Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some like it spat

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman has a nice analysis of the nouning of "spat upon," as reported in today's New York Times story,  "When Passengers Spit, Bus Drivers Take Months Off." When a city bus driver is spat on (or at) by a passenger, apparently the incident is now routinely called "a spat upon."

But the headline on page one of the print edition was not the same as the one Mark saw on the Web. My paper had "Spit Upon, Some Bus Drivers Go on Paid Leave for Months." That use of spit reflects Times style -- the verb is supposed to be spit in present, past, and past participial uses, spit-spit-spit. But in this case, that creates an inconsistency: The story is about an assault that officials refer to as "a spat upon," and editors can hardly change that to conform to NYT style.

I don't know whether the online hed was changed in order to eliminate the style disparity; the writer's own use of the dispreferred past tense -- "More than 80 drivers reported being spat upon" -- remains in the text of the Web version. But editing it would have been a sensible decision, since both versions are OK. In fact, Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage, lists spit-spat-spat, spit-spat-spit, and spit-spit-spit as possible conjugations of the verb.

He prefers spat for past tense and participle, as I do, though I don't share his impression that spit is "dialectal." (I learned spat in my Ohio youth, but I've heard past-tense spit all over.) And the OED has examples of past-tense forms like spytted and spytte long before spat, which has been circulating for a mere 500 years.

After so long a standoff, I suppose there's no hope for a quick resolution of the spit-spat conflict. But it's nice to see spat holding its ground in New York. Maybe the Times will be moved to reconsider its style choice. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Over your dead body? Yup.

My Globe colleague Sam Allis has an old-fashioned language rant in today's paper, hating on some verbings (old fave impact, '70s invention transition, recent revivals caveat and friend). His rousing conclusion: "Just because people ... are using 'unfriend' as a verb doesn't mean we all have to sink with them."

Really, Sam, has all my work been in vain? Of course that's what it means. I'm going to put this down to deadline pressure, an excuse I can totally get behind. But let's try not to make the world an even dumber place, OK?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Entendre" at the singles bar

An entendre that wasn't doubled caught my eye in this NYT story on search optimization last Sunday (yes, I've been neglecting my duties here). David Carr wrote about headlines like "Obama Rejects Rush Limbaugh Golf Match: Rush ‘Can Play With Himself'" that

It’s digital nirvana: two highly searched proper nouns followed by a smutty entendre, a headline that both the red and the blue may be compelled to click, and the readers of the site can have a laugh while the headline delivers great visibility out on the Web.

"A smutty entendre"? I had never seen entendre used this way, as shorthand for double entendre, but if chauvinism can stand in for male chauvinism and graphic for pornographic, there's no reason entendre -- which English uses only in double entendre, a phrase with two senses, one usually risque -- couldn't take the same path.

But it hasn't gone more than one baby step along the route, a web search suggests. "An entendre"  appears 15 times in Nexis newspapers, with citations back to 1988, if we throw out the uses (another 20 or so) that are explicit plays on double entendre -- "barman, give me an entendre and make it a double," and so forth.

Some of these entendres seem to be plain misuse: The idea that Chicago had 400 famous people "was an entendre, a joke, a tongue in cheek," said a founder of a social network there. A student music reviewer used the word to mean simply a non-dirty pun: "Musicaphile ...[is] etymologically sound ('sound' is an entendre though granted not a very funny one)."

But those who employ the naked entendre generally intend it as Carr did, as a short form of double entendre. From the US: "[Mae West] could deliver an entendre just perfectly." From Australia: Dame Edna "adroitly pivots on an entendre." And from England: "The 'Confessions' movies were 'Carry On' films minus an entendre."

Google News takes the solo entendre back to 1969 -- "[she] can put more into an entendre than an old vaudeville comic" -- but again, examples are sparse. Even Google-wide, there are only 360 uses (if the words double and triple are blocked). Still, most of those are recent and youthful, and if the usage does spread, that's where we'll see it first.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Let's get it on

For a week or so, we've all been hearing about the alleged evidence that early humans and Neanderthals interbred. Like the millions of others who once read "Clan of the Cave Bear," I wasn't as surprised as I might have been. It was possible then, it's possible now, and nobody knows for sure.

But I was taken aback when, a couple of hours ago, I heard the WBUR tease for the 7 p.m. repeat of Tom Ashbrook's show, and the announcer said there was genetic proof that  "humans made it with Neanderthals."

Whoa, I thought -- that's a bit slangy (and racy) for a straight program tease, no? And yeah, it would have been, if that's what the man had said. But the next time it aired,  I heard what I think he was really saying: "humans MATED WITH Neanderthals."

The same thing, to be sure -- and yet, how different. After all, "making it" is what specific couples do, and it doesn't necessarily leave permanent DNA evidence. "Mated with" is a species-wide activity, and it implies the existence of offspring. (And as I listen to the broadcast, Tom seems to be using "interbred" instead of "mated with," a better choice both for auditory clarity and for accuracy.)

I'm going to blame John McIntyre for my mishearing, since he wrote so recently about the necessity for a copy editor to have a dirty mind, ever vigilant for the double entendre. I haven't been on dirt patrol for years, but I guess it's like riding a bicycle -- you never forget the fundamentals.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

And in the white trunks ...

In today's installment of his "After Deadline" blog, the New York Times's Philip Corbett criticizes the editor who wrote the original caption for this photo: "Rielle Hunter, left, and Oprah Winfrey in an interview shown Thursday. Ms. Hunter spoke of her affair with John Edwards."

Says Corbett: "I think we can assume at this point that in a photo of two women, our readers will know which one is Oprah Winfrey. The "left" makes it look as though we're editing on autopilot."

I'm not so sure. Of course Oprah is one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. Still, I guarantee I could find someone right there in New York City who has never put the name together with the face (I'm looking at you, Jack). And I have to wonder: Would Corbett make the same call if the woman Oprah was photographed with was also African-American? Or is he just confident that everyone who sees the photo of her and Rielle Hunter will at least know that Oprah's the black lady?

Sometimes autopilot is the safest way to fly.

Photo: George Burns/Harpo Productions, via AP

Monday, May 10, 2010

One misty, moisty mutant

My friend Nicole, traveling in Zanzibar last week, saw the label on a shipping box: the umbrella symbol and, beneath it, the not unexpected advice "Store in dry place." But the rest of the admonition was not so straightforward. It read:
 OK, "the musty" must be whatever sort of mildew or mold likes to grow on damp shipping cartons in Zanzibar. But can my multilingual friends out there hazard a guess as to what word might have given rise to "mutant"? Some synonym for "growth" perhaps? Or for "spreading"? Or for "contagion," that current financial buzzword?

And while we're on the subject, do you use mildewy and musty as synonyms for the dank smell of the fungus among us? If not, what's the difference? (Food can only be moldy, as far as I know, but I tend to waffle when choosing between the other M-words. If you have a rule, please share.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Poisoning our minds

Scott Simon, watch out! When a language scold e-mails to criticize you for calling a rattlesnake poisonous -- as you did on this morning's "Weekend Edition" -- just ignore it. When you asked the rattlesnake bagger "Are they poisonous?" you were using the word correctly.

I'm issuing this preemptive counterattack because just a few weeks ago, another public radio stalwart mistakenly apologized for calling snakes poisonous. After "All Things Considered" ran a story about snake milking last month, host Robert Siegel gave air time to a letter from a listener about the same "mistake": 
My 4H Club students in the elementary schools where I give lessons on insects and arachnids would never forgive me if I did not point out that snakes and other animals that bite and inject a toxin, are venomous, not poisonous.
Now it is true that the snake's toxin is called venom. But venom is a kind of poison -- the kind produced by animals and insects -- not a substance distinct from poison. Samuel Johnson certainly knew what venom was, but in his renowned Dictionary, he referred to "a poisonous serpent" and "a poisonous insect."

A few of the Victorian gentlemen engaged in the Great Language Tidy-Up of their time did hope to completely separate poison from venom. But they had to concede that the distinction was fuzzy, given the Bible's "poison of asps" and "adders' poison."

The OED's definition of poisonous is "Containing, or of the nature of, poison; having the properties of a poison; venomous." And its examples include "teeth ... by which they ejaculate their poyson" (1661), "poisonous vipers (1665), and "poison fangs" (1796).

The only current style guide I've seen that insists on the distinction is Paul Brians's "Common Errors in English" site. He says:
Snakes and insects that inject poisonous venom into their victims are venomous, but a snake or tarantula is not itself poisonous because if you eat one it won’t poison you. A blowfish will kill you if you eat it, so it is poisonous; but it is not venomous.
Brians's formulation acknowledges that venom is a poison; his objection seems to be that "poisonous snake" or "poisonous spider" could be misunderstood as "unfit to eat." But after more than four centuries of using poisonous for venomous animals, I think we can handle the ambiguity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Brain taser

Today's contribution to the expanding crash blossom collection, from the Wall Street Journal:

Philly Police Back
Tasering Officer

At first reading I really did take it to mean that the Philly police were in favor of tasering one of their number -- as an initiation rite? A punishment? (It's amazing how quickly the mind processes the absurd possibilities.) Another, less plausible reading: The police are now back at their task of tasering an officer (after taking a break).

Of course, what the police really back is yesterday's tasering BY a police officer of the kid who ran onto the Phillies ballfield during the game. (And yes, "Tasering by Officer" would have fit.)