Friday, December 20, 2013

"Growing a business" for (at least) 35 years

Since my esteemed colleague John McIntyre has registered (mildly, in a footnote) an aversion to "growing a business," I thought I'd dig up my previous discussion of the usage. If I'm more tolerant of it than he, it must be because I heard it much earlier, thanks to a stint at a business magazine. Here's what I wrote in the Boston Globe on Dec. 27, 1998, in a Word column on bugbears we should forget about:
Growing pains. Some readers are alarmed by the spread of the transitive grow beyond its agricultural domain. Growing corn and tomatoes is all very well, say Alan Rechel of Belmont [Mass.] and Tom Halsted of Manchester [Mass.], but when did growing a business and growing the economy become part of the language? I shared their pain when I first saw grow used this way (in Inc. magazine, 20 years ago), but I haven't found any good arguments against it, aside from the taint of jargon -- and that will fade with time and use. After all, if you can grow a beard or a crystal, why not a business?
In fact, this sense existed long ago, according to the OED, which gives an example (here modernized) from 1481: "When David had reigned seven years in Hebron, he grew and amended much this city."* So let's look on the bright side: We're not gaining a neologism, we're reclaiming a bit of our linguistic heritage.

*Originally: "Whan dauid had regned vii. yere in Ebron he grewe [Fr. creut] and amended moche this cyte [Jerusalem]." The quote is from Caxton's translation of "Godeffroy of Boloyne, or the Siege and Conqueste of Jerusalem," a 12th-century French account of the first Crusade.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Using 'utilize': What the mavens say

"You use a tool for its intended purpose; you utilize it for a different purpose," Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) tweeted a few days ago. She added an example: "Tom uses a hammer to pound nails; Sam utilizes a hammer to crack walnuts."

I was perplexed by this rule, partly because the walnut-cracking sentence seemed so unidiomatic and partly because after nearly 30 years as an editor, I rarely meet a brand-new usage rule. I tweeted back: "Seriously, this is a thing?" (I thought it might be a joke.)

But Erin is a cogent usage writer and a working editor, not a collector of zombie rules and usage whims. She wasn't making it up; clearly the rule was out there somewhere. So I set out to search the web and my shelves of usage literature. 

My conclusion in brief: Yes, this is a thing, the idea that utilize and use have neatly distinct senses. But it's not a very widespread thing, and I don’t think it’s going to catch on.

I checked a few 19th-century usage books and a few more 20th-century sources (see list below), and the notion that utilize can mean, essentially, "repurpose an object made for something else" did pop up eventually, in the mid-20th century. 

The first suggestion of it -- not a clear statement, but a hint -- appears in Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, published in 1957. "Utilize implies a practical or profitable use and, in its stricter sense, making a practical or profitable use of something when something else more desirable is not available," they write. "More desirable" could certainly be understood as "more appropriate to the task."  

A few years later, Sir Ernest Gowers mentions the distinction in his edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965) -- but only to say it's obsolete. 
If differentiation were possible between utilize and use it would be that utilize has the special meaning of make good use of, especially of something that was not intended for the purpose but will serve. But this distinction has disappeared beyond recall; utilize is now ordinarily treated as a LONG VARIANT of use. 
 Wilson Follett, in Modern American Usage (1966), lists utilize under the heading "needless words." He thinks utilize could just disappear, but he concedes a wisp of the extra sense Gowers noted:
The occasions when use will not do are so rare as to be inexistent for the workaday writer. … If a nuance must be found to distinguish between the pair, it lies in the stronger suggestion utilize gives of turning an object or a material to purposes it was not meant for.
I found a few more references to the "repurpose rule" on the web: The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988) is quoted as saying "There is some excuse for utilize in the sense of 'put to unexpected practical use' (utilize an old bathtub as a drinking trough)." Another site quotes "Getting the Words Right" by T.A.R. Cheney (1983): "When you utilize something, you make do with something not normally used for the purpose; e.g., you utilize a dime when the bloody screwdriver is nowhere to be found." Also, a couple of readers of the Grammarphobia blog have cited the rule (though blogmeisters Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman seem not to have heard of it).

But there's no mention of utilize="repurpose" before the 1950s, and that's a puzzle. Why would such a rule emerge in the mid-20th century, 150 years or so after utilize came (from French) into English? If utilize was such a problematic word, how did it escape the notice of the late-19th-century and early-20th-century word mavens, British and American, who obsessed over an ever-expanding list of language peeves? 

One explanation is that utilize (like other newly adopted words) only attracted the usagists' notice once it became fairly widespread. (See Google Ngram chart below.) Also, utilize may have been migrating into general use from the scientific/technical vocabulary, a sure way for a word to attract hostile attention.


In most of the usage literature, though, utilize is simply shunned as pretentious. Some authorities concede that it is a subset of use with its own special flavor, but it isn't the "repurpose" flavor: They allow utilize "only when it has the meaning 'to turn to practical use or account,'" says Merriam-Webster's usage dictionary. "That is, in fact, almost invariably the meaning of utilize in actual usage." 

I'd like to know who first came up with the idea that utilize means "use for a different purpose" and, even more, why anyone thought the special connotation was useful. When you're making use of something for an unintended purpose, doesn't the context make that clear? "We used our knee socks as tourniquets," for instance; how would saying utilize make the sentence more precise? 

But the real problem is the new twist in the rule's formulation -- the idea that if utilize means "repurpose" it can only mean that, and plain old use can never mean that. 

That notion was not part of Gowers's or Follett's analysis, and it's easy to see that it leads to nonsense. Are we really supposed to say only "he utilized a hammer to crack nuts," and never "he used a hammer"? "They utilized a credit card to jimmy the door"? "She utilized my Sharpie for eyeliner"? Nobody seriously thinks that's a rule of English usage, right?

Certainly not the copy editors I know. When I worked on a features desk with nine others, occasionally one of us would report seeing the department head using a paper clip to clean his ears. Not one of my deskmates ever suggested we really ought to say, "Eww, he's utilizing a paper clip in his ears!" 


Sources consulted, by date of publication: 

Fitzedward Hall, Modern English (1873). Hall reports that the Edinburgh Review of 1809 took exception to utilize (then newly adopted). But Hall finds the word "both useful and readily intelligible."

Frank Vizetelly, A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1907): No mention of use/utilize.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1926): Mentions only the spelling of utilization.

Eric Partridge, The Concise Usage and Abusage (1954): No mention of use/utilize.

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). "Utilize implies ... in its stricter sense, making a practical or profitable use of something when something else more desirable is not available." (See text above.)

Theodore Bernstein, Watch Your Language (1958): No mention of use/utilize.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (1959). No mention of use/utilize.

Roy H. Copperud, A Dictionary of Usage and Style (1964): No mention of use/utilize.

Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965): No mention of use/utilize.

Sir Ernest Gowers, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd ed., 1965): "This distinction [between utilize and use] has disappeared." (See text above.)

Wilson Follett, Modern English Usage (1966). "Utilize [suggests] turning an object or a material to purposes it was not meant for." (See text above.)

Theodore Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971). No mention of use/utilize

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (3d ed., 1979). "Utilize. Prefer use."

Britannica Book of English Usage (1980): "Not completely interchangeable … Use, the more general term, can always be substituted for utilize."

Harper’s Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed., 1985): No mention of use/utilize.

Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, The Complete Plain Words (3d edition, 1986); revision of Sir Bruce Fraser’s 2d edition (1973) of Sir Ernest Gowers’s first edition (1954). Utilise: "The simple word use will almost always serve."

Kenneth Wilson, Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993): Utilize "is a synonym (and often a pretentious euphemism) for the verb use."

Merriam-Websters’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). (See text above.)

R.W. Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996): "A case can be made out for utilize when the required sense is 'to make practical use of, to turn to account.' The boundary is nevertheless a murky one." 

Random House Mavens’ Word of the Day, 1998: "Utilize does have its own meaning: 'to turn to profitable use; to make a practical use for.' This is not the same sense as 'to bring into service', which is what use fundamentally means."

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (4th ed., 1999): "Prefer use." Also, under –ize: "Why say 'utilize' when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?"

Larry Trask, Mind the Gaffe  (2001): Utilize "is not just a fancy word for use. … The word means 'put to a useful purpose (something that would otherwise be wasted).'" (Trask is the only maven I've seen who gives this "would otherwise be wasted" sense.)

American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005): "Utilize often emphasizes the practical or profitable way in which something is used, and the word appears frequently in contexts in which a strategy is put to practical advantage or a chemical or nutrient is being taken up and used effectively."

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009): "use; utilize; utilization. Use is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize and utilization. Utilize is both more abstract and more favorable connotatively than use." 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

GON OUT. BACKSON. BISY.*

I wanted to finish at least one post before the month was over, but it hasn't quite happened. For the best of reasons, though: My daughter had twins this month, and that exciting event (along with the usual November distractions) has sucked up all my time and energy. I've taken to Twitter for the duration, since 140 characters is about the length of my average thought nowadays: @Jan__Freeman, if you're Twitter-tolerant. If not, I plan to be back here very soon. Hope you will be too!

*From "The House at Pooh Corner," because it seemed appropriate ...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Making stuff up (headline department)

I generally don't click on "partner content" no matter how reputable the website I'm on, but I couldn't resist a link at boston.com (site of my longtime employer, the Boston Globe). I really wanted to know which way I was meant to read the headline on a video link:

Doctor Honored at Hospital After Passing Away During Surgery 

Was the doctor performing surgery (which would make the story almost weird enough for "Grey's Anatomy") or undergoing surgery (not so much)? The subhed didn't do much to enlighten readers: "Young doctor honored with a plaque after passing away during surgery."

So I watched the video, an interview with the plaque-honored man's daughter first aired by WNBC-TV in New York. And which reading was correct? Well, neither, it turned out. The subject of the hed, the late Murray Yanowitz, was in fact: 
--not a doctor but an auditor who worked for Long Island College Hospital
--not "young" but 52 years old when he died (in 1979!)
--neither performing nor undergoing surgery when he died (he was seeing his cardiologist) 
It is true that he was "honored" with a plaque at the hospital, which his daughter hopes to reclaim now that the building is being demolished. (Her quest for the now-missing plaque is the excuse for the story; "Daughter Seeks Dad's Plaque at Doomed Hospital" is the kind of hed it needs.)

It's not unusual for a hed to be slightly (or more) off kilter -- Fred Vultee is on the case, night and day, at Headsup: The Blog -- but what could account for this degree of misreading? Is it an outsourcing case, with copy editing and headline writing done in a faraway country by editors with an insufficient grasp of American (medical) English? Whatever the excuse, it's not a performance to inspire confidence in the "curating" allegedly going on at supposedly respectable news sites like the Globe's.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Taboo avoidance by typo

Everyone has seen at least one dirty-joke typo, if only the frequent misspelling of public as pubic ("in the pubic interest," "pubic relations," et al.). But I don't think I'd ever heard of a typo that accidentally cleaned up language meant to be rude. That is, until my daughter spotted one in the Wall Street Journal last week, when she picked up the print edition and started reading a report on the return of the grunge-style sweater. It began:
KURT COBAIN HADN'T been famous long before the world became aware of his penchant for fuzzy, defiantly unpolished sweaters of the thrift-shop variety. ... On the cover of Rolling Stone's "New Faces of Rock" issue, he wore his beloved green cardigan over a DIY T-shirt that brattily declared "corporate magazines still stuck."
"Wait a minute," said my daughter. "That has to be 'corporate magazines still suck,' right?" Right, of course, and the online version of the story now quotes Cobain correctly. (The bowdlerized version is still on view at a different WSJ site.)

I assume this is the author's mistake, both because the preceding "still" might prompt the erroneous "stuck," and because an editor wouldn't change "suck" to "stuck" without a query. But it's interesting that an editor would accept the misquoted version as an example of countercultural protest. Maybe, at the WSJ, "corporate magazines still stuck" qualifies as a bratty sentiment. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Haplologizing the peeververein

Catching up with the well-deserved praise for John McIntyre posted at Barrie England's Caxton blog, I noticed a tiny and (to me) very interesting slip. England wrote:
The peeverein should read [McIntyre's post], but of course they won’t. I recommend it in its entirety (it isn’t long), but here are his trenchant comments on some of the tired old grumbles.
Now, peeververein, with four syllables, is John's own coinage, as far as I know; it's a bastard German word meaning "band of peevers" or "society of peevers." I admired it when it debuted, but I also wondered if it wasn't a good candidate for haplology, the excision of one of those nearly identical syllables. Why not just make it peeverein? And that's what Barrie England has done.

It's true that it's not a perfect haplology if you're approximating a German verein, pronouncing the ver more or less like "fair." (At least that's my distant memory.) But if we can haplologize odoriferous to odiferous (as many do), surely we could handle peeverein for peeververein? I eagerly await the response of the esteemed neologist himself ...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Garden path to nowhere

Today, a Boston Globe headline on a story about an antiques auction truly mystified me. It wasn't your garden-variety garden path sentence, requiring only the the shake of a head to rejigger the interpretation -- it was a puzzle that took several paragraphs to solve. The hed:

ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES
Imperfect appeal to the impecunious

My reading was that some dealers (of the secretary, ladderback chair, clock, or portrait that were shown in photos) were insufficiently sensitive to the financial constraints of potential buyers.  That is, their appeal to the impecunious [customers] was imperfect. 

If you read the story, you learn that what the hed means is, approximately: Imperfect [antiques] appeal to the impecunious [buyer]. (That is, the buyer who will spend $300-$500 for a foot-long wood finial taken from an 18th-century house in Dorchester, or $400-$600 for a painted Bible box.)

It looks as if the hed writer gave in to an obvious temptation. As the text explains, "most of the furniture [in the auction] is pictured in [John T.] Kirk's 'The* Impecunious Collector's Guide to American Antiques' ... and his 'The Impecunious House Restorer: Personal Vision and Historical Accuracy.'" I  don't think this justifies using "impecunious" in a newspaper headline -- almost nothing would -- but if it were "impecunious buyers appreciate the imperfect," at least the reader might understand it.

(I think someone at the paper may agree with me. I couldn't find the headline anywhere in the online newspaper, even in Today's Paper, supposedly a page-by-page replica.)

*My fellow Cranky Old Editors will remember when you dropped the "The" from a title if -- I quote the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. -- "it does not fit the surrounding syntax." Thus, "Hawking's Brief History of Time explains black holes" and "That dreadful Old Curiosity Shop character." Less experienced editors -- the ones who put a hyphen in "a more-perfect union" -- seem wary of leaving anything out, tradition or not. Maybe because you can't be wrong if it's all there, however unnecessary.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

How do youse spell it?

Headlining today’s report on the Whitey Bulger trial, my hometown paper went with a defiant quote from Whitey’s affirmation that he would not be testifying:



Hmm. I don't know about youse guys, but I've never thought of using yous for that (usually plural) dialect variant of you. It's normal in plurals like thank-yous and how-could-yous, and both spellings are used for the contraction of "you is," but yous guys? Not in my spelling book.

It may have been a Globe style ruling: The yous version also appeared in Kevin Cullen's column, though it may not have been his choice.* After quoting Whitey, he added a comment with a more colorful spelling: "Sort of appropriate that his final word would include a 'yooze.' For all his literary pretentions, Whitey is a thug, and he talks like one."

(Interestingly, a story on the Globe's website filed yesterday, when testimony ended, has neither youse nor yous: The quote has Whitey saying “Do what you want with me.” But cleaning up quotes, a labyrinthine issue, is not today's topic.) 

The court transcript of the hearing may be the reason for today's use of yous: That's how the court reporter wrote it. For me, that's not a good enough reason. The court's idea of how to spell the word has no special authority; it could just as easily have been transcribed as youse or youze. And the Globe has historically chosen youse as its preferred spelling, though naturally examples are scarce. In the archives since 1988, there are 37 instances of youse, and only two (besides the Bulger cites) of yous.

I haven't the time (nor the brains, possibly) to design a wider search for the yous spelling that won't drown me in a sea of thank-yous and I-dare-yous and such. But a Google Ngram search (American English) for yous guys (blue) vs. youse guys (red) puts youse far ahead, for what it's worth.



On the other hand, the online OED, in an entry updated last year, gives only the spelling yous, with the label "regional (chiefly Irish EnglishU.S., and Austral." -- even though three** of its eight cites spell it youse. (Youse is mentioned only as an 18th-century variant.) And several American dictionaries give both spellings, though I haven't found one that offers only yous.

Maybe this is just a word that appears so rarely in edited prose that a consensus spelling hasn't emerged. Or is it a generational thing, like mic vs. mike, with younger people, more distant from the hard-boiled baddies of earlier fiction, inventing the spelling anew (and dropping the final e)? It seems to be a live issue; just last month, the staff at NewsWorks, the news site of Philadelphia's WHYY, hosted*** a debate on yous vs. youse.

I'm sure I've left many stones unturned in this quest, so I'm looking forward to hearing some helpful testimony from y'all, yinz, youse, and all the rest of you guys (of both sexes) out there.

*I have e-mailed him asking for clarification.
**One American, one English, one Australian.
***I'm so glad host as a verb is no longer taboo.

Monday, July 8, 2013

"Inure," "enure," and the law

Though my family is full of lawyers, I had never heard the legal use of "inure to" until I found myself watching coverage of the George Zimmerman trial the other day, and heard commenters saying things like this (from the transcript of a discussion on CNN):
[Depositions before trial] yield a treasure trove of inconsistent statements. So, that always inures to the benefit of the cross-examiner, like a case like this. 
I knew inure only in the sense of "accustom, habituate," which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1489 (in its common alternate spelling, enure). But the legal inure -- "to take place, have effect; to be available; to be applied (to the use or benefit of a person)" -- is also well aged, dating to 1607. As for the spelling issue, "the form inure has now largely superseded enure," says the OED; "the latter, however, has a long independent history, and has been given separate treatment at ENURE v."

When we find ourselves with a word that has two separate but equal spellings, a common impulse -- at least among the orderly-minded -- is to assign them separate senses: mantel over the fireplace, mantle over the shoulders; insure for buying coverage, ensure for making something happen. But inure/enure has resisted such neatening; the people like inure, but the lawyers can't reach consensus.

H.W. Fowler wanted to tidy up by ditching enure entirely; he thought the word's etymology was so opaque that readers couldn't see the connection between the senses (and indeed, their link to Latin opera "work" is not obvious). Thus "there is a tendency to spell in- & en- for the two meanings as if they were two different words." They are not: "Variant spellings are therefore unnecessary, & -in is preferred by the OED."

But enure persists in legal writing, frequently enough that the website Daily Writing Tips hopefully suggests that "it may be useful to reserve the spelling enure for the legal term." That looks unlikely, since even Bryan Garner -- usage writer, lawyer, and language neatnik -- has no use at all for enure. In The Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, he advises:


 No harm would come of abandoning enure; it wasn't the novel spelling that confused me about legal inure (I was listening, not reading), but the unfamiliar sense. Once I've learned that, context supplies the necessary clues. Similarly, I like using insure for both senses of the word, and though the tradition is fairly well settled now, it's hard to see that the mantle/mantel distinction contributes at all to clarity. But it's never easy for us natural-born sticklers to surrender our hard-learned editorial minutiae.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Duct tape/duck tape, one more time

Is it duck tape or duct tape, and which came first? Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has updated his page on the debate, adding new material and antedating the first unequivocal "duct tape" mention to 1957. (In my last go-round on the topic, in a 2010 Boston Globe column, my earliest cite was 1960.) He also links to new research on the history of duct tape, by a former Scotch tape marketing director, that details the development and naming of 20th-century tapes.

Johnson & Johnson's official story has been that
the original material was developed by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson in 1942 as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes in the US Army. ... Because the fabric backing was made from cotton duck and because it repelled moisture "like water off a duck’s back," it became known to soldiers as duck tape.
It's a good story, but none of us have been able to find a shred of evidence for it, despite the abundance of World War II-era documentation. In fact, "the tapes used by the US Army during the war for sealing ammunition cases and other uses were off-the-shelf brands, including Johnson & Johnson’s Jonflex and Utilitape," Quinion reports. And there's no sign that soldiers called these either duck tape or duct tape; those terms were popularized in the 1960s and '70s.

The issue has long been confused by the existence of early references to "duck tape" meaning cloth tape made of cotton duck, whether stickified for sealing or used for other purposes; during my search I unearthed several old ads for Venetian blinds with ladders made of this woven cloth "duck tape." But it's pretty clear now that both terms, the "logical" duct tape and the (now trademarked) Duck Tape, have reasonable -- and fairly recent -- claims to legitimacy.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Riddle me this: a "bullet-ridden" corpse?

I got an e-mail yesterday from James Alan Fox, who teaches criminology at Northeastern University (and blogs for the Boston Globe), noting an oddity in the paper's update on Aaron Hernandez, the ex-Patriot now charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd. The victim's "bullet-ridden body was found in an industrial park" near Hernandez's home, the story* said.

"I know that ['bullet-ridden'] is sometimes used instead of 'bullet-riddled,' but is it proper?" asked Fox. "You can be guilt-ridden, but riddled reflects multiple holes."

He was way ahead of me, since I had no idea bullet-ridden was in circulation. And he's right: It's quite common to find bullet-ridden when bullet-riddled is (I think) intended. Ridden, after all, means "burdened, oppressed, harassed by": debt-ridden, hag-ridden, conscience-ridden. A riddle is a sieve, so riddled is the word for something (or someone) full of holes; "I was to be made a riddle of if I attempted to escape," says the OED's 1843 citation.

Ridden for riddled could be a retrieval error, a substitution of one word for a similar one by a writer who actually knows the difference. It's not hard to accidentally bunker down instead of hunker down, and so many writers have shimmied up drainpipes (instead of shinn(y)ing) that the new version is taking over. But whether it's an accident or a misapprehension, bullet-ridden has been around for a long time. Google Books instantly gave me a sampling of 19th-century examples like "the old, tattered flags, under whose bullet-ridden folds dear comrades fell" (1868).

Since both ridden and riddled suggest affliction, and their sounds are similar, apparently ridden sounds plausible enough -- especially in this cliched crime compound -- to slide right by editors and readers. Also, as the website Phrase Finder notes, both words go hand in hand with guilt: We can be guilt-ridden or riddled with guilt (or both). The reverse substitution is less likely: Riddled must retain enough of its "holey" sense to keep us from writing conscience-riddled or hag-riddled.

I like to think that in my editing days, I would have noticed a goof like bullet-ridden. But after looking at its history, I'm not feeling so confident. An awful lot of people have read the word, and the dearth of recorded peeving suggests that most of them -- or us -- didn't see anything wrong. 

*The link is to an updated version of the story Fox cites.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Incent dissents

Speaking (as I was here) of the Times's After Deadline blog, this week's edition also included a delightful plea from a reader whose comment (like many of them) was meant only to record a peeve that hadn't been mentioned:
Please, please, please, stop using "incentivize." This is an unnecessary expansion of the perfectly good verb "incent."
Of course, both incentivize and incent have been widely denounced as business jargon in recent years. When I polled Boston Globe readers on their distaste for "new" and controversial verbs, incent/incentivize ranked second (after dialogue). So naturally, another Times reader soon posted a terse response:
"incent" is not a word.
Of course it is a word, like it or not. But more than that, the first commenter is correct on the history: Incent was in print, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, as early as 1844, in a New York weekly. An expanded version of the citation:
She had been dazzled by the supposed wealth of a gay fellow, and, incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.
Yes, this is an American source, but incent didn't remain American: By the end of the century, it was appearing in British texts as well. It didn't make much headway, though, over the decades; as the Google Ngram graph shows, it's the newer incentivize that really caught on. (Attempts to split the difference with incentize have flopped.)



We like to think of those -ize verbs as horrible modern business jargon, but in fact, as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, they've been catching flak for over 400 years. Some die off (pulpitize, melancholize); some stick around (economize, legalize) and make themselves useful. In any case, it's their novelty, not their -ize endings, that rubs people the wrong way. Despisers of -ize should breathe deeply and recall that one of our oldest -ize verbs, respectably rooted in Latin and Greek, is the 13th-century baptize

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Further proof that "lay/laid" is a lost cause

How hard is it to keep lie, lay, laid, lain in their proper places? Let's ask Philip Corbett, the New York Times's standards editor. In yesterday's After Deadline blog, he listed this among the paper's usage missteps:
Mr. Zimmerman talked to police repeatedly and willingly, making statements that lay the groundwork for his self-defense case.
We use the article: “the police.”
It didn't take long for readers to point out the mistake Corbett had missed. "You should also use 'laid,' not the intransitive 'lay,'" said one: Zimmerman's statements laid the groundwork.

Lay, of course, can be transitive too -- in the present tense: "Lay the coats on that bed." But the Zimmerman sentence is cast in the past ("He talked to police"), so the usual sequence of tenses would call for the past-tense laid. "I know you are right" becomes, in the past, "I knew you were right" -- even if you still are right.

But not always. The writer might claim he meant to use the present tense of transitive lay, since  even though Zimmerman talked to police in the past, his statements are laying the groundwork for a defense. Brian Garner calls this the "ongoing-truth exception" to the standard tense shift: "When a subordinate clause states an ongoing or general truth, it should be in the present tense" whatever the main verb is. Thus "He said yesterday that he is Jewish, not ... that he was Jewish."

Garner seems to want to make this a rigid rule, so that every continuing truth would be stated in the present tense. That has not been the traditional practice, though. "The tense shift can always be disregarded when one wants to make a subordinate clause conspicuous," wrote Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957):  "He told me the train leaves at three," for example, or "he taught that God is love." But usually, they caution, "the shift has nothing to do with 'real time.'" In most cases, we shift tenses naturally: "What did you say your name was?"

As far as I know, nobody before Garner suggested drawing a bright line between cases where the "ongoing-truth exception" was mandatory and those where it wasn't. Following it rigidly would create some odd sentences: "I knew you are right." "Mom thought my dress is too short." And often either version serves equally well: "She said he still believed/believes in Santa Claus." We've gotten along for centuries leaving the choice to the writer; why would we clutter up our heads with a rule now?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Extremely organic: "biodynamic"

Writing in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson wondered about the nature of the "biodynamic skin creams" on display at this year's Brooklyn Baby Expo. "Is biodynamic a subset of organic, or something else?" he asked parenthetically.

Adam and I are behind the times, it seems. I had the same question after a recent visit to the Bay Area: The menu at a popular San Francisco restaurant offered a spritzer made from "Seltzer Sisters soda water with Nikolaihof biodynamic elderflower syrup."

I soon discovered that this isn't just West Coast woo-woo. Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge also stocks the elderflower syrup, made at "the oldest wine estate in Austria," where the Saahs family "still use a wine cellar built by the Romans."
The entire estate is run according to biodynamic principles. As a result, the Saahs plant and harvest according to the moon calendar and use only homeopathic treatments for the grapevines and other plants.
But that summary barely scratches the surface, as the Wikipedia article makes clear. Turns out that biodynamic agriculture is one of the many offspring of the protean social reformer Rudolf Steiner, who's perhaps best known today as the founder of Waldorf education. Whole child, whole farm -- it's the same idea, more or less.

And what does it involve? A winery's website has a nice summary:
[Steiner] espoused the principle that a farm should be considered as an organism or self-contained entity. As far as possible the bio-dynamics of the farm should be in balance and harmony. In practice, this is achieved by avoiding the use of toxic chemicals for controlling pests and the use of artificial fertilizers, balancing farm outputs to inputs, developing sustainable ratios for cultivation, cropping and livestock activities and using on-farm materials for soil enrichment.
These materials include a number of homemade compost enhancers such as recipe no. 502:
Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
Call it extreme organic farming (because "organic farming on steroids" would just be so wrong!). And though the science (naturally) is contested, I'll gladly concede that a farmer willing to stuff yarrow into deer bladders, bury it, then dig it up again has earned the premium price that "biodynamic" produce surely commands. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fine distinctions: careering, fearing, recollecting

Last week at You Don't Say, John McIntyre responded to one of those true believers who think that so long as they still distinguish between overlapping words -- career and careen were the pair at issue -- everyone else should too. "Why on earth would we dispose of such a useful distinction?" asked the commenter.

This rhetorical challenge is a perfect example of begging the question, in the old sense. Who says it's "useful"? If I found it useful, wouldn't I be using it?* In any case, Gabe Doyle gave this issue the full treatment way back in 2009, so I won't dwell on it. 

As John kindly mentioned, my annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's "Write It Right" includes abundant examples of similar alleged distinctions. In the case of remember vs. recollect, for instance, Bierce says the difficulty governs the verb choice: "We remember automatically; in recollecting we make a conscious effort."

This seems to be an uncritical borrowing from Richard Grant White, whose 1870 "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present" is the earliest source of the "rule" I've found. There are few later sources, presumably because the rule is so pointless. Why would a listener care if you were recalling something with effort or not? And wouldn't the rule make it incorrect ever to say "I can't remember X"? At any rate, the distinction never took hold, even among sticklers.

Another Bierce bugbear was discussed at Arnold Zwicky's blog the other day: "I'm afraid" vs. "I fear." Bierce says "I fear that it will rain" is correct, though he gives no reason. He may have swiped this one from an 1855 handbook by one Walton Burgess, grandly titled "500 Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, in Speaking, Writing, and Pronouncing the English Language, Corrected." Burgess uses the same "rain" example, and he does give a reason: that "afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety."

But as Arnold noted, there's no historical support for banning "I'm afraid" in the polite/apologetic sense. And even if Burgess's distinction once held, today we hear "I fear" as quite formal, and freely use "I'm afraid" to express both fear and mere regret or anxiety.

I leave for another day Bierce's attempts to differentiate between necessities and necessaries, coat and coating (of paint), trifling and trivial, custom and habit. Suffice it to say that a century later, we're doing very well without them.

*Of course there are always distinctions that remain "meaningful" for some of us even when Those Kids have dropped them; I still think "he may have survived" and "he might have survived" mean different things, but lots of people no longer read the verb as I do. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bernanke gets it right

Belated congratulations to Ben Bernanke, who included an oft-mangled Biblical passage in his commencement speech at Princeton last Sunday and managed to get it right: 
As the Gospel of Luke says (and I'm sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."  It's kind of like grading on the curve.* 
The Kennedys were fond of the Biblical admonition too, and misquoted it through several generations. In 1997, I wrote a Globe column** about JFK Jr.'s garbled version, printed in his magazine, George: "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"

But it turns out the passage has confounded would-be quoters for centuries. When Mark Liberman took up the question at Language Log, in 2007, he found ungrammatical versions dating back to 1826. "However you decide to connect everything up," he wrote, "somewhere in there you need to tell us that much is expected from people, when much is given to them." Apparently that's harder than it sounds, even for educated native speakers.

Bernanke also went with singular they in a couple of instances:
Life is amazingly unpredictable; any 22-year-old who thinks they know where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination.
Take a few minutes the first chance you get and talk to an alum participating in their 25th, or 30th, or 40th reunion.
These were departures from the published text, where the first quote read "any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be," and the second had "his or her 25th ... reunion." In speech, of course, singular they is utterly  natural, and Bernanke didn't hesitate to use it.

*'I've quoted the speech as delivered; the text version has a couple of small differences, including a footnote for the Bible quotation: "Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible."
**Behind a paywall now, I'm sorry to say.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

That's not (yet) what it means

Mark Bittman's piece on salt in the Times last week had a usage I'd never seen before. He wrote:
It does seem that as sodium intake in a population decreases, so does blood pressure, so public health officials argue -- not insensibly -- that most Americans (probably 90 percent!) would be smart to try to eat less salt.
Insensibly only makes sense here if you think it's the opposite of sensibly; Bittman (I think) means to say "not unreasonably." But that's not what insensibly has traditionally meant, to me or my dictionaries. 

The OED's (not updated) definition is "In an insensible manner or degree; imperceptibly; unconsciously; esp. so slightly or gradually that the action or process is not perceived; by imperceptible degrees."

And insensible here does not mean "contrary to common sense." The word did once mean "destitute of sense or intelligence; irrational" -- the OED's cites date from 1531 to 1794 -- but that sense is labeled obsolete. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary calls it archaic, as did the dictionary's 1913 edition; American Heritage (4th ed.) ignores even the possibility of that meaning.

But is archaic insensible poised for a 21st-century comeback? Well, Bittman isn't alone; examples of insensibly for "unreasonably, not sensibly" are out there, as early as 1986. Some sightings from the Times:
We ... took the measure of the 33-foot cross planted there, first erected by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s to counter the bad vibes from the volcano, which they regarded, not insensibly, as the gates of hell. (2007)
Sensibly, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani wants to get rid of the bad. But insensibly, cabbies say, the new regulations he proposes would not only run off the errant few but sideswipe several hundred of the good as well. (1998)
Sarge, a Hell's Angel from Lea Valley, England, was disappointed in his trip to Kruger Park, the crown jewel of the South African park system. Not insensibly perhaps, because he ... had arrived at an inopportune moment. (1996)
''The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt'' is a curiosity: a documentary mixed in, but not insensibly so, with docudrama. (1986).
And from other edited sources:
...the group of iconoclastic individuals who insensibly condemned the arena to its fate to appease the Penguins. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2012, letter to the editor)
This is not the first time the Sense and Sensibility star has acted insensibly over the pursuing shutterbugs. (DigitalJournal.com, 2009)
In Colburn's case, appellate lawyers are arguing, not insensibly, that drugging the defendant into a torpor during his trial denied him his constitutional right to be competent. (Houston Chronicle, 2002)
Many observers believe, not insensibly, that developers of the tourist region around Niagara Falls would do better to form their own vision than simply to re-create what has already occurred. (Buffalo News, 2001)
Say "Y2K" with an anxious brow and all will know that one is worried, not insensibly, about the problem with computers. (Houston Chronicle, 1999)
Of course, for all I know this could be the dominant sense among the under-30 population. (There may be lots more examples out there for anyone willing to search "insensible" instead of "insensibly/not insensibly," but winnowing the results would take more time and patience than I have.) I wouldn't presume to resist the inevitable, but I would caution those who like this sense of insensible: The word can be hard to interpret even now, thanks to its many shades of meaning; it might be wise to resist adding another. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Making it up at the Wall St. Journal

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger tries a little grammatico-rhetorical analysis in his critique of Obama's Sunday speech at Ohio State:
The job market, he said, is "steadily healing." An adverb fronting a gerund; talk doesn't get any weaker than that.
Wait, aren't we all supposed to think that the passive voice is the wimpiest wording in the English language?  But leave that aside. Ignore, as well, the fact that in a grammar that distinguishes between gerunds and participles -- the grammar Henninger and I learned in school -- Obama's "healing" is a participle.

No, what's interesting is the Henninger's idea that the grammatical combination itself -- adverb modifying participle -- results in a "weak" expression, regardless of content. Yes, there are writers who make a fetish of disdaining adverbs. But even Elmore Leonard probably wouldn't argue that "[is] steadily healing" is somehow weaker than "[is experiencing a] steady recovery" (adjective, noun). 

And what if the economy happened to be “rapidly improving” or “audibly humming” or “still booming”? Are those adverb-participle combos examples of talk that "doesn't get any weaker than that"? "Steadily healing" may be an optimistic description of a limping economy, but there's nothing inherently "weak" about the grammatical structure of the phrase.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

DARE to struggle, DARE to win?


This recent "Big Nate" strip took me back to my Ohio childhood, and to those exciting occasions when a box of assorted chocolates made its appearance at our table. With five kids competing for the "good" candies, there were a fair number of disappointments (maple nut! mystery fruit jelly!) and frequent attempts to return these rejects, poked or slightly bitten, to their little fluted cups. At which point another kid was sure to say, "No spitbacks!"

(In Nate's case, I guess it would be "No sniffbacks!")

And what does spitback have to do with DARE, the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional Usage? Well, when I went to check the status of spitback -- real Midwestern word or just family usage? -- DARE was the first place I looked. It wasn't there, nor in my slang dictionaries, which only gave the later (carburetor-, drug-, and sex-related) senses.

I emailed DARE's editor, Joan Houston Hall, to ask if the word had shown up in the project's files after the S volume was printed. No, she said, "but your comment has just been filed so that we can include this if we're able to update the text." And she has a lead on it: "I do remember that one staff member has told of her grandmother's going through a new box of chocolates, poking a hole in the bottom of each before deciding which one to choose. I'll see if she had a name for it."

But her if, as you've probably heard, is a very big if. DARE has completed its print edition, but to publish online and keep updating its research, it needs money, and funding is falling short. Aside from the Oxford English Dictionary and a couple of fine slang dictionaries, I can't think of another reference work I'd rather see in a searchable online format. So I've made a donation (the DARE website takes you to the relevant University of Wisconsin form), and I hope you will too. (And think about possible angels; wouldn't Garrison Keillor, regionalist and word lover, be a great spokesman, even if he is a Minnesotan?) 

Back to spitback. My search continued on the Web, where I did eventually find a couple of cites that suggest the word was not our family's coinage. "Valentine gift-giving is complicated," one blogger advised:
Rung Two on the Chocolate ladder is inhabited by Godiva, Esther Price, Fanny Farmer and Sees. You can’t go wrong with these, unless you dive in, take a bite and leave a spitback -- before she opens up the box. 
Another online commenter asked, "How many of those candies are spitbacks? You know, you take a little bite off a candy, make a face and put it back?"  And there are clues (though not conclusive ones) that both hail from Chicago, near enough for a connection to Northern Ohio speech.

But as this meager sample shows, spitback is fading away. My sister says even her kids (still Ohioans) don't know it -- perhaps because candy nowadays is regularly available in bars and individually wrapped bites, so an assortment is a rare and not so special treat. If you've heard the word, I hope you'll let me know, and Joan Houston Hall as well. It deserves to be in DARE, and DARE deserves a shining place in the online firmament.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who'll take charge?

Until this morning, the only reference to the impending Kentucky Derby I had noticed was John McIntyre's annual guide to the concoction of a mint julep. Then I opened today's Wall Street Journal and promptly misread a headline:

17 Reasons Not to Bet on Will Take Charge

"Not to Bet on," I thought. "Wow, Thoroughbred names just keep getting stranger."

But the piece was not about why a horse called Not to Bet on will take charge in this year's race. It was advice to readers not to bet on the horse called Will Take Charge.  (The "17 reasons" are really one reason: He's the "unlucky" horse starting at post position 17, the only position that has never launched a winner. Well, it's not science, it's horse racing.)

Fellow journalists will have noticed that the headline is an argument in favor of "down" style in headlines, using caps sparingly rather than capitalizing most headline words as the Journal and the NYT do. In a down-style paper like the Boston Globe, the headline would have read

17 reasons not to bet on Will Take Charge

And voila -- the story may still be fanciful, but the headline ambiguity has evaporated.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A copywriter's blind spot, or mine?

I'm about to have a bit of eye surgery, and I don't want to scare the grandchildren, so I picked up a fetching eyepatch to conceal any colorful aftereffects. (The kids should be fine with the pirate look, since they're big fans of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, a Disney updating that ignores poor old Peter Pan.)

But check out the description: "Shaped for comfort and protection. Concave shape minimizes pressure." Doesn't "concave" mean depressed, curving inward? And wouldn't a concave eyepatch give the wearer a poke in the eye?

I opened the box and found a satiny black Captain Hook/Hathaway Shirt-guy patch. And is it concave or convex? Trick question. It's aimed outward at the world in a perky point, like a junior Madonna's bra cup; I'd call that convex, reflecting the point of view of everyone who will see it in use. But it's also concave, if you're looking at the inner surface rather than the outer.

I can see how it's fair to call it concave, since concavity is what matters to the eye it's protecting. But it would never have occurred to me to describe this item -- pictured on the box from its convex side, visible in use only from its convex side -- as concave. The word "concave" is only accurate from one point of (non)view -- that of the eye that's hidden in protected darkness. Even when that's my eye, I don't think I'm going to see it that way.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A rhetorical challenge

My favorite public radio station, WBUR, is finishing up a fund-raising drive today (we all hope), and this drive, as usual, featured a number of time-limited pitches spurred by "challenge grants."

"Loyal listeners have pledged $10,000 if we can match their donations [or reach a certain number of donations] by 1 p.m.," and so on, the employees say. (I paraphrase, of course; even I am not a committed enough listener to write down the patter word for word.) "We can only keep the $10,000 if we make that goal," the pitch goes on (though a few cautious announcers say instead that the challenge amount is "not guaranteed").

I remember vaguely thinking, years ago, that there was something odd about the challenge model for public broadcasting fundraising. Are those donors really the sort of people who'd withdraw their support unless it was matched? And why would they? Continuing support doesn't depend on reaching a certain make-or-break level of funding, the way making a movie or starting a business might. Unlike a Kickstarter project, no critical mass of money is necessary for the enterprise to proceed.

But I didn't give it serious thought till one recent season when, after I made my online donation, the station e-mailed me to ask if it could be bundled as part of a challenge grant. I was confused; "I don't want it back," I said. But of course I soon realized that the "challenge" was just a device to get listeners' attention, and the station's risk of forfeit was essentially zero.

Now the collective "challenge" has been institutionalized; if you make a sufficiently generous donation at the station's website, the screen asks you to check a box if you want your largess to be part of a challenge grant (with an assurance that you can have it back if the challenge fails).

This strategy still seems to me like a rhetorical mismatch. First it casts public radio donors as the kind of people who'll take their bucks and go home if other people don't play their game. Then it compromises the public radio brand, which relies so much on integrity, by asking employees to tell fibs. Or maybe I'm just a priggish literalist. But given their downside, I sure hope those "challenges" are getting good results.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eager peevers

William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well" (the book is 37 years and seven editions old), recently published a collection of blog posts he'd been writing for The American Scholar. I haven't read the essays, but Edwin M. Yoder Jr. has, and he is delighted, he reports in the Wall Street Journal, to find in Zinsser "as hardened a cultural tory as I." That is: a fellow peever.
Readers of "On Writing Well" may not remember it as particularly cranky, and it's not. But this new collection (whatever its actual contents) apparently includes enough language grousing to keep the reviewer happy. For instance, Yoder reports, Zinsser objects to the "weasel word" relationship:
Zinsser's problem with the word "is that it means whatever anyone needs it to mean. . . . But nowhere in bardic lore is there any word of Antony's relationship with Cleopatra, or Tristan's . . . with Isolde." Nor did Cole Porter "write, 'let's do it, let's have a relationship.' "
Zinsser also "doesn't use email and is offended by the term 'snail mail,' patronizing as it is to the dedicated workers of the U.S. Postal Service who get our checks and bills to us on time," says Yoder.

I suppose Zinsser deserves credit for not limiting himself to the same old peeves. But these new ones seem like odd targets. Relationship, after all, has described many sorts of connection in its three centuries of existence. Yes, for Jane Austen it meant a legal kinship, not mere love or friendship. But her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft used it, writing to her baby daddy, in 1793: "Where shall I find a word to express the relationship which subsists between us?" So our modern use is hardly an unnatural development.

It's more understandable that Zinsser (in the sole excerpt of the book I could find) makes fun of his investment adviser for referring to a subordinate as “the lead assistant assigned to your relationship" with the brokerage. But even this commercial jargon usage has OED entries dating back decades: "Relationship management" and "relationship banking" took root in the 1970s.

As for snail mail, I was surprised to hear it might be offensive; I always assumed it was just an irresistible and innocent backronym coined for the age of e-mail. Google did turn up one example of genuine word rage at it, from a direct mail marketer defending his turf:  
I despise the term "snail mail." It is a pejorative that denigrates all hand-carried mail -- Standard, First Class and Parcel Post -- well as the dedicated men and women who deliver it. It is a far more offensive term than "junk mail."
But aside from this highly interested party, there were only a few people claiming snail mail was disparaging, and they were just guessing: inferring that it was intended that way, or was taken that way, but not themselves claiming to intend or take offense.

So has Zinsser become a complete curmudgeon? I suspect not; this article probably highlights the language gripes out of a combination of journalistic strategy (lead with the red meat) and the reviewer's own love of kvetching. So until I see the primary source, I'm reserving judgment on who's the eagerer peever of the pair.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shirr madness on the runway


This photo ran in Tuesday's New York Times with a caption describing the garment as a Jil Sander "beaver coat, longhaired on the top, shirred below."

Shirred is a perfectly good fashion word -- shirring is gathering fabric on a cord or thread(s) -- but I don't see any shirring on that coat. I think the lower section is actually sheared, i.e., cut shorter than the fur on top.

The author, Cathy Horyn, certainly knows the difference, but she probably never saw the photo. Whoever provided the caption probably heard "shear"; the editor who wrote the caption was similarly clueless; and shirred is fine with spellcheck. It's just not correct.

I don't think this can be an eggcorn, because I doubt that the people who put it into print gave a thought to what shirred might be referring to. Which reminds me of another tidbit of wisdom from the Old Editor: "If there's a word in the text you don't understand, and you let the text go, you haven't edited it."

I'm still curious, though, about the original mishearing. Sheared and shirred aren't homonyms for me -- shirr sounds like "sure," not "sheer." Is there any dialect in which the two sound the same?

 AP photo / Antonio Calanni

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The language of "Parade's End"

"Downton Abbey" is hibernating for now, but anachronism-seekers can divert themselves, starting tonight, with the BBC-HBO production  of "Parade's End," the WWI tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford. I'm guessing there will be far fewer goofs per hour in this visit to Edwardian England: Julian Fellowes, after all, has to make up "DA" as he goes, while Tom Stoppard, the scriptwriter for "Parade's End," had 800-some pages of genuine 1920s literature to draw on. Besides, if the series is anything like as complex as the books, we'll have our heads full just following the plot.

Coincidentally, I was rereading "Parade's End" last fall, before news of the TV series reached my ears,  and I flagged a few words in the text that stood out. Not words that are especially likely to show up in a script -- just usages or terms that, 90 or so years later, were puzzling or surprising. I'm sure there are more coming our way; in the meantime, consider these:

Viewy. 
If a fellow chooses to justify his seductions of uninteresting and viewy young females along the lines of freedom and the rights of man, it’s relatively respectable. 
It's tempting to read this as meaning  "showy" or "eye-catching" -- one of the senses the OED provides -- but the context makes it clear that viewy here (and commonly, in Ford's circle) means "having views," politically opinionated in one slightly disparaged way or another. In both senses, the word dates to the mid-1800s, and it attracted some unfavorable notice from the language watchers of the era. Ford's "viewy young females" are probably would-be emancipated women like the suffragette his hero falls for.

Yellow-ammer.
Each knew the names of birds that piped and grasses that bowed; chaffinch, greenfinch, yellow-ammer (not, my dear, hammer! ammer from the Middle High German for "finch"), garden warbler, Dartford warbler, pied-wagtail, known as "dishwasher." 
It's true that the hammer in yellowhammer is not related to hammer "tool for pounding nails." But that doesn't mean the h in yellowhammer is a mistake, according to the OED (as of 1921). Though the source isn't certain, "connection with or assimilation to Old English -hama, Old High German -hamo covering, skin, feathers ... seems probable, and the form yellow-ham n., which may go back to an Old English type *geolo-hamathe yellow-feathered bird, gives support to the hypothesis." Thus, "both forms -hammer and -ammer are historically justifiable; Yarrell's proposed rejection of -hammer (see British Birds, 1843, I. 446) is based on insufficient evidence."

Cooshy. 
As Man of Intellect, Campion was convinced, Tietjens was dissatisfied with his lowly job of draft-forwarding officer, and wanted a place of an extravagantly cooshy kind in the general's own entourage. 
Cooshy, more commonly spelled cushy, was recent slang when Ford wrote; the OED's earliest citation is dated 1915, and like most of the examples, is in the context of military service: "The billets here are very good ... and we have rooms to ourselves ...  It's all very cushey and nice." Cushy (from the Hindi ḳhūsh, "pleasant," says the OED, or maybe Romany kushto, "good," says slangmeister Jonathon Green) also described a not-serious injury: "All our men who have had the luck to get a 'cushie wound'" (1917).

Comestibles.
The duchess had delivered, apparently, a vindictive, cold, calm and uninterruptible oration on the wickedness of her country's allies as people who [had] allowed France to be devastated, and the flower of her youth slain in order that they might put up the price of a comestible that was absolutely needed in her life.
The odd thing here is that the comestible in question is coal. And though it's easy enough to metaphorically equate food and fuel, I've never heard comestible (from the Latin for "eat up") used of anything except edibles. Did Ford simply misunderstand the word?

Jannock.
They say you ought to give a lover a chance of a final scene before leaving him or her for good. Still more your mother. That was jannock.
Jannock is "a modern dialect word," says the OED, meaning "fair, straightforward, genuine." It may be connected with jannock, a Northern English oat bread or oatcake, and in the 1860s, contributors to Notes & Queries enthusiastically embraced the connection. From the bread, one wrote, "the word 'jannock' comes to be used in Lancashire as meaning 'without deceit, no cringer, sincere, straightforward, independent, &c.,' and it well expresses the character of Lancashire men, who for the most part are blunt and homely, like their jannock, if you like, but straightforward, sincere, and independent."

Another 1860s writer asserts that jannock was brought to America by the Puritans, where it morphed into johnnycake. This claim is repeated in recent food writing, including the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, but I haven't seen any supporting evidence. And a scholarly doubter points out that "this explanation does not take account of the fact that ... 'oat cake' had not been part of the diet of the 'southern lowland' emigrants to New England." OED, please put johnnycake on your priority list!


Monday, February 25, 2013

Stuff the Old Editor says

Some people watched the Oscars last night, I hear. I curled up with a good book instead: John McIntyre's collection of newsroom wisdom, "The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing." It's not a long book, but for me it was a concentrated dose of nostalgia (for the copy desk days) with a chaser of relief (that I no longer work at a daily newspaper).

As the subtitle suggests, this is not a usage guide, though some language reminders punctuate the larger journalistic truths. These range from the time-tested ("The reader doesn't care how hard you worked on that story") to the thoroughly modern ("The people kvetching about the new editing software never mastered the old editing software either"). One of my favorites:
You can't fatten poor stock.  
Or, as Anthony Trollope wrote, "One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it."  
In editing, you can't make any text better than its inherent worth. Much routine editing involves taking texts that are defective -- sloppy, unclear, unfocused -- and rendering them merely mediocre. 
This may sound cynical, but it isn't really. The fact is, newspapers publish lots of stories that not only aren't wonderfully written, but don't even aspire to wonderfulness. It's more important to be clear and accurate, and that standard is not always easy to meet. (Ben Yagoda's latest book, "How to Not Write Bad," sensibly recommends the same standard -- basic, not-wrong competence -- as a goal for student writers.)

No more spoilers: For the rest, check out the links at You Don't Say or proceed directly to Amazon.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Taboo avoidance at the Wall Street Journal

Today's WSJ piece on the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon includes a baffling bit of terminology:
The Yanomamö, like anthropology subjects everywhere, regarded the note-scribbling scholar as a choice target for practical jokes. Only after months of effort did Mr. Chagnon learn that his informants had been deliberately feeding him bogus names. Naturally, he found out in the most humiliating way possible: Telling a group of men something about a headman's wife, he unknowingly referred to her by a capillo-vaginal epithet.
Even if you knew the meaning of capillo- ("hair"), the intended epithet might not be immediately apparent. (Me, I was led astray by thinking first of capillaries.) Luckily Google Books will show you the page with Chagnon's actual words:










Apparently the WSJ's rules for taboo avoidance allow for a cuteness factor; I don't think the New York times would find "capillo-vaginal" amusing enough (or, perhaps, obscure enough) to pass muster as printable euphemism. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Luncheon vs. lunch: the fight that fizzled

For a few more days, readers within striking distance of the New York Public Library* can see its delightful exhibit "Lunch Hour NYC."  The project explores the city’s enthusiastic embrace, in the 19th century, of the newly speeded-up midday meal -- the "quick-lunch" -- and the many variations New Yorkers have since rung on the theme. (There's also an informative website.)

And yes, of course there’s a language angle. At the entrance to the exhibit is a case displaying two historic dictionaries -- Samuel Johnson’s 1755 magnum opus and Noah Webster’s 1828 edition -- open to the definition for lunch. Johnson gives the nouns lunch and luncheon a joint entry, with the etymological note “Minshaw derives it from louja, Spanish; Skinner from kleinken, a small piece, Teutonick.” But he thinks “It probably comes from clutch or clunch,” and defines it as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”

Johnson's lunch, however, was not our midday meal; it was simply a hunk of meat or cheese or bread. Even in 1828, Webster was still defining lunch and luncheon as more a snack than a meal; only in the 1848 edition did it become “a slight repast between breakfast and dinner.”

Luncheon had been used to refer to a meal since the 17th century, but the dictionaries' treatment of lunch and luncheon as synonyms seems not to have bothered people for most of the 19th century. The OED’s first cite for lunch, in fact, suggests that London's smart set liked the shorter term: "The word lunch is adopted in that 'glass of fashion,' Almacks [a popular club], and luncheon is avoided as unsuitable to the polished society there exhibited," reported Henry Best in 1829. 

But by the end of the century, some American word watchers (and some etiquette mavens) were trying to pick a fight over lunch.  "This word, when used as a substantive, may at the best, be accounted an inelegant abbreviation of luncheon," wrote Alfred Ayres in "The Verbalist" (1881). "The dictionaries barely recognize it." 

Ambrose Bierce banned lunch in "Write It Right" (1909), as did newspaper editor Robert Ransom in his 1911 usage guide. Josephine Turck Baker, in "The Correct Word, How to Use It" (1920), claimed that luncheon was "the preferred form of the noun, lunch being properly restricted to express action; 'Luncheon is ready;' 'They lunched on crackers and cheese.'"

Maybe these complainers thought (wrongly) that lunch was an American barbarism; many usages were condemned on no better grounds. But their grumbling had no effect. Luncheon was fine for a fancier affair, but nobody was prepared to abandon plain lunch. As a peeve,  this one finishes way back in the pack, not remotely a contender for the Peevy Award.

And anyone who visits "Lunch Hour NYC" will understand why; the Automat was a wonderful invention, but nobody plucking a meal from its shiny compartments would be tempted to call that meal "luncheon." 

*It's at the so-called main branch, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street., through Sunday (Feb. 17).  For me, "main branch" is unsettlingly oxymoronic; don't most systems have a main library and branch libraries


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The peeve to beat all peeves?

Arnold Zwicky thinks the peeve about the meaning of decimate should get a prize for its persistence in the face of usage facts: The Peevy for Lifetime Achievement. 

We could debate the merits of the hopefully peeve as a rival candidate -- its heyday was much shorter, but the argument was often hotter, given that hopefully was a more common "transgression." But there's no debate about the prizeworthiness of the decimate question. Here's an excerpt from the column I wrote about it in the Boston Globe (July 1, 2007), after a reader insisted that "To decimate means to reduce by 10 percent, as was done by the Roman legions."
So it does, when you're speaking of the Roman Army, or of others who copied their harsh punishment for mutinous legions. But as an English word, decimate has always had a wider scope. Since the mid-17th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has also been used to mean "destroy or remove a large proportion of."
Nobody objected, it seems, for more than two centuries; there was the military decimate and the loose, emphatic decimate, each in its proper place. But in 1870, according to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the popular American language commentator Richard Grant White declared war on the degraded decimate.
 White inspired some followers, but the purists met resistance from the start. In an 1885 essay, writer Grant Allen rebuked the "superfine English" crowd, saying there was "surely nothing very wrong or out-of-the-way" in expanding the sense of decimate.
 H.W. Fowler, that notable stickler, also condoned the nonclassical usage, writing in Modern English Usage (1926) that it was "natural" to use decimate loosely. Current dictionaries and usage guides agree; decimate no longer means "reduce by 10 percent" -- if it ever did -- except in historical references. ...
If you pine for the classical decimate, though, you have a champion in [the late] language columnist William Safire. When he first addressed decimate, 25 years ago, he agreed with Fowler: "To limit the word's meaning to 'one-tenth' would be like limiting myriad to its literal '10,000.'" But a few years later, he quietly flip-flopped, warning readers that "unless purists persist, decimate will come to mean 'destroy a large part of.'" In 2004 he reaffirmed his faith: "Decimated means reduced by 10 percent."
But he was right the first time. If etymology governed usage, as he noted, we'd have to stop using myriad for "lots" -- and journal for anything not published daily, and honeymoon for wedding trips shorter than a month. That way lies lunacy.
Besides, we don't especially need a term that means "kill one in 10." As Barbara Wallraff notes in her book "Word Court," you're free to use decimate only in the narrow sense -- but "in that case, you won't be using the word very often."

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can your dishwasher do this?

Today's Home section of the NY Times has this wonderful caption:
TIME TRAVELER Peter McGough, half of the art duo McDermott & McGough, has traded the 1800s for a life of modernity. Now he has appliances. On the wall, a painting by them. 
(The caption isn't in the online story, though the accompanying slideshow has a longer and more comprehensible version of it.)

In other language news, I learned today from Ben Zimmer -- posting about catfishing and gaslighting at Visual Thesaurus* -- that a few people labor under the illusion that droll means dull. Ben quotes a man in the documentary movie "Catfish":
And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.
I had never come across this, but Ben pointed me to Bryan Garner, who mentions the mistake for the first time in the third edition (2009) of Garner's Modern American Usage: "Perhaps because the words look and sound a bit similar, droll is sometimes misused as a synonym for dull." Garner says this misuse is at Stage 1 of his Language-Change Index, meaning it's (all but universally) "rejected."

OK, I'll second that rejection (for as long as possible), but I have my usual question about the never-before-seen Stage 1 encroachments Garner unearths: How widespread are they really? Is droll for dull as rare as I think, or have I just not been paying attention? 

*And also, in greater depth, in his newest Boston Globe column.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Plumbing the origins of 'po'

Ben Yagoda, close observer of the British-American vocabulary trade, thinks po-faced is finally making its move on American English. He could be right, though my fumbling attempts at Google Ngramming suggest there's a surgelet in usage on both sides of the Atlantic, not just ours.

I'll be gobsmacked if we manage to domesticate it, though. When I wrote about po-faced in 2004, I concluded that it was so slippery and opaque that you might have to be British to use it. As Yagoda observes, "If you don’t know what po-faced means (as I did not the first couple of times I came across it), the examples won’t be very helpful in instructing you."

My first encounter with the word came in Paul Scott's "Day of the Scorpion" (the second novel in his "Raj Quartet"*): A character describes a British child's life in colonial India as "growing up with all the other po-faced kids in a sort of ghastly non-stop performance of Where the Rainbow Ends."** The context offered no clue to its meaning, nor did the word itself: What the heck is po?

Though Yagoda is skeptical of the leading etymology, it looked pretty plausible when I was searching. Po is a well-attested English abbreviation, in use since the 1880s, of the French pot de chambre, or chamber pot. As I wrote then,
plumbing-pampered Americans should note that the po is hardly ancient history: The writer Katherine Powers remembers learning po-faced in Ireland in the '60s, when there was a po in every bedside cabinet. The relationship between the porcelain object and the adjective seemed obvious, she e-mails: "A po-faced person sports the look of absurd dignity and humorlessness that is perfectly ridiculed by calling it po-faced."
Like Yagoda, I'm dubious about a possible connection with poker-faced: Poker is an American game, and if it were the source of po-faced we should have learned that term long ago. But he's more sympathetic than I to the possibilities of the po'/poor connection. This theory was addressed back in 1999 by Michael Quinion:
Chambers Dictionary argues that it comes from poor-faced, but this is a much less likely origin, especially when you consider other British terms like potty for a child’s chamber pot, and pooh or poo for its contents, even though these are recorded much later than po-faced.
As Yagoda says, "further research is called for." And if po-faced is indeed coming to America, we can expect another round or two (or ten) of etymological debate. Consider yourself alerted.

*Thanks to former colleague Charles Matthews for turning me on to these great books even before the (also great) Granada TV series was broadcast. 
**According to Wikipedia, this is "a children's play, originally written for Christmas 1911 by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey," that is a fantasy with "themes of British imperialism." 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bingo's the name, but what's the game?

Stan Carey's Usage Peeve Bingo game is getting a lot of play in language-blog land, so once again I've been wondering: Does anyone ever try to play these games, or are buzzword bingo and its variations just gag ideas?  (A possibility Stan acknowledges when he writes,"If you search Google Images for "buzzword bingo", you’ll see how popular a game (or pretend game) it is.")

The question persists because I never see anyone discussing how such a game would actually work. In old-fashioned bingo, the point is to mark off a row on your card matching the numbers announced by the caller. It's purely a game of chance -- a slow-motion lottery, in effect. And that means (almost) every player's card must be unique; otherwise the whole room would be shouting "Bingo!" in unison (and sharing the pot). 
So if you really wanted to play Usage Peeve Bingo, you couldn't just print out Stan's 6-by-6 card; you'd need to plug it into a randomizing program and generate cards with the words in different positions. Finally moved to research the question, I learned that it's actually easy to do: here, for instance. I'm still not sure how you'd stage the game -- around the copy desk, maybe? -- but I've done enough peeve-hunting already to last a lifetime, so I'll just watch, thanks.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

One fewer non-rule to follow

Though I don't frequent Starbucks, I very much enjoyed S.A.P.'s post about "Starbucks names," as did most of the many commenters. (A couple of cranks took the trouble to object that the topic was too trivial for The Economist's blog. Some people just aren't happy till they let you know they're unhappy.)

But I think S.A.P. (or "Sam," to Starbucks) commits an increasingly frequent hypercorrection when he says, "My Starbucks name just gives me a way to blend into bland normalcy: it's one fewer thing different about me."

Yes, one thing is definitely a countable. But "one less" is the preferred idiom, as Google's Ngram Viewer (insert cautionary language here) shows: 



Considering the reams of usage commentary (some simple-minded, some more accurate) on the less vs. fewer distinction, there's surprisingly little mention of the one less/one fewer issue. MWDEU, which goes on for nearly five columns about less and fewer, says simply, of less: "And of course it follows one," giving as examples "one less scholarship" and "one less reporter." 

Theodore Bernstein, in "The Careful Writer" (1965), suggests a possible rationale for this fewer avoidance:
There is one oddity about fewer: Whereas it is fine to write, "The Liberals won
three fewer seats than in the previous election," you run into idiom trouble if you reduce the number to one; you cannot say "one fewer seats," nor can you say "one fewer seat." The only escape hatch is "one seat fewer."
(He goes on to point out what less/fewer purists often ignore: that even countables may, in a given context, be considered as quantities rather than numbers. "For instance: 'Not many of these buildings are fewer than thirty years old.’ The thought here is not of individual years but of a period of time; therefore, less.")

And since the commentary is so scant, I'll mention that in Johnson's 1755 Dictionary, "one" is defined as "less than two" (not "fewer than two," though he's obviously referring to whole numbers).  

I don't think I ever heard the "one less" rule during my editing years, but if others did -- or if you have further citations on it -- I'd be interested to know the where and when. Google Books doesn't turn up anything, but it's not working well lately, so that non-result can't be trusted.

Update: I forgot I had some earlier research on this, from my column in the Globe in 2009 (when Google Books was more responsive):
Earlier generations of usage critics, however, certainly used "one less," even if they subscribed to the traditional less-fewer line. Here's John Russell Bartlett, from his "Dictionary of Americanisms" (1848): "To play dummy, is to play with one person less than the requisite number." Joseph Fitzgerald, in "Word and Phrase" (1901): "Total for these three languages 57, or one less [vowel sound] than for English alone." H.L. Mencken in the American Mercury (1925): "There is one hypocrite less in London today."
[Bryan] Garner notes that in nearly one-fourth of his current examples, "writers use one fewer, an awkward and unidiomatic phrase," where one less would be better. "One can't help thinking that this is a kind of hypercorrection induced by underanalysis of the less-fewer distinction," he says. That is: it's a mistake caused by simple-minded application of a rule that isn't really so simple.