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.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

English books in American translation

From a book review in the NYT's Science Times section today: 
Despite his encompassing knowledge about noise, Dr. Goldsmith can seem oddly out of touch with it personally. It is not just that the American publisher put the British edition straight into type, resulting in mildly inept Britishisms. (A 1930 report found the major source of noise complaints in New York to be "lorries -- and so it is to this day.")
The only Britishism cited is that "lorries," and I can't think of any sense in which it could be called an inept Britishism, so I'm guessing the original (or intended) word was inapt. (Meaning that Manhattanites will find it jarring to hear that lorries are roaring down Second Avenue.) But so far it's still inept at the Times website, so maybe the writer and editor think that's what they meant. 

The author's implication -- that selling Americans a book in British English is a lazy shortcut -- is an interesting counterpoint to recent complaints about the opposite problem: publishers' insistence on Americanizing the language of British books (and not just Harry Potter). Both Ben Trawick-Smith ("'Americanized' Non-American Novels") and Tim Parks ("Learning to Speak American") think  American readers can easily handle, and would usually prefer, British writing in its original form, and their blog readers agree. The discussion continues, with another huge cast of commenters, at Language Log, where Mark Liberman  looks into the sources of Parks's editing woes. If you missed any of these in the pre-holiday scramble, now's the time to put up your feet and enjoy them.