Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Use it or lose it: A New Year's plea

If I could make New Year’s resolutions for other writers, this one would head the list: Don’t use a word and then tell your readers what a worthless word it is.

Don't do what New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott did in his April 2013 obituary for Roger Ebert: "He was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate bit of jargon was invented."

Or what Teddy Wayne did it in the the NYT's Future Tense column in February, writing about his holiday from technology: "I also briefly experienced the famous 'fear of missing out,' a.k.a, annoyingly, FOMO." 

Don't do as author Evgeny Morozov did when he complained, in a May NYT book review, of the ubiquity of  "the ugly, jargony name of Big Data." 

Or as columnist Maureen Dowd has twice done, using (while deploring) the political sense of "optics." In January 2013, she said the shortage of women in the Administration was "more than an 'optics' problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment." In October 2014, she wrote that "the White House thought [a female Secret Service head] would be good optics  -- that most egregious word." (But not egregious enough to omit.)

Why the desperate need to distance themselves from neologisms? Maybe these writers -- all, as it happens, from the pages of the New York Times -- were trying to head off criticism from Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s usage watchdog. By preemptively criticizing the jargon, they can have it both ways: They get to use a trendy expression and simultaneously disavow it. (Pro tip: If you really don’t think a word should exist, don’t give it currency in the New York Times.)

But I think there’s anxiety, not just distaste, behind these disavowals. If language is your expertise, you don’t want to be the last one to notice a lexical fad has run its course. Hence the preemptive apologies: Just in case this is old hat, I already hate it!

Scott, in fact, has waffled on "platform agnostic." He used it without comment in 2007, when he was quoting the New Yorker. And seven months after he called it "unfortunate jargon," it was back in  his good graces: In fall 2013, he wrote of filmmakers determined "to figure out, in a post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era, what the art of cinema might be."

MoDo, meanwhile, used "optics" without apology in 2009 ("what his aide Anita Dunn calls 'the optics'"), again in 2010 ("Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some …wince" ), and in 2012 (Dominique Strauss-Kahn "ignored the bad optics"). But three times was her limit: Only months later, "optics" had become that "irritating cliche."

This looks suspiciously like journalistic FOMO -- fear of missing out on the moment a popular term turns has-been. But there's a simple remedy: Call the word passé whenever you use it, and nobody can beat you to the punch. 

This isn't just a journalistic worry. Lists of peeves, like the annual banned words list from Lake Superior State University, always include slang and jargon with plenty of miles left on them (curate, anyone? Or takeaway?). The word-banning enthusiasts, though, are always ready to tell us our favorite phrases are so over, if only we laggards had the wit to see it. 

But grownup journalists shouldn't be playing that game. If  "optics" or "FOMO" offends your sensibilities, it's usually simple enough to skip it, rather than make it an occasion to flaunt your taste. There are enough people out there who pride themselves on their language peevery. They don’t need encouragement from professionals.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You say cannoli, I say cannolis

I'm posting this 17-year-old Word column (now paywalled in the Boston Globe's archives) in response to Mark Allen (@EditorMark on Twitter), who just tweeted about panini, which I somehow overlooked when writing about similar Italian plurals. It appeared on Sept. 14, 1997, just a couple of weeks after Princess Diana died in a Paris car that was being pursued by paparazzi. I haven't updated the usage research, except to verify that we (the English-speaking public) remain far more comfortable with the double plural cannolis than with biscottis

Do paparazzi prefer cannoli?
The paparazzi are under a cloud these days, scorned around the world for their unsavory trade and its role in Princess Diana's death. But for the word paparazzi, there's a silver lining: All that attention is reawakening English speakers to the fact that paparazzi is a plural, with a very presentable Italian singular form.

The word, as we all heard during the post-crash coverage, was coined by Federico Fellini, who gave the name Paparazzo to the celebrity-chasing photographer of "La Dolce Vita." What inspired the choice is more mysterious: Some accounts mention an annoying childhood friend of Fellini's by that name; one suspects the influence of pappataci, a sand-fly. "It translates literally as Daddy Rocket, though it may owe something to the verb razzolare, meaning to scrape or scratch around in debris," ventures a New Zealand newspaper columnist.

As the paparazzi furor burned on, our collective mastery of the word improved. There were a few three-p papparazzis and at least one reference to a paparazzi -- as well as an Internet mourner's poporatizee and a newspaper's unfortunate contraction, paps -- but most writers got it right.

Still, the paparazzi variations are a reminder of the general lawlessness of our language in the matter of adopted plurals. We can choose seraphs or seraphim, tableaux or tableaus, depending on our taste and our dictionary. We've kept alumni and alumnae in their Latin forms, but we've domesticated stadiums and forums.

When the language is Latin, of course, there are no current speakers to object to the anglicizing process. English plurals also form rapidly on words in less familiar languages, since we can't hear anything amiss when we add -s to words like the Bantu marimba or Swahili safari -- two nice examples from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.

But Italian plurals are all around us, in movies about mafiosi, in music lovers' concerti and libretti, and most of all, in our diet -- in the restaurants and cookbooks where we find penne and tagliatelle and risotto con funghi.

Even these well-known words aren't easy to master: We still haven't agreed on lasagne vs. lasagna. The pastas alone would have defeated English speakers long ago, if they hadn't been so cooperative about functioning as collective nouns. So our noodles are plural, but our spaghetti is construed as a singular, and we never give a thought to a raviolo or a gnocco.

And on the dessert menu, there's some delicious evidence of the pluralizing process caught in the act, with all its cultural baggage on display.

When we order cannoli and biscotti, we generally use the same word whether we want one or half a dozen -- a cannoli, we say, but most of us feel enough of the plural force that we also say three biscotti. Some people, however, make the plural even more so, ordering six cannolis.

"We are used to it," said Enza Merola of Maria's Pastry [in Boston's North End], admitting that she has adopted the usage she hears and dropped the Italian singulars: "I would never say to a customer, 'one cannolo?' "

In print, however, cannoli and biscotti meet different fates. A search of the Globe archives, though not exactly rigorous science, shows that the plural cannolis is 20 times as likely to be used in a cannoli connection as is the plural biscottis in a similar spot.

Why the gap? I suspect it's a matter of cultural context. Both desserts are old favorites, but biscotti made a comeback as a trendy treat over the past couple of decades, while cannoli remained the ultimate in creamy, messy indulgence.

The new biscotti are clearly cookies for grown-ups -- dry, brittle, sophisticated. And the new biscotti people notice things like singulars and plurals in their favorite food languages. Hence biscotti holds on to its plural feeling, while cannoli cheerfully drops the distinction.

All conjecture, yes. But there's support for it in a new catalog from J. Peterman, who's now hawking not just clothes but rugs and china -- including a floral biscotti jar for $150.

The jar itself is labeled Biscotti. The ad copy calls it a biscotti jar. But in the headline, it's a Biscotto Jar. And the reason for that, you can bet your chocolate cannolo, is to let readers know that J. Peterman, il principe of pretentious prose, is one of them -- a master of the singular of biscotti

A year later, in August 1998, I finally caught up with a footnote from The Economist that revealed the probable source of  papparazzo. 

The first of the paparazzi died last month, less than a year after the crash that killed Princess Diana and set off a worldwide debate on the hit-and-run photographers' ethics -- and the origins of their name.

Tazio Secchiaroli, a Roman "street photographer," had been Federico Fellini's model for the celebrity-chasing character in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," everyone agreed. But why had Fellini named his character Paparazzo? Was it related to razzolare, to scratch around in trash? Influenced by pappataci, an annoying sand-fly? Was it, as one reader of this column suggested, a Riminese dialect word for the part of the chicken sometimes known as the pope's nose?

While the rest of us were scratching our heads, some amazingly well-read source tipped off The Economist that the true Paparazzo could be found in a 1902 travel book; thus, the London weekly's post-crash coverage included a footnote informing us that Fellini's scriptwriter "took the name from `By the Ionian Sea,' a book by George Gissing. Coriolano Paparazzo was the proprietor of the hotel in Catanzaro where the British poet had stayed." Gissing was in fact a novelist, and the magazine gave the wrong date for his trip, but the squib was still a coup -- especially the smug last line, which noted that "Gissing's book is still on sale in Calabria, in an excellent Italian translation."

To mark Secchiaroli's departure for the great darkroom in the sky, Michael Quinion, proprietor of the World Wide Words Web site, revisits the history of paparazzo in his most recent newsletter. His account looks like the last word on the word, if not on the subject. Concludes Quinion: "I can only wonder at what the late Signore Paparazzo, the keeper of that hotel in Catanzaro, would make of the coincidences that led through an English writer’s recording of a brief stay there, and the accidental encounter with it by an Italian scriptwriter, to the borrowing of his name as one of the more pejorative in the English language."*

Skeptics who'd like to meet this Signore Paparazzo can find him via the Internet, too. Among the surprisingly numerous Gissing-related Web sites -- even discounting those that use him only as a limerick rhyme -- there's one with the full text of "By the Ionian Sea." In the original English, of course, not the excellent Italian translation.

*The language in this paragraph has been altered slightly, reflecting updates to Quinion's blog post since the original publication.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In memory of Tom, gimme a "dope slap" source

Tom and Ray Magliozzi's long run on public radio has included lots of language fun, as remembrances of Tom, who died last Monday, do not neglect to mention. I'm a longtime fan, and back in 2000, in a Boston Globe column and a follow-up note, I looked into one of their favorite terms -- "dope slap" -- but I didn't get very far.

My searches this week haven't improved my results, but I'll bet there are "Car Talk" fans out there with better skills (and access to better corpora) than mine. If you're among them, help us out here: Do Tom and Ray (and their parents) get the credit for dope slap?  (If you need inspiration, Ray's tribute show has plenty of laughs, plus the peerless Elizabeth Magliozzi.)

Meanwhile, here's what I dug up about dope slap 14 years ago, as printed in the Boston Sunday Globe.

Doping out the truth
June 4, 2000

A few months ago, in a story about Tony Blair's parental-leave dilemma, the Globe's Kevin Cullen wrote that the English prime minister "may feel the urge to give a dope slap to his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen," whose decision to take paternity leave had stepped up the pressure on Blair.

The article prompted a call from a friend asking, "What's a dope slap?" This was a mild shock: In the hometown of WBUR, the public radio station where "Car Talk" first revved its engines 23 years ago, it takes some doing to avoid hearing "dope slap." The car guys, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, have managed to spread the word not only throughout, but beyond, the English-speaking world. 

 The dope slap, officially -- you can click on [, the current address] for further discussion -- is a sudden but not very painful smack to the back of the head,* a humane form of the two-by-four blow that gets the proverbial mule's attention. As a slang expression, though, dope slap's origins are murky. Ray Magliozzi says that his mother used both the term and the dope slap liberally (and "at lightning speed") when he and his brother were young and stupid.

"I think it may be an Italian-American thing," adds Magliozzi, a Cambridge native. "Go to the North End, and I'll bet four out of five people know it."

But do they know where it came from? The evidence so far suggests that dope slap has been disseminated largely by "Car Talk" itself. The first mention in the Lexis/Nexis database, in 1992, comes in a transcript of the radio show (the guys are prescribing "a dope slap for driving home after the oil light came on"). Since then, the term has been popping up all over -- on a German website, in a Berkeley PhD thesis on Aesop, and in Malaysia's New Straits Times, which runs the car guys' syndicated column. But the Boston Herald leads the nation in non-Magliozzi-generated uses of dope slap, perhaps supporting the theory of local origin.

Further data are needed, though -- so if you too were dope-slapped, deservedly or not, please send particulars. Most valuable would be written evidence earlier than 1992; the truth must be out there, if Tom and Ray were getting cuffed around at midcentury. Me, I'm hoping to see the late Elizabeth Magliozzi enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the coiner of the term; but let's get the straight dope, whatever it is.

Slapped around
June 18, 2000

My recent speculations about the origin of dope slap drew a verbal buffeting from one correspondent, who demanded how I could be ignorant of this "old boxing term." He remembers it from the '50s, he says, "when boxing in general was not as regulated and as full of show business. . . . to dope slap someone was to strike them when and where the opponent least expected it," usually in the head, stunning the recipient so that he acted dopey or intoxicated.

This sounds perfectly plausible, but I haven't been able to find corroboration anywhere in print. That doesn't mean it's wrong, though -- and if anyone can find a citation that links boxing to dope slap, this is the place to send it.

David Chirlin of Nashua, N.H., had a different hypothesis: "I believe that the 'Car Talk' bros did society a favor by cleaning up the expression bitch slap, popularized in the counterculture years by such comedians as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. In context, if a woman nagged or verbally annoyed a man beyond a certain point, he would . . . hit her upside the head with what was referred to as a bitch slap. Well, you had to ask."

Yeah, I did. And the friend who originally asked about dope slap had also wondered if it was a benign variant of bitch slap. Again, the evidence is scanty, though bitch slap does make it into print in 1991, a year before dope slap. It's not published as often, for obvious reasons,* but it's still with us -- though, as my friend also told me, it's been adopted (or coopted) for jocular unisex use in certain circles.

But bitch slap wasn't the inspiration for the Magliozzi brothers' dope slap, by their own testimony -- and though I haven't yet asked, I doubt that their mom was an Eddie Murphy fan. So the jury is still out on the dope slap derivation. Keep those cards and e-mails coming.

*Update: Some sources also use dope slap to mean a slap to one's own forehead.

**Editing note: I've removed a superfluous phrase, both unnecessary and ungrammatical, that was stealthily added here by a misguided editor back in 2000. Nobody else cares, but I'm ridiculously happy I can make the correction.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mattress mysteries baffle NY Times

(This post is off topic, and kind of cranky, too. Feel free to skip it.)

I admit it – I’m a consumer journalism junkie. When I got Consumer Reports’ print edition, I read reviews of things I will never, ever own: wine chillers, leaf blowers, Cadillacs, backpacks. I like knowing how things are supposed to work, even if they’re not things I want.

So if the New York Times promises to help me shop for "the best mattress," I’m expecting to learn a little something I didn't already know. But no: Apparently the subject of today’s Home section lead was so soporific that the assigning editor, the writer, and the copy editor all fell asleep on the job.

The assigning editor accepted the piece; enough said. As for the author, given his innocence about mattresses, I’m wondering if he’s still in the bed Mom and Dad bought him. Buying is confusing, he tells us, because “most major brand names inexplicably seem to begin with the letter 's'." And then there are all those hard words! “Viscoelastic foam,” “pocketed coil technology,” and worst of all, "Talalay latex? C’mon, mattress people. Now it sounds as if you’re just making stuff up." (Gee, if only there were an easy way to look up those obscure terms, so you could explain them to readers.*)

There follow many paragraphs of filler -- quotes from mattress people, descriptions of various products -- before the payoff, delivered by a Consumer Reports mattress writer: Most of the tech and the specs don’t matter at all. The $5,000 Dux mattress did about as well in CU’s tests as the $540 Original Mattress Factory product. In other words, ignore the article, read Consumer Reports, and buy a mattress that feels good.

By this point the copy editor was dozing, so we are told that Hastens, a high-end seller, uses "horsehair that is sterilized for up to a year before going into the mattress." Up to a year? What's the minimum time, and how do you do it? And why raise these questions when "sterilized horsehair" would suffice? (A related sign of sleepiness all round pops up in a sidebar: "Mattress prices can be reduced by as much as 50 percent and more.")

Meanwhile, the story ignores the main reason frustrated consumers can't just go out buy a mattress like their last one. For years now, the big mattress makers have offered only one-sided mattresses -- the underside is not a sleep surface. No more flipping the mattress for extra wear; you couldn’t flip it anyway, because it’s thicker and heavier -- 12 or 15 inches deep instead of 8 or 9. Also, it requires new, deeper fitted sheets; they’re flabbily sized, for mattresses up to 15 or 20 inches, so they don’t fit any very well, but at least you’re stimulating the economy.

Now, finally, this fad is waning, and in my book, that’s the big news. After years of waiting, I recently found (and bought) a flippable mattress (though fitted sheets remain a problem).

Commenters on the NYT piece have echoed, and expanded on, my complaints. Why nothing on these heavy, non-flippable mattresses? Why no mention of Ikea’s (normal-thickness, inexpensive) mattresses? What about futons, local manufacturers, flameproofing chemicals, offgassing foam? The comments, in fact, are probably more useful than the article itself.

And best of all, in the mattress quest category, is Donald Antrim’s 2002 New Yorker piece, "I Bought a Bed."  As someone who once tried out a Dux bed at a local inn -- and ended up sleeping on the floor -- I was the bullseye of his target audience. But even if you're not, it will put your bed-shopping troubles -- and the Times's, too -- into perspective.

*Talalay is the name of the guys who invented one particular latex-foaming process.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two views of "monochrome"

Several days ago, in a weak moment, I clicked on some links to coverage of the impending wedding of Amal Alamuddin and that famous actor. That day's photos showed Alamuddin in a striped black and white sundress, but many descriptions of it used a word I found odd: They called the garment "a striped monochrome dress."*

"Monochrome" (literally "one color") can of course mean black and white (or grayscale) if you’re talking about art or photography or film. Essentially, that usage doesn’t count the background as a color, but only the medium used to create the image or design. 

But this was the first time I'd seen this "monochrome" extended to clothing. If you told me someone tended to dress in monochrome, I’d picture her in shades of one color, not in wide black and white stripes. 

It’s not that I can’t see the parallel -- if a wallpaper design can be a monochrome print, why not a fabric? In fact, I've probably seen toile de Jouy prints called monochromatic; of course, as representational scenes, they seem closely related to art. So maybe the oddity, for me, was that the contrasting stripes of Alamuddin’s dress are equally prominent, so neither color comes across as "background." 

So far, the sources calling the dress (and other black and white striped clothing) "monochrome" seem to be British, so maybe this is a shade of meaning that simply hasn’t gained much traction on these shores. But if it's not here yet, I expect it to arrive any minute, borne on the wings of Zara and H&M. 

*Quote and photo from the Daily Mail.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hey there ...

(From a column published Oct. 4, 1998, in the Boston Globe's Focus section. Not re-researched since, so caveat lector!)

In the heyday of the casual greeting

'Hey," a colleague said as we met in the hallway last week, "how come everyone says 'Hey' now instead of 'Hi'?"

He may have been overstating the case -- hi, hello, and how are ya are by no means dying out -- but clearly, hey has been extending its reach. And I wondered how the greeting hey was related to the other hey that's been spreading in written English, a kind of folksy aside to the reader adopted in the past few decades. Is this one new usage, or two ways to make hey?

Not that there's anything new about hey itself; its first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1225, centuries ahead of its near-twin hi. And hey has done yeoman work through the centuries, filling out all those extra syllables in old songs and poems (with a hey nonny nonny) and in 20th-century political chants (Hey, hey, LBJ . . .). In the 16th century came a dance called Hey-diddle-diddle (presumably accompanied by a cat playing the fiddle). Hey serves as a yell of alarm (Hey, bring my car back!) and a magician's exclamation (Hey presto!).

But our latest variants are comparatively recent. Random House's slang dictionary (1997) notes the aside-to-the-listener use of hey ("Used affectedly for emphasis within a sentence, esp. after but," it says); its samples run from 1974 ("But hey, that's the kind of guy I am") to 1994 (a Dewar's Scotch ad). HarperCollins's slang guide also notes the usage, calling it "Increasingly . . . placative or apologetic."

This hey seems like a descendant of the 20th-century hey we get in popular songs, from "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes" to "Hey hey, we're the Monkees." It's a friendly, casual form of address, implying a certain intimacy and saying, at the same time, "We're making a little joke here -- don't take us too seriously."

Hey as a solo salutation has much of the same flavor. It's more cordial, less neutral, than hi or hello --not a greeting to someone you don't know or don't like. I'd also bet -- a small amount, at least -- that it's a guy thing, which may be why my colleague hears it more than I do. (That could change fast, though -- a friend reports that his toddler daughter is using hey, not hi.) You probably wouldn't greet your grandmother with hey, and some bosses would surely consider it too casual. But you never know: After all, it was a very big boss in a very fancy office who recently uttered the hey heard 'round the world: "Oh, hey, Monica . . . come on in."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Observations on "one of the only"

James Harbeck, blogging at Sesquiotica, has been having an epic comment standoff with a reader who objects to "one of the only." Last Sunday, Harbeck tweeted that the commenter had returned and "made the same argument, more huffily, and ended by declaring that my readers could judge ... so do."

OK, let's! My vote probably won't persuade anyone who's resisted the arguments of Harbeck and Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar and Bill Walsh at Blogslot  and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. But I endorsed "one of the only" in a 2008 column, and I offer it here in case any of its citations prove useful. (I've added a footnote, but otherwise nothing has been changed or checked. As I recall, a reader objected that "un des seuls" was not a true equivalent of "one of the only," so I look forward to hearing from Francophone readers on that question.)

Almost unique: What's wrong with "one of the only"?
(Boston Globe, March 23, 2008)

AS THE DISTRICT of Columbia's gun ban squared off against the Second Amendment last week, Georgetown University constitutional scholar Randy Barnett was widely quoted on the momentousness of the event: "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting . . . an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent."

Objection! e-mailed reader Sue Bass of Belmont. "One of the only cases" doesn't make sense, she protested; it should logically be "one of the few."

Several contemporary usage writers endorse her view. Paul Brians, in "Common Errors in English Usage," notes that only is rooted in one, and thus ought to remain singular. "The correct expression is 'one of the few,' " he says.

Barbara Wallraff, in "Your Own Words," agrees. Only means "alone in kind or class; sole," her dictionary says. And you wouldn't say "one of the sole Muslim states."

Richard Lederer, in "Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay," also shuns one of the only: "This strange and illogical expression began showing up a few years ago," he writes, "and English took a step backward when it did."

But one of the only has its defenders. James Kilpatrick, in "Fine Print," points out that it is no less logical than one of the best or one of the most talented. "The best advice I can offer is to shake your head and get on with what you are writing," he concludes.

Earlier usage gurus are silent on the topic, though there's some indirect evidence of their attitude. For instance, the critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing a 1940s potboiler, observed that "one of the only attempts at a literary heightening of effect is the substitution for the simple 'said' of other, more pretentious verbs" like "shrilled" and "barked."

Usage maven Sir Ernest Gowers liked this quote enough -- despite its use of "one of the only" -- that he included it in his 1965 edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage," as a comment on "said."

How long has this been going on? A Google Books search dates one of the only to the 1770s, when a traveler reported that "business, and making money, is one of the only employments" of Rotterdam. But only was already losing its singularity. The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary gave the sense "one (or, by extension, two or more), of which there exist no more . . . of the kind," and quoted Sir Philip Sidney, in the 16th century, using "the only two."*

This expansive sense of "only" is not just an Anglo-Saxon aberration. In "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator says that a certain day was "one of the only" ("un des seuls") on which he was not unhappy. In German, according to University of Wisconsin professor Joseph Salmons, one of the only (ein der einzigen, etc.) is entirely OK.

Multilinguist Steve Dodson, at the blog Language Hat, said one of the only is common in Russian and in Spanish (un de los unicos). Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley, sent some examples in Italian (along with a caution from an Italian linguist who calls the usage illogical).

And as Bill Walsh argues at Blogslot, his editing blog, one of the only makes its own kind of sense. "Webster's New World defines only as 'alone of its or their kind,' and nobody objects to 'only two people.' . . . If  'only two people' have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?"

Once we had the only two, in other words, we were on the slippery slope to one of the only. And in everyday, unedited English, we prefer it to one of the few by a Google hit ratio of 3 to 1. Nobody has to use it, but everyone speaking English can expect to hear it. After two and a half centuries, we should be getting used to it.

*2014 footnote: Sidney's quote is under "lovingness." From Sidney's "Arcadia" (1590): "Carying thus in one person the only two bands of good will, loue lines & louingnes."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Copy editing: "Is blow job hyphenated?"

A recent tweet to the Guardian style guide asked which version was correct: “blowjob, blow-job or blow job?” As it happens, this question was covered 32 years ago by the incomparable Stan Mack, whose Real Life Funnies (“All dialogue guaranteed verbatim”) ran in the Village Voice from the 1970s into the ’90s.

When this strip ran, in 1982, I was a new copy editor at the Boston Globe, where there was no occasion to use “blow job” in any style. If I’d been editing at the Voice, though, I would have voted for open style, which still looks right to me. But as we all know, familiarity breeds hyphen-free compounds. Most books still use blow job, according to Google Ngrams, but I can see that a writer or editor using the term regularly might be ready, after a decade or two, to write it blowjob. And that's what the Guardian (though claiming no expertise) decided on.

And yes, it is in "the dictionary": American Heritage prefers blowjob (but lists the two-word variant), Webster’s New World likes two words (but mentions blowjob), and Merriam-Webster prefers blow job, period. So editorially speaking, it's chacun(e) à son goût.

If you missed Real Life Funnies the first time around, you can see (and buy) some at Mack's website; his current cartoons appear weekly in MediaPost.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Fled on foot": Speaking for the defense

Newspaper jargon watchers, including my former boss at the Boston Globe, like to scoff at “fled on foot” as police-report language that newsies should shun. Normal people supposedly say “ran away.”
So I laughed at a metro story in this morning’s New York Times, where an arrestee describes his fellow suspect’s escape:
“He fled,” Mr. Zacharakis said. “He didn’t look at me. He didn’t worry about me.”
Though I’ve never written or edited the kind of stories that deal with fleeing, I’ve always had a soft spot for “fled on foot,” which allows for the kind of ambiguity that “ran away” does not. It’s entirely possible, after all, that the police (and you) know only that your suspect has eluded capture, apparently without the help of a vehicle. 

In the comments to McIntyre’s blog post on cop jargon, two editors make this very point. “Lacking any certain knowledge about a robber's getaway gait, I am loath to change ‘fled on foot’ to ‘ran away’” writes one.

Exactly. He or she might have crawled under a porch, climbed a drainpipe, pulled off a wig and melted into a crowd and sauntered around a corner. Fine, say “ran away” if witnesses saw him sprinting down the street; but what if the picture isn’t so clear?

I don’t see why we should flee from “fled.” The New York suspect may have learned the usage from the police, but its source doesn’t make it a bad word. It’s not fancy or long or hard to spell or pronounce, and it gets the concept across. Maybe I'm going soft, but that's good enough for me.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lying liers are losing the lay/lie battle

Last week John McIntyre was wondering whether it was time to abandon teaching the difference between lay and lie. His editing students, he said, simply “do not hear the distinction”:
No matter how many times I review it, they still get it wrong, because laid as past tense and past participle of lie is what sounds natural to them, what sounds like English.
That past-tense laid for lay – “she laid down for a nap” – isn't always audible, but present-tense lay for lie – “I need to lay down” – is easy to hear, and heard everywhere.

That's not because we're a nation of semiliterate texting addicts;  lay and lie have never been easy to distinguish.  In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the verbs were not well differentiated until the 18th-century usage juggernaut got rolling. From 1300 to 1800, “the usage was unmarked: Sir Francis Bacon used [lay for lie] in the final and most polished edition of his essays in 1625.”

But lay for lie is only part of the story. My suspicion that lie is a goner comes from the opposite direction: I’ve been spotting substitutions of lie for lay in the past tense – as in "she lay it down" instead of "laid it down" – even in decently edited books. My most recent example – the fourth, I think, though I haven’t saved cites – comes from Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel “The Interestings”: “He lay her down on their bed.”

That should be laid, of course. I can understand how a writer might decide that “he lay her down” (in a tasteful married-couple sex scene) sounds more genteel, but a Google Books search finds “he lay her down” in bodice-ripping fiction too – along with other uses of lay for laid. A sampling:
As she expected, he lay her down on the bed. (“Twist,” 2013)
She lay it down by the fireplace and walked over to her bed and lay down. She was very tired. (The Wishing Well,” 2002.)
Folding the magazine closed, she lay it down. Afterward she got under the covers and lay relaxing on her back. (“Storms Before the Calm,” 2012)
She lay it down on the counter, a perfect little treasure, white on black. Then she got her special cup down from the cupboard. (“The Red Boots,” 2005)
After a few minutes, she lay it down on a large flat rock next to her, and joined Ellen for breakfast. (“Lemon Creek Chronicle,” 2013)
She lay it down in front of Violet, and began to talk at her. (“Stifle,” 2011)
I even found a high school journalism style guide, trying to codify rules for the students, that lists the mistaken usage as correct: The past tense of lay, it instructs, is "I lay it (down), You lay it (down), He lay it (down)," etc.

Presumably these are hypercorrections, the product of an educated aversion to intransitive laid (“We laid in the sun all day”). But whatever their motivation, they add to the confusion surrounding lay and lie. So I won’t be at all surprised if someday we end up with one verb – lay, laying, laid, laid – for both transitive and intransitive uses. And if I'm around to see it, you won’t hear me complaining.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On (not) getting "pussy" into print

Jesse Sheidlower’s Monday op-ed in the Times, calling for an end to prissy taboo avoidance in print, was a beautiful demonstration of the problem: Even in writing about words like fuck, bullshit, and asshole, he wasn’t allowed to mention the words.

It reminded me of the time I thought pussy would pass muster in my Boston Globe language column. The year was 2005, and I had been writing The Word for almost eight years without anyone complaining about my language: Nobody had turned a hair at discussions of intransitive suck, or scumbag, or brown-nose (though some readers were surprised to learn the terms’ underlying senses).

This time the main topic was nooky. A reader had inquired about a humorous use of the word in a Globe Magazine subhed, where a young man wondered if the baby he and his wife were expecting meant “the end of nooky as we know it.” Wasn’t this as vulgar as using the f-word?

Looking into the history of nooky, I found that it had meanings both naughty and nice, sexist and affectionate. My original copy is long gone, with the computer it rode in on, but the relevant paragraph was very like this:
The rude nooky, which means a woman (or women) viewed as sexual prey, or sometimes just the female genitalia, is essentially synonymous with a taboo word that sneaks into print only in disguise (as the Bond character Pussy Galore, for instance). The nice nooky, though, merely means sex, or even just "fooling around," and it's something both men and women can want.
But that “Pussy Galore” meant my column had to be OK’d by a Top Editor in Charge of Language. I didn’t know such an office existed, but it did, and the TEICOL outranked even the Executive Editor when it came to Language. And she said no pussy, no Pussy, no way.

I had come prepared to make my case. The Globe had used Pussy Galore’s name at least 17 times already, referring to either the Bond girl or the band of the same name, and Octopussy racked up more than 40 cites. And what with the bands Space Pussy and Nashville Pussy, the satirical play “Pussy on the Roof,” and the “Sopranos” character Big Pussy, pussies of various origins had been all over the paper, even omitting pussycats and pussy willows.

But my stats cut no ice. So I tried to explain that I wasn’t using the word pussy, I was mentioning the word. I could feel the skepticism pulsing through the phone. Linguistic theory and pussy precedent didn't matter: This one was not going public.

Finally I rewrote the graf, pussy-free:
The rude nooky, which means a woman (or women) viewed as sexual prey, or sometimes just the female genitalia, is essentially synonymous with a word almost taboo in newspapers, though the James Bond movies sneak it past the censors in (im)proper names like that of the blonde bombshell in "Goldfinger."
The episode was puzzling, but I finally concluded that the moral was simply “feign ignorance.” If you want to print rude words (outside of serious news contexts), you have to pretend that you don’t notice their taboo senses.

Apparently the group Pussy Riot does qualify under the serious-news exception: If you can get yourself thrown in jail by Putin, high-minded editors will overlook the fact that your name was chosen as a provocation. And Pussy Riot's ubiquity may help speed the word's recasting as a feminist war cry.

But "pretend you don't notice the play on words" is a strange guideline for editorial policy at a grownups' newspaper. And so is "don't mention the naughty word itself." As Sheidlower notes, "Discussing a word is not the same as wantonly using a word, just as reporting on racism does not make you a racist." If a word is newsworthy, let's assume readers can handle the sight of it.

Note: The original "nooky" column is behind a paywall, so I've reposted it here

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Griping about "gubernatorial"

The word gubernatorial has reared its (ugly?) head again, in a Chicago Tribune column by Eric Zorn and a follow-up post at Language Log. Seems like a good excuse to look productive, since I wrote about the usage history of, and current hostility toward, the word gubernatorial in the Boston Globe just over three years ago. Is the word stilted, as the New York Times alleges? Has Goober Pyle influenced our feelings about it? Facts (as of 2010) and reader-inspired speculation below. 

No love for 'gov'?
(Originally published October 10, 2010, in the Globe Ideas section)

As we count down toward Election Day, more than a few citizens probably share the sentiments of reader Mark Leonard, who e-mailed last week wondering why we have to live with gubernatorial. "It sounds archaic and pompous," he said, and it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives: We could simply switch to "the more obvious governatorial."

And so we could. In fact, English has tried out a number of variations on the "governor" word family. In the 13th century, it borrowed govern from Old French, which eventually gave us governance, government, and, briefly, governator (insert Schwarzenegger joke here). Then, in the 15th century, English went back to the Latin gubernare to form another set of "govern" words -- gubernate, gubernatrix -- of which the sole survivor is gubernatorial.

We really can’t call it archaic -- gubernatorial is only 300 years old, and thriving -- but American critics have called it some other names along the way. Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as "a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity ... pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish." Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only "pedants and 'small potatoes'" flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial "needless and bombastic." "Leave it to those who call a political office a 'chair,'" he urged. "'Gubernatorial chair' is good enough for them. So is hanging."

Why the ferocity? One possible reason is that gubernatorial was probably coined, and certainly embraced, by Americans. That would have tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police, who were often anxious about our divergences from British usage. If England had given up on all its gubernator-derived words, why were we sticking with gubernatorial?

One obvious reason is that Americans had increasing numbers of state governors, and thus of elections in need of an adjective. As early as 1848, John Russell Bartlett, in "Americanisms," listed gubernatorial among words "whose origin has grown out of our peculiar institutions, and which consequently are of a permanent nature." (Caucus, lobby, mileage, and bunkum also made his list.) If the British had shared our need for gubernatorial, they too might have kept it current. But this commonsense analysis seems to have eluded the mavens.

As the 20th century marched on, though, Americans stopped judging their language by British usage, and gubernatorial prospered. So I was surprised to find official disapproval still on the books: Just last week, The New York Times’s in-house language guardian, Philip Corbett, objected to the word. "The Times’s stylebook advises against the stilted 'gubernatorial,'" he wrote in his Tuesday blog. "Make it 'Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor' or 'who is running for governor.'"

That "stilted" is the stylebook’s description, and it’s a bit hard to decode; "stilted language" is stiff, high-flown, artificially formal, but what makes a single word "stilted"? Possess, opine, parley, and apprehend have been accused of stiltedness; but while they’re clearly more formal than have, say, talk, and catch, how can you tell -- in the absence of context  -- that they're "stiff" or "pompous"?

Maybe gubernatorial is just too long and lumpy? But if that’s the problem, why aren’t words like gladiatorial, arachnophobia, discombobulation, excommunication, and indefatigable ever accused of pomposity? And you can hardly accuse gubernatorial of hanging out among the toffs and swells of English; if we’re tired of the word, it’s because we encounter it everywhere, as TV and radio and the Web and print media report on the current ... gubernatorial campaign.

In fact, Mark Leonard’s e-mail gave me a whole new theory about our distaste for gubernatorial, because he went on to ask about goober. The words aren’t related, but I started to wonder: What if goober has affected the older word’s reputation?

Goober started out as a Southern word (with African roots) for the peanut, but it soon began to accumulate slang senses. By 1862, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, goober was a synonym for "bumpkin, yokel, simpleton." In the Confederate Army, it was a nickname for soldiers from North Carolina and Georgia. A goober-grabber was a poor white farmer.

But goober didn’t go national until the mid-20th century, when "The Andy Griffith Show" brought us the genial dimwit Goober Pyle. Along with its clipped form, goob, it became a popular term for anyone acting silly or dumb.

So here’s an idea: Maybe our resistance to gubernatorial isn’t related to the old prejudices at all. Maybe it’s just that the ignominy of goober, over the past half-century, has rubbed off on gubernatorial. Other words with the goo sound might also play a part: Gooey, googly, goofball, goofus, goombah, gooney bird ... except for googol, there’s not a lot of dignified restraint to be found among the dictionary’s goo- entries.

Of course, on the other side is the ubiquitous Google, working hard to make us like the sound of goo. That would be nice, because I don’t think gubernatorial is going away, whatever the Times stylebook says.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Canceled vs. postponed

"Cancel" was spiking today in online searches at Merriam-Webster, @KoryStamper reported on Twitter, no doubt because of all the weather-related flight cancellations. That reminded me of a minor but interesting usage debate that I covered, possibly in more detail than it deserves, in The Word. Here's the column, from the Sunday Globe of Dec. 11, 2005.

Cancel those reservations

After a natural gas explosion in Lexington last month, the Globe reported that a special Town Meeting had been "canceled and rescheduled for tonight."

Those verbs triggered a pet-peeve alarm in reader Bill Cowie of Reading. "I always thought that once something was canceled, it was gone, deleted, annulled," he e-mailed. "It no longer existed, so it could not be rescheduled." It would be more proper, he said, and more economical too, to use "the perfectly good word postponed."

Sounds like a plausible complaint, and postpone/cancel is just the sort of word pair the usage police are always trying to help us sort out. But plausible or not, the cancel caveat is not, in fact, a usage rule, or even a usage "rule." Unlike persuade vs. convince, or nauseous vs. nauseated, the cancel/postpone distinction seems to have no recorded usage history; even the most persnickety mavens on my reference shelf fail to decree that canceled must mean "gone forever."

In fact, the only comment I've turned up in print comes from my Globe colleague John Powers, who wrote in 1990 that, among numerous other language failings, "Americans say cancel when they mean postpone." That is, they use cancel to mean both "erase" and "reschedule." And so do Canadians and Australians and Britons: Can they all be wrong?

Cowie's argument -- that the canceled thing "no longer exists" -- reminded me of the old conundrum about the farmer's ax: If he has replaced the handle three times and the head twice, does he still have the same ax? (The ancient version of the problem is the paradox of Theseus' ship, maintained and hence replaced, plank by plank, by the Athenians.) The question is one of definition: What is the "it" that we're canceling?

Take the Lexington case, where the Wednesday meeting was scrubbed and replaced by a Thursday meeting with the same agenda. (Not necessarily the "same" meeting-you can't step in the same river twice, and all that.) If your focus was on the meeting as a calendar entry-an obligation on Wednesday night, when you hoped to see a movie-"it" has been canceled, nullified as surely as the credit line on a canceled Visa card. But if you were concerned with content-the recycling rules or the zoning debate-"it" was the meeting itself, and it has been postponed one day.

The issue isn't always subjective; in baseball, as Cowie noted in his e-mail, a postponed game "counts" as the originally scheduled game, whenever it's played, while a canceled game is one that's never played.

But in everyday life, we have no problem using cancel in what you might call the Filofax sense, to mean "clear a spot on the calendar": We don't care whether the event that once occupied that time slot has been rescheduled, abandoned, or left for later consideration. (And considering that cancel is rooted in the Latin cancelli, meaning "crossbars" or "lattice," and that its first meaning in English was "cross out," that seems fair enough.)

Thus, we say:

My flight was canceled. I'll get to Sarasota or San Diego eventually, but not on a flight with that number and departure time. (Even if the same airline delivers you by the same route an hour later, you never call a different-numbered flight a "postponement.")

I canceled my Thursday haircut appointment. I'll call to reschedule when I get back from Sarasota or San Diego. (Nobody thinks that I mean I'm never going back to that stylist.)

Today's classes have been canceled. (The physics midterm and the quiz on Heraclitus are thus postponed. But the day's scheduled meetings are gone forever, even if you cover the same ground later. The emphasis is on the calendar, not the content of classes.)

We're canceling Sunday brunch and postponing your birthday party. (The first event is generic, a spot on the social calendar; the second is a specific observance.)

Yes, cancel sometimes means "cancel with the intention of rescheduling," or even just "postpone" -- and if you have reservations about that casual usage, you're free to avoid it. But if the ambiguity had ever been a source of confusion, the cancel/postpone caution would be a well-known shibboleth. Apparently it hasn't, because it isn't.