she was in my food editing days.) So until I hear otherwise, I'm accepting that refried beans are fried only once.

I also wondered (at long last) why the beans needed to be fried even once, since they can be simmered and mashed into the desired state of submission without the skillet treatment. But now that I've looked up a few recipes, I think I understand.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wrecking havoc in the sports pages

A few days ago, Globe reader Erin H. spotted a report in the paper saying that the weather has "wrecked havoc" on the Olympic schedule, and she wondered:
Is "wrecked havoc" the correct past tense of "wreak havoc" (I always thought it was "wrought havoc"), or is [the reporter] using it here as the past tense of "wreck havoc"? After an internet search I still can't really tell if there are one, two, or three past tense forms of wreak havoc.
The situation is complicated, to say the least. There's a nice summary of the "wreaked/wrought havoc" variation at The Mavens' Word-of-the-Day, including this clarification of the verbs' family ties:
The past tense and past participle of wreak is always wreaked: "The eruption of Mount Usu has wreaked havoc in Japan." However, wreak/wreaked is sometimes replaced by another verb work/worked: "The volcanic eruption has worked havoc." Occasionally, the archaic past tense of work is used: "The volcanic eruption has wrought havoc." So wrought is not an incorrect substitute for wreaked, but rather an archaic variant of worked.
For good measure, you'll want to check the Mavens' discussion of rack/wrack too. And don't miss Arnold Zwicky's blog post from last week on the interplay of wreck, wrack, and rack, as in "going to (w)rack and ruin." An excerpt:
The OED (draft revision of June 2008) says that rack in rack and ruin is a variant of wrack, which is historically earlier. It has cites for to wrack in the relevant sense from 1412, and for to wrack and ruin from 1577; to rack in the relevant sense is attested from 1599, to rack and ruin from 1706. That is, the wrack of destruction got there first, but there’s been variation for a very long time.
But to answer Erin's actual question: No, we don't wreck havoc or go to wreck and ruin. Or rather, we do, but it's the one usage among all the possibilities that pretty much everyone considers wrong.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eskimo snow words in the comics

I've become a big fan of Richard Thompson's "Cul de Sac" comic strip, which the Boston Globe has been running for more than a year -- a big enough fan that I recently bought the two book collections of the comics, to catch up on the ones I'd missed. To my delight, an early strip actually addresses the Eskimo-words-for-snow question -- and Mr. Otterloop has heard the tale debunked, though he's not allowed to say so.

This strip and several dozen more of those collected in "Cul de Sac: This Exit" come from the Washington Post Magazine, which published Thompson's work for several years before it was syndicated, according to the introduction by Bill Watterson. (At least some of these are watercolors, and the shadows in the strip above are not scan show-through, as I thought at first, but part of the picture.)

By coincidence, just as I was reading these last week, two other comic strips -- "Pooch Cafe" and "Frazz" -- both pointed out that dinosaurs and cavemen were not alive in the same era. So is this the future of education? For the news, tune in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and for science facts read the funnies -- two sources not under the influence of the Texas Board of Education.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Argh! Megidduh!

My Globe column today, on snowmanteaus, discusses the relative merits of snowpocalypse and snowmageddon as descriptions of this month's mid-Atlantic weather events. But in it, I made a dopey mistake, as reader Ed Berman, of Marblehead, Mass., points out, and compounded the error by attributing it to the Oxford English Dictionary: I said the original Armageddon was a site in Jerusalem.

Writes Berman:
Armageddon is a corruption of Har Megiddo, or Mount Megiddo (more accurately Tel Megiddo, a tel being a mound built up by successive communities built one upon the ruins of the previous one). Megiddo is a site in the southern Jezreel valley in northern Israel where there had been many battles in ancient times. We visited there in l965 at which time they were excavating ruins of fortifications built during the reign of King Solomon.
I had read up on Har Megiddo while researching the column, and I didn't at any point believe that the site was in the city of Jerusalem, so I can only surmise that I meant to write "Israel" and somehow substituted city for country. Is this what linguist Geoff Nunberg calls a thinko, or something even less explicable, just a dumb-o? Apologies to all, especially the OED.

[Update, 12:33 p.m.: Online version now fixed, thanks to my colleagues at I love the 21st century.]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just follow our lead ...

Headline over a group of letters about changes to No Child Left Behind in the Feb. 8 Globe:


(Yes, it's still there on the web version.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Word: Fleur-de-lis

I was amazed to read in yesterday's NYT that the French pronunciation of fleur-de-lis (or fleur-de-lys) sounds the final s: "fluhr duh LEES," in the TImes's transcription. Amazed not because the pronunciation is odd, but because I've never heard that there was an alternative to the usual American "fluhr duh LEE." I mean, the world is full of people reminding each other that vichyssoise and coup de grace (sorry, no time to find accent marks) do sound those final consonants. And just last week, I was reading that Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, would not (in French) sound the t in Port: "pore oh prahns," it would be.  So why, in all the decades since I studied Little Lessons in French in an antiquated Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, have I never heard the pronunciation police address fleur-de-lys?

I think it must be because the Anglicized pronunciation has been grandfathered (or great-grandfathered) into our vocabulary. Charles Harrington Elster, the pronunciation maven, doesn't list the word in his "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations." The 1889 Century Dictionary doesn't have an entry for fleur-de-lis, but it has the verb fleurdelised, "adorned or ornamented with fleurs-de-lis," and the sole pronunciation given is (in Times style) "fluhr-duh-LEED." My 1969 American Heritage and my circa 1963 Funk & Wagnalls give LEE as the pronunciation of the singular, but oddly, both sound the s in the plural: fleurs-de-lis is "fluhr duh LEES."

So maybe I've never even heard the French-style fleur-de-lis; certainly I've never heard anyone's pronunciation corrected. But if there are people out there trying to re-Frenchify the word, do let me know how the campaign is going.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Google Books: Searching in vain

Sometime in 2007, Google Books added a wonderful option for users: We could put books into a collection labeled "My library" and then search only within that list. 

A week or so ago, the "Search my library" button disappeared. The new Google Books page offers all sorts of ways to waste time sorting and labeling books, but no longer can I just click and search just the books in my own library. 

Whose bright idea was that? Someone at Google who doesn't appreciate the true sublimity of Google Books, which resides not in the contentious copyrighted works but in the huge collection of older books and periodicals available for full-text searching. When I researched my annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's 1909 usage book, I amassed a collection of grammar, vocabulary, reference, and usage books dating from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s, all copyright-free and searchable and clippable. (I could have bought all the books and searched them by hand, but I'm not sure I would have managed to publish in time for the book's 100th anniversary.)

Google's book search was far from perfect, as researchers well know. The same search may bring different results on different attempts. I might search my library for a term I knew was in Bierce's own book -- "expectorate," say -- and find that citation unaccountably missing from the results. But with repeated searches and cross-reference checks, I think (and hope) I approximated the level of accuracy a manual search would have yielded. (As for Google's laughable metadata -- dates off by centuries, crazy categorization, misattribution -- Geoff Nunberg is all over the case.)

OK, this was all a free service, and I actually got lucky -- it was working just at the time I needed it. So I shouldn't be complaining, right? Besides, Google has explained that there's a workaround: To search your library, just plug your parameters into this sample formula:

* The "as_coll=0" parameter defines which bookshelf you search within. In this example, the search is within my "favorites" bookshelf. You can change the parameter to other bookshelf IDs, which are visible in the URL for each of your bookshelves.

* To search within your accounts, you will need to change the value in the uid= parameter to your Google account ID. You will see this account ID in the URL when you visit My Library.

* The q= parameter is what specifies what word or term to search for. So in the example above, I am searching for the word "mad." You can replace this parameter with your search term, Please note that you will need to include "+" between multiple search terms.

Yes, I can do that. Thanks, I guess. But would it really be that hard to just restore the "Search my library" button?