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.) 


Edith Ann said...

I grew up hearing and using the word 'complected' when discussing the color and tone of one's skin. I can't ever recall hearing or using the word 'complexioned'.

However, many years later, I discovered 'complected' is not in the dictionary and every spell check program suggests 'complexioned'. I am used to complected, so I guess I'll continue. It's not nearly as annoying as 'conversating' instead of 'conversing'. Large Hispanic community where I live, and those folks conversate.

Yes--can't misspell gecko.

John Cowan said...

Unfortunately, the Linnaean name for the Tokay gecko is Gekko gecko. How stupid is that? It couldn't be Gecko gecko, or even Gekko gekko?

jacksofbuxton said...

My favourite Keith Moon story is him getting the train down to Bournemouth(south coast of England)and meeting Rod Stewart on the same train.

"Hello Rod,where are you going?"


"Me too,off to see the missus"

"Me too"

"Here's a picture of her,this is who I'm going to see."

"Me too."

John Burgess said...

'Complected' is absolutely standard in my AME, too. 'Complexioned' not only strikes me as a British usage, but a very strange one at that!

But then, it's only a word...

Unknown said...

Unless you had a typing error, there are two wrong words in Mr. Peanut's remarks. It is, of course, 'Count Chocula' not 'Chount Chocula'.

Edith Ann,
I also have much hate for 'conversating' over 'conversing'. For my money though, the worst is 'orientated' instead of 'oriented'.

Anonymous said...

How funny for the New Yorker to use the American form of anything. I wish they'd get over their crush on British English. I tire of seeing BrE double consonants before -ing (travelling, budgetting), and awkward (and pointless) avoidance of "gotten," to name just two irritating tics. I would bet a nickel the word "focusses" appears at least once in every article.

Jan said...

@M. Burns: Yep, that was my typo; fixed now. Thanks!

Jane Myers Perrine said...

In 1954 when I was ten, I mentioned a friend who was dark-complected. Both my mother and older sister pounced on me--metaphorically--told me this was substandard English and I should never use it. I waited only 61 years to research this. Thank you for telling me they were wrong. I also hate "conversating".