Friday, November 26, 2010

Ruddy-complected (or not) at the New Yorker

I’ve been derelict in my blogging duties this month, but I did manage (amid the Thanksgiving prep) to dip into the current (11/29) New Yorker, where I found a couple of words of interest to editors.

 From “Are You the Messiah?” by Lauren Collins comes this: “Creme -- ruddy-complected, green eyed, and white-haired -- answered.” Complected for “complexioned” has been a disparaged usage for a century; my teachers treated it as hardly better than irregardless. But Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defends it:
Not an error, nor a dialectal term, nor nonstandard—all of which it has been labeled—complected still manages to raise hackles. It is an Americanism, apparently nonexistent in British English. Its currency in American English is attested as early as 1806 (by Meriwether Lewis) and it appears in the works of such notable American writers as Mark Twain, O. Henry, James Whitcomb Riley, and William Faulkner. Complexioned, recommended by handbooks, has less use than complected. Literary use, old and new, slightly favors complected.
The longer entry in M-W's usage dictionary adds: “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms."

Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) also cites usage -- not specifying "literary" -- and comes to a different conclusion: "Today, complexioned is almost three times as common in print sources." He rates complected Stage 3 on his language-change index, meaning it's widespread but still widely suspect. 

So did the New Yorker use complected (apparently for the first time) on purpose? Well, as of this writing, the word remains in the digital edition. But that's not much of a clue, because so does the wrong word in Paul Rudnick's "Nutty," in the same issue.
In this piece, a monologue by Mr. Peanut, the Planters legume recalls days of indulging in “wild sex” with other spokesproducts, including Cap’n Crunch and Snuggle, the fabric-softener bear, after which he wondered if he'd gone too far: “What’s next? The Kool-Aid pitcher? Count Chocula? The Geico gekko?” No, not the Geico gekko, Mr. P., because the Geico mascot is a gecko.

(This is nitpicking, of course; but the New Yorker's legendary editing standards have always made its lapses and innovations interesting to copy editors and word watchers. If the magazine endorses complected, it could change the word's rep at a stroke. But there are far more interesting things to ponder in the 11/29 issue, including James Wood, literary critic and drummer (who knew?), on Keith Moon. And in the 11/22 issue, read my friend Laura Shapiro on Eleanor Roosevelt's management of the White House menus, and give thanks that your feasts are so much more festive than poor FDR's were.) 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anyone can punctuate; Austen wrote the pauses

Whenever I read one of Geoff Nunberg's "Fresh Air" language commentaries, I'm freshly amazed that so much can be said, lucidly and entertainingly, in a radio piece; reading the prose, you'd swear it was too complex for anything but print. So even if you heard  Nunberg's broadcast today -- rebutting, refuting, and refudiating the idiotic "Jane Austen couldn't write, her editor did it all" story of recent weeks -- you'll want to read it (uncut, with footnotes) at Language Log. A couple of highlights:
By the standards of the time, she wasn't a bad speller. She was inconsistent about possessives, and she sometimes put e before i in words like believe and friendship, but you can find the same thing in the manuscripts of Byron and Scott and Thomas Jefferson — the rules just weren't settled yet. In fact it's pure anachronism to describe any of those things as "wrong" or "incorrect"; it's like calling Elizabeth Bennet a bachelorette.
And if it turns out the semicolons were actually put there by someone else, is it right to say that the style is hers? ... it's an embarrassing question. It reveals a certain obtuseness — about writers and style, and not least, about the semicolon. People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. ... But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.
The Austen manuscripts are here, but they're not for the faint of heart or weak of eye.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Buncombe, bunkum, or both?

In a column last month on gubernatorial, I mentioned that John Russell Bartlett had included the word in his 1848 "Dictionary of Americanisms," calling it a coinage born of "our peculiar institutions," along with caucus and bunkum.

That last word prompted a comment from reader Jay Gold:
Interesting [that] Bartlett lists "bunkum" in his list of Americanisms.  I always thought the proper spelling was "buncombe", after the North Carolina county that inspired the word.  Mencken, who was no slouch in such matters, spelled it that way.
In fact, Mencken listed buncombe and bunkum as alternative spellings, like ketchup and catsup. "Buncombe (usually spelled bunkum) is in all the later English dictionaries," he wrote in the 1921 edition of "The American Language." Bartlett also gave both spellings, and a one-B buncome too, for good measure. 

On the origin of the word, Bartlett quoted another source:
A tedious speaker in Congress being interrupted and told it was no use to go on, for the members were all leaving the house, replied, "Never mind; I'm talking to Buncombe." Buncombe, in North Carolina, was the place he represented. 
And he left the analysis of its cultural context to "Judge Halliburton of Nova Scotia":
"All over America, every place likes to hear of its members of Congress, and see their speeches; and if they don't, they send a piece to the paper, enquirin' if their member died a natural death, or was skivered with a bowie knife, for they hante seen his speeches lately, and his friends are anxious to know his fate. Our free and enlightened citizens don't approbate silent members; it don't seem to them as if Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown was right represented, unless Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown makes itself heard and known, ay, and feared too. So every feller in bounden duty, talks, and talks big too, and the smaller the State, the louder, bigger, and fiercer its members talk.
"Well, when a critter talks for talk sake, jist to have a speech in the paper to send to home, and not for any other airthly puppus but electioneering, our folks call it Bunkum."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tea Party orthography: A Capital Idea?

In the latest "Good Word" column at Slate, Jon Lackman skips the "Teabonics" wisecracks and instead theorizes that the Tea Party members are capitalizing their nouns -- Freedom, Republic, etc. -- in imitation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
What capital-ist Tea Partiers fail to realize, however, is that their orthography imitates not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but the far less famous Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus—a couple of secretaries. No one played a larger role in crafting the Declaration and the Constitution than Jefferson and Madison, respectively, but it was Matlack and Shallus who hand wrote the official, signed versions of these documents and freely recapitalized them as they saw fit. By contrast, in Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration, there's a striking absence of caps—he writes "life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness," for example. As H.L. Mencken noted, "nature and creator, and even god are in lower case."
Nice. And the author ID promises more language fun to come: "Jon Lackman is writing a doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism."