Friday, October 29, 2010

The uncorrections file: Gomer, meet Goober

In a Boston Globe column earlier this month, about why people dislike the word gubernatorial, I mentioned (among other reasons that goober might sound undignified) the existence of Goober Pyle, a character on "The Andy Griffith Show."

Five readers (so far) have taken the trouble to "correct" me on the point, explaining that I must mean Gomer Pyle. Well, no;  Gomer was a character, yes, but he had a cousin named Goober.

I was a little surprised that five people -- all of them with keyboards literally at their fingertips -- were confident enough to send (or post) this uncorrection. But I wasn't a lot surprised, because I've made incorrections myself, in my copy editing days -- and some of mine went into print, to my eternal mortification. Every copy editor has done it: confidently changed the right spelling to the wrong one, made an ambiguously named man into a woman, or otherwise fixed something that wasn't broken. And we were getting paid to be right! (I'm feeling a little better about these blunders now that I've read the book "Being Wrong," in which Kathryn Shulz explains that the same mental equipment that makes humans smart is what makes us so often -- so blindly -- wrong.)

So I replied to all five of my misinformants, cheerily* explaining that yes, there was a Gomer, and there was also a Goober. One replied with good humor, claiming the day's Golden Goober award (dondoll, you're a mensch); two ignored me. And two more -- well, like all of us, they really weren't happy about being wrong. So they answered this way:
Guess I didn't watch that show closely enough to notice Gomer had a cousin. 
I don't believe I ever watched an entire episode of Mayberry RFD or its Gomer Pyle spin-off, so I defer to your superior knowledge of the Pyle family.
In other words: "I defer to your superior knowledge of the Pyle family, you pathetic couch potato -- I was reading 'Crime and Punishment' that year." Well, folks, I never watched those shows either; I first met Goober Pyle earlier this month, when I was researching the column. I found Goober thanks to -- paraphrasing Holly from "Stone Soup" -- a widely used information system that allows us to check facts from the comfort of our own homes.  (If only it had existed back when I didn't know how to spell Thelonious!)

* OK, I admit it, I wasn't so cheery with the emailer whose correction was openly contemptuous.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The definition of insanity

In today's Globe column, where I plead* for an end to the argument over "I could care less" after 50 years of fruitless repetition, I mention the popular Internet "definition," attributed to various sources: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

One commenter says "the definition of insanity was Einstein ... who else has it been attributed to???" Well, it is often attributed to Einstein, and also to Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, but so far there's no proof it existed before about 1980.

In the excellent Yale Book of Quotations (2006) -- a scholarly collection, not just a roundup of favorite alleged sayings -- editor Fred R. Shapiro found the earliest statement of the sentiment in Rita Mae Brown's "Sudden Death," published in 1983: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

And just last month, at the entry (which also cites Brown), commenter Davidt 9 offered a slight antedating:
The quote "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results" is contained in the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous which was published in 1982. The review form of the book was distributed to members in 1981 and work on the book began in 1979. All of this predates Rita Mae Brown's book.
He gave a link to the book, which does, as advertised, have the relevant quote on page 11 (25th page of the PDF). I also found a 1980 pamphlet from the Hazelden Foundation, "Step Two: The Promise of Hope," which quotes the same aphorism, so perhaps it got its start in the literature of addiction and recovery.

And of course there may not be an original author;  probably these three sources picked up a formulation that had been percolating in the spoken language, possibly in less eloquent variations, just as it was settling into the pithy form we now consider good enough for Einstein.                            

*Unsuccessfully, to judge from the comments and e-mail.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Clean is not an option"

I don’t expect advertisers to hew to formal English, or even standard English, but the tagline for Tide's current ads has been bugging me for a while. It reads:


Surely that's not what Tide really wants to say? "X is not an option," in the language I speak, means X is not a possibility, X is totally unthinkable – as in the famous "Apollo 13" line, “Failure is not an option.” 

I think the copywriters were trying to say that "clean is not optional" – that fashion is a choice, but cleanliness is mandatory (an article of faith, surely, among detergent manufacturers). 

The “style” half of the tagline has its own problems. My first reading of “Style is an option” would be that you can choose to be stylish or unstylish; but that doesn’t make much sense in an ad focused on looking good. No, the writers seem to be using “style is an option” as shorthand for “your style is up to you." It isn’t exactly idiomatic English, but at least – unlike the second part of the tagline – it doesn’t say the opposite of what it means. 

I guess the intent is so clear (that's what pictures are for) that it doesn't really matter what the tagline says. Or is this usage really changing? Time and Tide wait for no man, they say, and it could be they've left me in the dust. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

What's so hard about "prosopagnosia"?

You may well disagree with me on this -- my friend Betsy already has, strenuously -- but I thought it was odd of the Times Book Review to make such a fuss over prosopagnosia, the medical term for face blindness.

In yesterday's review of  Heather Sellers's new memoir, Mary Roach told readers that
"You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know" does not read like any memoir you know, largely because of a condition you may not know and certainly can’t say: prosopagnosia.
Now, I don't object to seeing a rough pronunciation key supplied, as Roach does a bit later: "It's  pro-so-pag-NO-see-uh," she confides. But is this really a difficult word? Yes, it's long, and I can imagine a momentary pause while the reader considers whether this is the -gn- of  lagniappe or the -gn- of agnostic. But I don't see anything else that's likely to slow down the typical Times reader.

Hyperbole like "a condition you ... certainly can't say" is generally frowned on in journalism, because -- like the classic bad example, "For anyone who's been living in a cave" -- it risks insulting readers. But I'm not a hard-liner; I think plenty of English words are tough to sound out, and plenty of others (like Zagat, which also rated a Times gloss yesterday) are hard to remember. I just don't see how you'd take prosopagnosia to be one of them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Grammar-checking Shakespeare

I've written before about the shortcomings of grammar checkers. So has Geoff Nunberg, in a "Fresh Air" commentary called "The Software We Deserve," included in his 2001 collection "The Way We Talk Now." So have Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, at their Grammarphobia blog.

But if that's not convincing enough, here's some recent testimony e-mailed by my friend Louise Kennedy:
So I'm running a spell check on my proposal right before sending it out, and of course I forget to uncheck "check grammar." Which is excellent, because it gives me this:
All the World's a Stage
The entire [World's a Stage]
"Poor Will," says Louise. Amen to that.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Sleep tight," one more time

A few weeks ago, I lodged a complaint here about the return of the "sleep tight" etymythology in some media outlets that should know better.  But those were mere bedbug bites compared with what's on the way. According to the Wall Street Journal's review, best-selling author Bill Bryson repeats the legend in his new book,  "At Home." The Journal's paraphrase:
 When parents kiss their children good night and say, "Sleep tight," it's a fair bet that neither party realizes that the phrase originated in the era of straw-stuffed mattresses. Before the invention of spring mattresses in 1865, bedding would have been suspended by rope lattices that, when they sagged, could be tightened with a key.
Bryson, judging by the book excerpts viewable online, doesn't make nearly so big a deal of it; his reference to "sleep tight" is just a parenthesis ("hence the expression 'sleep tight'").  Still, it's too bad to see such a (justly) popular writer spreading misinformation. As my earlier post noted, the phrase "sleep tight" appeared in the 1860s -- just when the new spring mattresses (assuming that date is correct!) should have begun to make it obsolete. "Sleep tight" means "sleep soundly," and there's no evidence it has any connection at all to rope beds.

Friday, October 1, 2010

If an eggcorn falls in the backyard ...

Real estate, as we all know, has its own (often euphemistic) shorthand. But this odd term, from a Boston-area ad,  appears to be just a mishearing/misunderstanding -- in short, an eggcorn:
This is a solid mulit level house that is ready to move in and ready for your improvements. Roof seems good, older Anderson Windows, large lot (ingrained pool needs to be filled in ).
True, an eggcorn is typically inspired by a word that's somewhat opaque, and it's hard to imagine a more transparent term than "in-ground pool." Nor is in-ground a recent coinage. The OED dates it to 1973 -- "orig. U.S., of an outdoor swimming-pool: built into the ground (as distinct from one placed above ground), esp. at a private residence." And Google News turns up a 1962 ad in the Milwaukee Journal, seeking franchisees to sell a "low priced inground pool to reach mass market."

So how does in-ground become ingrained? I think the connection must be the (relative) permanence of the hole-in-the-ground pool; ingrained originally meant "dyed,"  and it still means "deep-seated, worked deeply into the texture or fiber" (AHD, via Wordnik). An  above-ground pool is removable; not so the ingrained kind.

If I were one of those word watchers who can read minds, I suppose I would accuse the "ingrained pool" people -- Google turns up a couple dozen of them -- of "trying to sound elegant," or something like that. Alas, I seem to be missing the telepathy gene; all I can do is record this interesting substitution.