Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy meta-Festivus: Grieving the grievances

I’ve been trying to get a post off the ground for a while, but my topics were either too ambitious (no time!) or too peevish, and it just didn’t seem right to post minor gripes at The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 

But hallelujah! This morning, both Fritinancy and You Don't Say reminded me that today is Festivus, a day that invites – nay, mandates – the airing of grievances. A few hours later, in a delightful cosmic conjunction, I came upon the perfect target for a Festivus grievance: Ron Rosenbaum’s essay today in Slate. The icing on the Festivus cake: The piece itself, though not labeled as such, is an Airing of (Language) Grievances. 

Yes, I have language grievances too – who doesn’t? – but Rosenbaum’s list is just the latest entry in a tired and exasperating genre: A catalogue of usages – in this case, allegedly faddish or newish ones – delivered along with the writer’s arbitrary judgments on whether they “deserve” to survive in the language. 

Often, as in this case, the writer offers half-baked theories for why some “losers” adopt the offensive words. Of the slang junk for genitals, for instance, Rosenbaum ventures that maybe “overdosing on junk-sex Internet porn has damaged the brains of so many men that they’ve come to think everything sexual is, well, junky.” 

That's a joke, I suppose, but there’s more:
Crowdsourcing: Hasn’t it occurred to anyone -- especially the new media genius types who abuse the concept -- that the archetypal crowd is a lynch mob?
Isn’t it obvious that someone who’s using gravitas is mainly trying to confer it upon himself by implying he has the gravitas to recognize and bestow gravitas?
It seems, despite my efforts, we will never be able to stamp out “spot on” and those who think the use of it gives them an Atlanticist sophistication.
But not all trendy words are unspeakable:
One new term I encountered on the website The Hairpin that sounds super-intriguing: napgasm. Apparently, it’s a thing. (That’s another of my fave catchphrases, by the way. It’s a thing is a thing.)
Meh: I still like this! I think it’s rare to find something so new and expressive in the language.
I could say more about his individual peeves and faves, but so could you, dear readers, so I won’t. We can all wonder together: What makes Rosenbaum think he gets to be the nation's "Catchphrase Executioner"?

But my grievance isn’t really directed at Rosenbaum; after all, he has a deadline to meet, and he's hardly the only writer to indulge the delusion that his rulings on language have weight. No, in this case I blame Slate. They’ve published Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer on language, so they know what reality-based usage analysis looks like. Editors sometimes save writers from their cheesier impulses; in this case they failed. So thank you, Slate, for inspiring a joyously cranky Festivus observance.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's hard for I -- what about you?

Thanks to the diligence of my friend Betsy, I finally got around to seeing this year’s (pallid, underwritten) movie version of “Jane Eyre.” But though I wish Jane had been allotted more words, at least the meager script minimized the chance of language glitches. As it was, we were shocked to hear Jane, in the midst of a passionate speech, say to Rochester:
If God had blessed me with beauty and wealth, I could make it as hard for you to leave me as it is for I to leave you.
For I to leave you? Sure, we moderns often use object pronouns in compound nominatives (“Me and the dog are going out”) and vice versa (“an invitation for Sally and I”). But “as hard for I to leave” is much less common. Not unheard of -- Arnold Zwicky gave an example in an August post, and said there were more out there,  “too many to dismiss as nothing but inadvertent errors" -- but rare enough that I've never heard a complaint about it.

And Jane’s movie speech generally hews closely to the book, where she says 
if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.
So someone (Moira Buffini is the scriptwriter of record) decided to “improve” Bronte’s dialogue, and nobody involved in the production ever said “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right.” O tempora, o mores, o BBC!

You may have noticed another word change there: Bronte’s “gifted me” becomes “blessed me” in the script, no doubt in deference to today's distaste for gift as a verb. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that gift "make a present of" dates to the 17th century, though the context was generally institutional, as in "gifted to the Church of Rome."

As early as 1864, though, there were rumblings about it. In “The Queen’s English,” Henry Alford complained that adjectival gifted was “at present very much in vogue. Every man whose parts are to be praised, is a gifted author, speaker or preacher.” In 1909, Ambrose Bierce OK'd gifted but suggested that the verb itself was obsolete: Denouncing talented (vs. gifted), he noted, “These are both past participles, but there was once the verb to gift, whereas there was never the verb 'to talent.' If Nature did not talent a person the person is not talented."

But in the mid-20th century to gift spread to “a more mundane realm,” as Bryan Garner puts it, becoming a mere synonym for give: “He gifted her with a diamond bracelet.” This aroused the opposition, and the usage is still resisted as pretentious; Garner rates its acceptance at only stage 2 of a possible 5. So this edit of Bronte seems to be a reasonable effort to avoid raising viewers’ eyebrows. Unfortunately, changing “for me to leave” to “for I” is enough, all by itself, to raise eyebrows as high as they go -- for some of us, anyway.

Sunday, December 4, 2011's latest cry for help

I suggested earlier this fall that winners of's Best Blog poll could use some help with proofreading, but apparently nobody stepped into the breach. After the contest, the site sent me (and 47 other nominees, I presume) a consolation prize -- "A gift for participation in the contest for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011." It's a badge to display on your blog, similar to the ones the top 3 winners were encouraged to post. as usual, the best part of the e-mail was unintentional: "We would be happy to see you in the list of grammar bloggers in our contest for the Best Grammar Bog next time if we hold it again."

"Best Bog" has an especially nice ring for us Angela Thirkell fans, since one of the novelist's characters -- the post-WWII Mixo-Lydian Ambassadress to Britain -- is a woman of strong opinions whose favorite (often scornful) exclamation is "Bog!" Next time I hear from, that syllable will be my response.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mondegreen watch: The leaves are down

Today on "All Things Considered," Melissa Block interviewed novelist Ann Patchett about her favorite "winter song," which (for excellent biographical reasons) is "California Dreamin'." And as I listened, I learned that I had been hearing a mondegreen all these decades. The line that fascinated Patchett -- "Went "Stopped into a church, and I pretend to pray" -- I've interpreted, all these years, as "I began to pray."

Makes sense, right? Whatever the verb here, it should be in the past tense, not present. And nothing makes "pretend" more plausible than "began" (well, nothing I can see in the lyrics.) But pretend it is, and quite clearly enunciated, as pop lyrics go.

Moments later, as I was shaking off my long-standing delusion, Block revealed that she too had mondegreened* the lyrics. "Are the leaves all down?" she asked Patchett, who lives in Nashville. "All the leaves are down," Patchett replied. But no: It's "All the leaves are brown," to go with the gray skies (though the image of bare branches is nice too).

Will mondegreen creation dwindle when we all get our music via earbuds rather than crackly radios? Or is the listening mind just too inventive to stop making its own kind of sense, given half a chance? I'm rooting for the mondegreens; like eggcorns, they're too entertaining to be sacrificed for mere accuracy.

*I see that this verb is out there, in active and passive forms. I'll vote for active, since mondegreening is something we do, not something the song does to us. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The elusive 'misplaced only'

When I was writing my Boston Globe column, I heard regular complaints about the alleged misplacement of only in a sentence, as when I wrote "you could only murder your victim once." Reading up on the issue, I decided that this peeve is so popular because advice-givers enjoy ringing the changes on made-up sentences that supposedly show the pitfalls of only: "Only John hit Peter in the nose, John hit Peter only in the nose, John only hit Peter in the nose," and so on. (For a very recent example, see Merrill Perlman here.)

But anyone can make up evidence. Several times, I asked readers to give me an example of a truly misleading only that was not in a hypothetical example, but actually in print. In 10 years, no one ever did. Eventually, I spotted one myself, in the Wall Street Journal: "Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick." (As I discovered at the time, this was apparently an editor's attempt to reword the writer's original "Current tests can only detect.")

Two years later, I've found another misplaced only. It was in Thomas Friedman's column in the New York Times Nov. 13, about making tablet computers cheap enough for the poorest Indians to buy. He wrote:
If Indians could only purchase tablets made in the West, the price points would be so high they'd never spread here.
This was a garden-path sentence for me; First time through, I read it with only modifying "purchase tablets made in the West." But no -- Friedman doesn't mean "if they could only buy (some tablets from the West)," he means "if they could buy tablets only (from the expensive West)."

So yes, occasionally the word only is confusingly misplaced. But two examples in 10 years -- one of them created by an editor needlessly moving the only -- hardly amounts to an epidemic.

Fowler, by the way, was scathing about the only fetishists -- "pedants" who meddled where no improvement was needed, "turning English into an exact science or an automatic machine." But he's not alone in his skepticism. My only enlightenment came from Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957).

In most cases only is a sentence adverb and qualifies the entire statement. When used in this way its natural position is before the verb, as in but now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. This word order is standard literary English and should be followed unless there is a very good reason for placing only somewhere else. ... It is not true that when only stands between the subject and the verb it qualifies the verb alone. One might as well argue that never qualifies saw rather than the full statement in I never saw a purple cow. 

And for the 21st-century linguist's version, we have this excerpt from a Geoff Pullum post:
The word only is frequently positioned so that it attaches to the beginning of a larger constituent than its focus (and thus comes earlier), and that is often not just permissible but better. Ian Fleming's title You Only Live Twice was not copy-edited to You Live Only Twice. Why not? Because he knows how to write, and he didn't let an idiot copy-editor change his writing into mush, that's why.
Enough said? I hope so, because there are potatoes to peel and pecans to chop. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A kind word for the crossword

Like any recovering nitpicker, I still feel a certain allegiance to the shibboleths of my youth. (The earlier you learn them, the harder they are to ignore.) So a clue in Wednesday's New York Times crossword made me smile, once I had the answer.

The clue to 48-down was: "Muscle strengthened by curls, informally." The answer: BICEP. And the prescriptivist dog whistle in the clue is the word "informally."

As Miss Mossman explained years ago in Latin class, biceps is a singular, though it's long been used as the English plural too. (Fowler liked bicepses better than the Latin bicipites, but neither caught on.) So according to traditionalists, the word bicep shouldn't exist. Like pea and cherry and kudo, it was formed on the erroneous assumption that a final-s sound signaled a plural.

But the advance of singular bicep was so stealthy that few language mavens noticed it over the years. By the time Bryan Garner got into the usage trade, it was so well established that he simply accepted it. In the most recent (2009) edition of Garner's Modern American Usage, he says that "to refer to a person's right biceps ... seems pedantic." Despite etymology, "the standard terms are now bicep as the singular and biceps as the plural."

I'm not so sure singular biceps has been relegated to nonstandard (or even "pedantic") status, and neither is Google Books, despite that ominous post-2000 drop on the Ngram chart. But "right bicep" is obviously acceptable to many, even if some of us still think of it as "informal." Sorry, Miss Mossman!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stuff and nonsense

John McIntyre, scourge of the holiday cliché, recently published this season’s installment of editorial don’ts: No 'tising, no 'twasing, no white stuff, no “yes, Virginia,” and so on. Though I have mildly dissented from a few of his peeves, they all merit journalists' attention. And though John doesn’t mention it, I see there are two additions to his list this year, both items I’m interested in. The first:
Stocking stuffer: Stuff it.
"Stocking stuffer" has indeed earned a place on the watch list: In a search of selected newspapers, it showed up almost as often as "'Tis the season" over the past year (672 hits to 754). I think of it as an advertising word (and use "stocking present" myself), but I don't feel much hostility toward it, except when the suggested "stuffer" is a diamond bracelet or a $7,000 watch.

But a decade ago, I found myself wondering when the “stocking stuffer” concept had emerged. As a child, I had read about the Bad Old Days when a kid's entire Christmas haul would fit into that lone stocking tied to the bedpost – if the child had proved worthy of treats rather than lumps of coal. When had stocking presents been demoted from the main course to mere appetizers, trinkets to distract the kids while their parents sucked down some caffeine? 

Not surprisingly, I found that “stocking stuffer” seems to be a byproduct of postwar prosperity. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary dates the term to 1948, and that’s when Filene’s begins using it in Boston Globe ads. (In England it's "stocking filler," also first recorded in the '40s.)

Usage is still sparse through the '50s, though; Google’s Ngram (charting books, not newspapers, but probably just lagging a bit behind) shows the real “stuffer” boom beginning in the '70s. (And what's that dip in the mid-2000s? Maybe there's a nascent anti-"stuffer" movement just waiting for the call!)

The second new item on John's warning list:
On no account are you to publish that execrable article on the estimated cost of the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Whoever gets assigned to write it every year patently did something very, very bad in a previous life. If you have been guilty of publishing that thing in the past, do not compound your sin.
Hear, hear! This is a time-wasting stunt promoted by PNC Bank, which has the chutzpah to label it “financial education.” Nothing in the whole exercise demonstrates anything worth knowing about inflation, the economy, or the price of gifts your true love may be sending you.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Doonesbury does it -- do you?

Several weeks ago, when "Doonesbury" showed Grandma Joanie proposing to move in with Alex, faithful correspondent JHM wrote to comment on a usage in the strip's dialogue. Joanie offers to help Alex pay her rent. "Wait, is there a hitch?" asks Alex. And there is: "I'd have to move in," says Joanie.

For JHM, hitch wasn't quite the right word. "I would've used 'catch,' as in a deal with strings attached," he said, adding a definition from Oxford Dictionaries online: "a hidden problem or disadvantage in an apparently ideal situation: there's a catch in it somewhere."

I would like to say that yes, I too would use catch, not hitch, in this context, and I'm pretty sure I would:  I think of a catch as a preset trap, a hitch as just a random snag in the proceedings. On the other hand, I read right past the hitch in the Doonesbury cartoon, speeding onward to the punch line. So it's obviously not a red-flag distinction for me.

After a quick and unscientific glance at Google News sources, I'd venture to say that the catch-hitch distinction -- as JHM and I make it -- is widely observed: I found catch almost always used to imply a hidden clause or condition, hitch used mostly for "unexpected problem," usually in variations on "it went off without a hitch." But I wonder -- if hitch did start migrating into catch territory, would we notice? Did you?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Over and over again

“I agree with your objections to the unhelpful comparisons using the stack of money and distance to the moon,” wrote T. Roger Thomas in a comment on my criticism of a New York Times op-ed. Then he went on:
I would also add an objection to the use of "over" in the original piece. To my way of thinking, one can climb over a fence. I would prefer to see the term "more than" used to denote a greater amount of things, which, in this instance, happen to be dollars.
He’s talking (I assume) about Ezekiel Emanuel’s “$2.6 trillion on health care, over $8,000 per American.” But this is a nit that I didn’t pick even when I was a professional nitpicker, despite the temptation to go along with my fellow journalists. "Disapproval of over ‘more than’ is a hoary American newspaper tradition,” says MWDEU, but the usage was standard for many centuries before some 19th-century crank decided he didn't like it.

We haven't identified that crank; as I said in an April 2010 post on "over" and "more than," the earliest mention of the  issue I’ve found is in an 1856 usage book by Walton Burgess, son of a New York City printer/publisher, grandly titled “Five Hundred Mistakes in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected.” At No. 130 we get: "'There were not over twenty persons present:' say, more than. Such a use of this word is not frequent among writers of reputation."

William Cullen Bryant followed Burgess's lead in 1870, and Ambrose Bierce piled on in 1909. But even in its heyday, the “rule” was far from universal. Scott and Denney's "Elementary English Composition" (1900) said that “over a million dollars” was correct usage. And in 1856 -- the very same year that Walton Burgess declared war on this "over" -- a rival usage book, with an anonymous author, defied his ruling in the boast above its title: “Over 1000 Mistakes Corrected.”

For more on “over/more than,” see John McIntyre (at his non-paywalled former blog) on the AP Stylebook as a "repository of extinct rules"; Mark Liberman at Language Log; and Paul Brians's Non-Errors Page: "This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language. If I write 1 on the blackboard and 10 beside it, 10 is still the 'higher' number."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Its not that big a deal

In this week’s After Deadline blog, Philip Corbett led with recent homophone misspellings in the New York Times – one the common eggcorn reign in for rein in, and several others that are just slips of the brain (then for than, palette for palate, gate for gait). But Corbett avoided the alarmist hyperbole that so often accompanies lists of such blunders: He did not refer to the non-eggcorn errors as “confusions,” as if the spelling-challenged writer truly didn't know a then from a than.

Same day, different blog: At Grammarphobia, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wandered into the "confusion" quagmire and couldn't get unstuck. A reader asked whether using its for it’s was a grammatical error or a spelling error; here's their answer,* with my objections:
A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.
But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.
What “deeper level”? You're saying the writer doesn’t know the difference between the actual words its and it’s? That he mistakenly writes “it’s tires are flat” because he thinks it's OK to say “it is tires are flat”? Of course you don’t think that. Sometimes a mixup -- reign in for rein in -- could be either a simple spelling goof or a genuine confusion (resulting in an eggcornish reinterpretation of the metaphor). Not so with its and it’s. We could drop the apostrophe entirely and we’d still know which was which, because in fact we don't confuse them grammatically.
It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.
Yes, but this is that same “superficial” spelling or punctuation error  you noted already.
So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.
Except that there is no “grammar-error camp.” It’s just not a possible interpretation of this spelling mistake. But usage mavens have been calling these errors “confusions” for so long that a lot of people have trouble distinguishing true misunderstandings from misspellings. Not that I endorse misspellings; but they don’t, by themselves, imply weakness of intellect or failure to grasp the sense of a word. We shouldn't go around scaring one another by implying that they do.

*I actually first wrote "here's there answer," though I caught it immediately. And no, I am not confused about the difference between their and there.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Odious comparisons

Yesterday's Times featured an op-ed piece* by Ezekiel Emanuel -- physician and brother of Rahm -- that included one of the silliest attempts at clarification ever seen (I hope) in those pages.  Emanuel wants to help readers grapple with the "$2.6 trillion on health care, over $8,000 per American," that the US spent last year. "This is such an enormous amount of money, it’s difficult to grasp," he writes. So
consider this: If we stacked single dollar bills on top of one another, $2.6 trillion would reach more than 170,000 miles — nearly three-quarters of the way to the moon.  
Uh, right. In the first place, I can't remember the last time I saw even 10 one-dollar bills in the same place. I can't even picture a stack of a measly million dollars, let alone $2.6 trillion.

And then ... the moon? It's a long way off, sure, but the distance isn't easy to visualize without better clues than dollar bills. How about "x trips back and forth across the US," or "x times around the world"? Comparisons like this are supposed to give readers a familiar concept against which they can measure the less familiar one. Instead we have $2.6 trillion translated into two equally unhelpful images.

Even if the comparison worked, it's not clear what it's for. Surely the question is not "how much is $2.6 trillion" -- a tall tower of dollars, as much as the entire French economy, whatever -- but when such spending is "too much" for an economy of a given size, and what to do about it.

This is allegedly the first in a series on the topic, so I hope the editors will scrutinize future submissions a bit more carefully. All I learned here is that if I want to shinny up to the moon on a stack of dollar bills, I'll need more than 2.6 trillion of them.

*The link is to the online Opinionator version; didn't want to give me the address of the print version. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prerequisites for peeving

There oughta be a law, says Steven Pinker in Prospect Magazine, governing all the world's pundits:
No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2).
This decree would, first of all, eliminate tedious jeremiads about the decline of the language. The genre has been around for centuries, and if the doomsayers were correct we would now be grunting like Tarzan.
Unfortunately, it would take more than a global overlord to enforce this rule on the pundits' audience. I don't know if people complained less when times were tougher, but in our relatively comfortable society, there's plenty of energy for peeving. When I read Natalie Angier's piece on runaway altruism in the New York Times earlier this month, one bit seemed especially relevant to language scolds:
David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilizing. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. 
I don't know about you, but I have certainly enjoyed the sensation of knowing The Right Way in matters of editing. And though indignation can be a force for good, surely its power should be exercised on something more important than the comma?  As the linguist Dwight Bolinger memorably noted,* most language peeves are trivial both in linguistic and practical terms: "The same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written."

*In "Language: The Loaded Weapon," Longman 1980, which I did not receive as a free review copy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Noah's not the boss of me!

In the waning hours of Dictionary Day, I want to briefly advocate for the locution "advocate for." I was sorry to see Lucy Ferriss, over at Lingua Franca, conceding the point to a critic who told her advocate could only be a transitive verb -- that she could advocate the use of the Oxford comma, but not advocate for it. Says who? Says her dictionary, whichever it is.

Well, dictionary shmictionary. No lexicographer wants you to lie down and roll over just because the phrase you use is not recorded in his or her latest tome. If we say advocate for, the dictionaries will recognize, soon enough, that the intransitive form ("she advocates for abuse victims") is standard -- and in this case doing useful work, not just padding out the transitive verb.

And advocate for is not some bizarre new aberration; the OED calls it obsolete, but gives citations from the mid-17th to the late 19th century, the last from the language scholar Fitzedward Hall:  "I am not going to advocate for this sense of actual." And Google's Ngram viewer shows "advocated for" rising steadily since around 1840, so maybe the OED editors weren't as observant as they might have been.

I doubt, though, that people who dislike the revival of advocate for give a damn whether it's "officially" transitive or intransitive; I think they connect it with social-worker jargon from the touchy-feely era, and despise it for class reasons. Yes, it's true (as I noted in a column* four years ago) that advocate for  sometimes shows up where advocate alone might be more appropriate (and elegant). But (as I wrote then)
advocate will hardly be the first switch-hitting verb. Do you baby-sit the twins, or baby-sit for them? Shop [Filene's] Basement, or shop at the Basement? Graduate college, or graduate from college? A century ago, when approve of was new, Ambrose Bierce tsk-tsked: "There is no sense in making approve an intransitive verb." [I wonder how he would have liked the British transitive agree: "Heineken UK have agreed a contract extension."] 
This isn't the first time advocate has attracted critics. The OED quotes a 1789 letter from Ben Franklin to Noah Webster (happy birthday, Noah!) complaining of several new verbs (as he thought) based on nouns, including advocate. Milton and Pepys and Burke had used the word, but Franklin wasn't having it. "If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations," he wrote, "you will use your authority in reprobating them."

But Webster (whatever his private opinion) recorded the facts: advocate was a verb, like it or not. And any minute now, his heirs at Merriam-Webster -- hi, Peter! -- are going to notice that it's also an intransitive verb, and add that description to the record. Because we're the boss of dictionaries, not the other way around.

*Probably behind a paywall, but I can't tell for sure. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Amazon hears the feedback feedback

Amazon has just changed its customer feedback link so that if everything goes perfectly, you're allowed to rate the transaction "Excellent" with just one click -- no need to add a comment.

Until recently, it didn't work that way. Even if you clicked the buttons rating the service and product as perfect, you couldn't submit the form till you also put some text in the comments box. This must have irritated thousands of people, and I was among them; eventually I wrote to Amazon pointing out that this was a real disincentive to rate sellers, and one that would disproportionately punish the best merchants -- the ones who rated just an unadorned "Excellent."

I'm sure I wasn't the only one making this point; for all I know, the campaign to revise the feedback form has been going on for years already. But it's always nice to see a huge company actually do something so small yet sensible; so often, it doesn't happen.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Help help bloggers

Today's e-mail brought an update from letting me know that the voting deadline for their grammar blog poll is fast approaching:

Today is the halfway of the contest finals!
The most active bloggers are about to outrun you in the Best Grammar Blog of 2011 contest. Their friends and readers are actively voting, so why don’t yours?
Your blog is worth to be number one,* you just need some help from people who already love your blog.
The final round ends October, 17th.

Now, this nitpicking doesn’t mean I scorn the poll; anything that helps spread the word about  language blogs is a Good Thing, and the master list has already prompted me to subscribe to a couple of blogs I had missed.

But the site has problems. Its own software says so: claims its grammar checker will spot your writing flaws, so I fed it the e-mail I quote from above. The analysis -- just a teaser, not the detailed report that paying customers get -- told me that the text had seven “critical writing issues”: one of sentence structure, two of punctuation, and four of “style.” Overall score: 50 percent. “Weak; needs revision.”

Some of the (free) usage advice also needs revision. The “12 Most Misunderstood Words” item, for example, has an outdated hostility to nauseous (meaning nauseated), claims that alternate can only be a verb, and includes a definition of less that made me laugh out loud:
You think it means: fewer
It means: a smaller amount of uncountable nouns 
So as long as we’re logrolling and backscratching, shouldn’t language bloggers help look more like a club we’d want to belong to? Maybe, when the shouting’s over, the top 10 bloggers should each thank the website with some volunteer help -- 10 corrections, say, or an hour’s worth of editing. The better they look, the better we look. And they can definitely look better.

*Yes, this is a comma fault, but not a bad one, and I’m not a comma-fault fetishist.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reaching out: The "NYPD Blue" connection

Nancy Friedman has a terrific treatment of the buzz phrase "reach out" at Visual Thesaurus, to which you should subscribe instantly if not sooner. But in her search for sources of the phrase, she overlooked one that loomed very large in pop culture back when I wrote about "reach out," just a couple of months into my authorship of "The Word" for the Boston Globe.

As I've been through hours of broken-link hell trying to retrieve a copy -- the ProQuest link not only isn't letting subscribers log in, it wouldn't even let me pay five bucks for my own damn column! -- I'm not going to take time to annotate it; there are surely things I would do differently now, but here's what I knew about "reach out" 14 years ago, when I and the Internet were both much greener.

When a cop's reach exceeds his grasp

If they're tuned to our wavelength, the citizens of the universe must picture English-speaking Earthlings as many-armed creatures like the Hindu goddess Kali, or maybe as ambulatory, air-breathing octopuses. What else could explain the amount of reaching out we do these days? Churches reach out to potential members, Newt Gingrich to minority voters, La Leche League members to new mothers.

And while the phrase has been stealthily spreading for decades, it seems likely that it owes its current ubiquity to actor David Caruso -- or, rather, to the TV writers who created his "NYPD Blue" character, Detective John Kelly, back in 1993.

There's nothing wrong with reach, of course, or with out. Both words have been in the language, alone and together, since it was Old English, letting us reach out for the brass ring, the highest apples on the tree, the life preserver thrown from a boat.

But reach out seems to have softened and spread like margarine during the touchy-feely '60s and '70s. The Four Tops had a hit with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," the Carter administration envisioned a Department of Agriculture that would reach out to consumers, and sex educators were reaching out to adolescents.

AT&T trumped them all, in 1979, with "Reach Out and Touch Someone," one of the most memorable advertising slogans ever written. But the phone company's jingle still hewed to the old-fashioned meaning of the phrase -- it assumed a specific person at the other end of that long distance phone line. The New Age version of reaching out that was growing on us had fuzzier boundaries and less specific goals.

This extended reach out is the verb form of the noun outreach, a coinage (in this sense) of 20th-century bureaucratic minds. The Book of Jargon defines outreach as "digging up end-users when nobody seems to want the 'benefits' of a government enough to apply for them" -- a jaundiced view, maybe, but it captures the newer sense of outreach as an overture made to an amorphous mass of people, not to real, touchable individuals. Barnhart's Dictionary of New English dates this outreach to 1968, and it seems safe to assume that where there was outreach, there was reaching out. But most of us didn't notice how fast it had proliferated till "NYPD Blue" began rubbing our noses in reach out.

For some fans of the TV show, the stock phrase (and the series' other mannerisms and catchphrases) were irritating almost from the start. When Caruso threatened to leave, one reviewer said he would be happy not to hear him "telling people he's going to reach out," as if he were angling for a phone company job. And when his departure was announced, one of the speculative scenarios for the farewell episode had him saying "reach out" once too often and being murdered by partner Andy Sipowicz.

Caruso did leave, but his buzzwords linger on; the boys in "Blue" reach out more than ever, sometimes stretching the phrase to implausible lengths. In an episode last season, Sipowicz rebuked a prostitute offering evidence by saying, more or less, "It's a week already, and you don't reach out till now?"

This is going too far. Surely "turning over evidence" is not a synonym for reaching out, if reaching out means anything at all. "It's become so ubiquitous, you expect them to 'reach out' to the doughnut counter, 'reach out' to swat a bug" complained a reviewer last month.

But if all the reaching out gets you down, there's a quick remedy, prescribed in the "NYPD Blue Drinking Game" devised by Alan Sepinwall and his collaborators (for details, see his "NYPD Blue" site). It's simple: Every time someone says "reach out," you reach for a double Scotch. Soon enough, when they try to reach out to you, you'll be feeling no pain.

(Boston Sunday Globe, September 28, 1997)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Does "Mademoiselle" mean bird-brained?

American feminism, back in the day, dabbled (jokingly or not) in etymythology: Using herstory, for instance, which implies that the "his" of history refers to maleness, or treating female as a subset of male, when in fact the words aren't etymologically related.

Are French feminists, in the post-DSQ uprising, taking the same etymological liberties? The story I heard on NPR yesterday roused my suspicions (as any too-good-to-check etymology should do). There’s a campaign to create a Gallic equivalent of Ms., freeing French women from the stark choice between Madame (married) and Mademoiselle (not). And spokeswoman Marie-Noelle Bas, arguing the case, told the reporter why mademoiselle was offensive: “oiselle in French is the feminine of oiseau [bird]. And in ancient French, that means virgin, that means stupid, that means somebody who needs to be married."

Well, my Larousse tells me that oiselle does indeed mean “jeune fille naive, niaise” -- a naive or silly girl. (I'll take Bas's word for the "needing to be married" connotation, which is plausible enough.) But does the word have anything to do with mademoiselle?

I don’t think so. Oiselle, says Larousse, comes from the Latin aucellus, the diminutive form of avis (bird). Demoiselle (the source of English damsel) is derived from the Latin dominicella, diminutive of domina, lady (of the house), mistress, female boss. The shared syllables in oiselle and mademoiselle seem to show only that both are descended from diminutive forms, not that they're closer relatives than, say, marionette and lunette, or mozzarella and patella.

But if I’m missing something, dear Francophone readers and scholars, do let me know.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How many crabs could an esteemed chef steam ...

Boston chef Jasper White is headed to China to enjoy some freshwater hairy crabs, a delicacy he first encountered in 1986, according to this interview in today's Globe. "So what exactly makes the crabs special?" asks the reporter.
A. They’re delicious and highly steamed. And also, they’re rare. They’re found predominantly in the Nanjing Province. And they’re only in harvest four weeks, during fall.
 I don't think the reporter's transcription here qualifies as an eggcorn; it's just a garden-variety mishearing, one that's almost plausible in the context. Not that you'd want your shellfish "highly steamed," but then, the other possible reading -- "they're delicious and highly esteemed" -- isn't a very good answer to the question either. At least this version is good for a laugh.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Toilé and trouble

The etymology of "toilet" is a good story, so I was pleased (at first) to see it mentioned in this full-page Clorox ad. "The word 'toilet' comes from the French word 'toile' which originally referred to a woman's dressing table," the small print begins. But when I squinted, I saw
that what it really said was "from the French word 'toilé.'"
Uh-oh! that charming continental rogue, the accent aigu, has seduced another victim. Toilet does come from toile, in French a kind of fabric (and in English too, where it usually refers to toile de Jouy, with its monochrome print of landscapes or shepherds). But it was the diminutive form, toilette, that English adopted, starting in the 16th century, to mean a variety of things connected with primping. Toilet (toylett, twilet) could mean "A cloth cover for a dressing-table (formerly often of rich material and workmanship); now usually called a toilet-cover," says the OED. A lady's toilet might also be the assemblage of powders and pomades and implements used at the dressing table, or the process of applying them, or even the table itself. Next toilet expanded to mean "dressing room," then to that room with any lavatory fixtures included, and finally to the porcelain throne.

But toilé doesn't come into the story, as far as I know. Yes, it's a word -- a French adjective, and an English noun for a kind of lacework -- but until Clorox adopted it as an adorable description of its pink toilet, it had nothing to do with plumbing.

I don't mean to get too heavy here; it's an ad, and "Le Toilé" is intended to be silly (the ad refers readers to the website, where there are probably no actual odes). But if I'd been a copywriter on the pink toilet ad, I think I would have argued for La Toilette instead of Le Toilé. Why invent language facts when the truth would serve just as well?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

But, but, but ...

I didn't think I was confused about the different uses of but and though, but after reading Allan Metcalf's little lesson -- the latest installment in the new Lingua Franca blog -- I'm not so sure. My problem cropped up at this point:
Here’s the distinction: What follows But is the author’s main point. What follows though is a subordinate point.
(a) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go. But I don’t trust you.
(b) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go, though I don’t trust you.
Clear enough? In (a), the author won’t be following, because the distrust is too much. In (b), the author distrusts but is going to follow anyhow.
"Clear enough?" Absolutely not. I have no idea why Metcalf believes that in example (a), the "But" expresses sufficient distrust to negate the preceding avowal. He seems to read it as meaning "I would follow you if I trusted you," but for me, the sentiment is the same in both versions: I would follow you anywhere, but (or though) not blindly. But maybe this is one of those distinctions I didn't learn young enough; is it one most people recognize?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The language war on terror(ism)

Over at Literal-Minded, Neal Whitman explains that he was once among those who thought the phrase “war on terror” was a product of the 9/11 attacks, and who also disapproved of the phrase. Having now researched it, he shows clearly enough that “war on terror” was already current (if not nearly so widespread) decades earlier -- so we can't blame George Bush for it.

The first I heard of any discomfort with the usage was a query from a Globe reader back in 2003. He'd been hearing newscasters use "war on terror" interchangeably with "war on terrorism," and he wondered if that was OK. I answered, briefly, in my column:
They're an odd pair, terror and terrorism -- does any other ism mean the same thing as its root word? Stalin and Stalinism can't change places in a sentence, nor can sex and sexism, cube and Cubism. Why, then, can terror also mean terrorism?

Well, it's those pesky French again. In English, terror was just a word for dreadful fear till the French Revolution brought the bloody Reign of Terror in 1793. By 1801 "reign of terror" was recorded in English, and terror was no longer just personal fear but political brutality.

That capital-T Terror gave birth to terrorisme, a coinage ratified by the French Academy in 1798 and adopted into English the same year. But terror, thanks to the guillotine, was already in use as an abstract noun that meant intimidation by violence, threatened or actual.
I didn’t bother to quote the OED then, but now that I have room for it, here’s the entry (under terror):
4. reign of terror, a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage; esp. (with capital initials) French Hist. the period of the First Revolution from about March 1793 to July 1794, called also the Terror, the Red Terror, when the ruling faction remorselessly shed the blood of persons of both sexes and of all ages and conditions whom they regarded as obnoxious. Hence, without article or pl., the use of organized intimidation, terrorism.
It wasn't till a year later, in spring 2004, that Jon Stewart put the anti-terror argument into wider circulation, saying (not ad lib, but in a graduation speech), "We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck.”  This prompted Geoff Pullum to conjecture that Stewart was relying on his grade-school notion of a noun as "a person, place, or thing," which was sadly deficient:
The way to tell whether a word is a noun in English is to ask questions like: Does it have a plural form (the terrors of childhood)? Does it have a genitive form (terror's effects)? Does it occur with the articles the and a (the terror)? Can you use it as the main or only word in the subject of a clause (Terror rooted me to the spot), or the object of a preposition (war on terror)? And so on. These are grammatical questions. Syntactic and morphological questions. Not semantic ones.
I can see how "war on terror" might have the sound of headline-writer's shorthand, and its economy probably has helped it proliferate; maybe that's why editor Bill Walsh, of Blogslot, objected to the phrase, claiming only "war on terrorism" was accurate. But terror has denoted a strategy (as well as an emotion) for two centuries, and it would probably take a heap of editorial scorn to stop it now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What the cover-up covered up

Yesterday's news reports of the death of Matthew Stuart, brother of the locally notorious Charles Stuart, tended to share a minor but interesting inaccuracy.

In 1989, Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife on the way home from a childbirth class, blamed a (nonexistent) black assailant, and then, when his story fell apart, jumped off a bridge to his death before he could be arrested. But here's how the Globe (and a number of other news sources) described Matthew Stuart's role:
Matthew Stuart spent nearly three years in jail after pleading guilty to helping cover up the killing of Carole DiMaiti Stuart. He said he helped hide the gun believed to have been used by his brother, Charles Stuart, who blamed the crime on a black man.
Cambridge police have confirmed the death of Matthew Stuart, who helped his brother cover up the fatal shooting of his brother’s pregnant wife in 1989.
But of course Matthew and Charles didn't cover up the killing; it was reported instantly, by Charles Stuart himself, in a 911 call. They conspired and lied, but what they "covered up" was the evidence, not the shooting.

Journalism's rules account for some of the awkwardness in phrasing. We can’t call it "murder" or call Charles Stuart the killer, since he wasn’t charged and didn’t confess. So what’s the most economical edit that makes the report accurate? Is there a neater solution than "pleaded guilty to helping conceal evidence about the killing"?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

That's so cliche(d)!

Commenting on my "Cake or death?" post, Julia asked about my use of "so cliched":
I once used the word "cliched" in a college term paper. My prof drew a big red line through it and wrote "no such word!" next to it. ... Now it jumps off the page at me when someone uses it as you did in your post. Has the OED accepted it in the staggeringly long span I've been out of college? 
It has, Julia -- not that you need the OED's approval to use a word (and to call your prof arrogant and clueless). In 1989, just a few years after your college days, the Second Edition included the the adjective use of "cliched," citing a 1928 book by Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn): "There is no adjective but the cliché'd deafening that can fittingly describe the tornado of noise that had welcomed the recitation."

I don't know that anyone other than your teacher ever objected to cliched. But the adjective has stirred up some controversy in its more recent, Frenchy form: "That's so cliche!" I wrote about the innovation in 2003, after a  Globe reader complained about it; at the time, I said that
adjectival cliche is moving up fast. In expressions where there's a clear choice between cliche and cliched, the adjective is cliche about half the time. In most of those cases, it sneaks in by way of quotations - "It sounds cliche, but he really believed it'' (Miami Herald), or "I was brought up to love everybody, as cliche as that may sound'' (People magazine).* But it's not all spoken-word sloppiness: In the earliest citation I could find, a 1979 Washington Post review of the miniseries "Studs Lonigan,'' the writer himself says of father-son conflict, "It is an old cycle, so cliche it hurts.''
The OED was on to adjectival cliche in 1989, too, quoting the BBC's weekly, The Listener, from 1959: "The kind of fond reminiscence which comes rather too near the cliché view of human situations."

I have no idea what data I was relying on in my 2003 frequency estimate, but here's what Google Ngram Viewer has to say about so cliche vs. so cliched:

By now, I think, "so cliche" seems normal to a lot of younger speakers and writers. And I have a soft spot for it myself, as I confessed in that 2003 column, because it's such a natural choice: 
Though cliche came into English as a noun, it retains its French form -- and that form is a past participle, perfectly happy to be used as an adjective. English is full of such French words, some used as nouns (divorcee, souffle, negligee), others as adjectives (passe, flambe).
Even a stickler, it seems to me, might find it in his or her heart to approve so cliche

* There's no telling whether the source actually said "cliched" or "cliche," of course, but these instances show that the reporter and editor(s) all accepted so cliche as OK.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dipr need a change?

Over at Unclutterer, it’s Unitasker Wednesday, the day to make fun of a “helpful” device that has only one (limited) purpose – aside from its main function, that is, of lightening your wallet a bit.  Today’s pick, the Dipr, certainly qualifies; it’s a scary-looking hook designed to hold an Oreo (or other sandwich cookie) while you dip it into your glass of milk. 

But the Dipr may have another problem besides superfluity: Its name. When I read “The dipr” in the post’s headline -- lowercased, as in the logo* --  I was expecting something completely different: A new twist on, of course, the diaper.

None of the commenters had that reaction, though, so maybe it’s just my Midwestern accent leading me astray; where I come from, diaper is often two syllables, rhyming with (appropriately enough) wiper

*In my copyediting days, I opposed the common editorial impulse to approximate logo styles in print. You aren't required to cap IKEA or put a star (or asterisk) in Macy*s. As Bill Walsh put it in "The Elephants of Style," there was a time when "editors and even writers knew that logos are logos and English is English. 'You want all caps?' an ink-stained wretch with a green eyeshade might have asked. 'Go buy an ad!'"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cake or death?

Well, OK, it was really ice cream and death on the billboard I recently spotted along I-90 in western Pennsylvania, but how could I pass up an Eddie Izzard allusion? Anyway, the ad -- for a local ice cream shop -- promised this:

The ice cream probably is good (they can afford a billboard!), and in most circumstances, "to die for" is cliched enough that its literal sense is almost invisible. But to a potential customer who's speeding along the interstate at 65 or better -- to this one, anyway -- "to die for" isn't the most appealing pitch.

This reminded me of another encounter with unappetizing food language, earlier this year: At a San Francisco restaurant, one of the main course offerings was "Terrorized New York steak." Not even our local hosts could tell us what it meant; we wondered if it was some kind of invention based on "terroir," but that seemed unlikely at a restaurant that had carefully labeled one menu category with the plural form "Bruschette."

So what was it? The waiter explained that the animal itself was not terrorized (at least not by the chef); it was the steak that was handled roughly, first slathered with a strong blend of peppers and herbs, then charred on a hot grill. The violent language seemed incongruous in that health-minded, easygoing city, but apparently the recipe has been around for a while. Maybe nobody minds so long as they reserve the terror treatment for New York steaks.

And speaking of terror, how about that Vermont Country Store catalog? I've gotten used to the idea that the homey purveyor of old-time staples -- like other catalogs aimed at aging Americans -- is selling sex aids along with the bunion pads and caftans. But when you sell a "personal massager," for whatever part of the anatomy, it pays to be sensitive about language. You probably shouldn't keep insisting, for example, that the product boasts "pinpoint accuracy." (Ouch.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A last Word

I was holding off linking to my final Word column till the Boston Globe web team added hyperlinks, which has now happened. So I got scooped on my own farewell by John McIntyre (thanks for the kind words, John!)

Some of you knew already that I was thinking this 14th-anniversary month might be a good time to exit the print scene. I had cut back to alternate weeks back in late 2009, when Erin McKean joined me to coauthor the column.  And I missed quite a few weeks this summer; I've spent much of it in my Ohio hometown, first to see my ailing mom, then -- after she died in June -- to hang around the ancestral home basking in her (still palpable, still comforting) presence, and to help my brothers and sisters sort things out.

I'm not at all bored with (or bored of) the language beat, just with cranking out 800-word columns, which (however new the material -- and it's not always new enough) tend to be structurally repetitious. (I can't imagine how Bill Safire did it for 30 years.) So I hope I'll be blogging more consistently, once we settle into the new normal.

As for the column, Erin will keep contributing, but there's no word yet on who or what will fill the alternate weeks I've just vacated. Send nominees to the Ideas section editor, Steve Heuser, at; maybe he'll break down and confess that he's already signed my successor.

Sorry about the excess of parentheses here. See y'all soon!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

That '70s sew

This Simplicity sewing publication from 1973 – a thrift-store treasure discovered by my sister – is a hoot, especially for those of us old enough to remember boyfriends in suede bell-bottoms. But how would you interpret its title? 

At first glance, I took it to be a manual for males: "Sewing [Instructions] for Men and Boys." A second later, I thought, no, it’s from the ’70s – it must be “Sewing [Clothes] For Men and Boys [to Wear]." 

So I was impressed to find, on reading the introduction, that Simplicity was aware of – indeed, was embracing, tentatively – the ambiguity of its title. "If you’re a woman sewing for the men in the family, or if you’re a man making it on your own, we've written this book for you," it assured readers.  

But the women were getting jobs instead of sewing for the men in the family, their daughters were demanding admission to shop class instead of Home Ec., and that optimistic pun, "making it on your own," never really applied to sartorial ambition. In the end, we achieved equality by outsourcing our belt loops and buttonholes (and our hand-crafted bookends, too). We've come a long way, baby ... 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Peeving is not journalism

There have been several excellent responses* to the BBC's dimwitted attack on words it (often wrongly) labeled as Americanisms. But as a journalist, I especially enjoyed Gabe Doyle's critique (at Motivated Grammar) of the piece, including this summary:
I’ve been a bit preachy about journalistic integrity of late, but I have to say it once more. Journalism should never consist solely of asking people their opinions and then reporting it. Repeating lies (or mistakes) that are obviously lies (or mistakes) without noting that they do not fit with the truth is not journalism, or at least isn’t what journalism is supposed to be. Journalists are supposed to make truth clearer, not obscure it further behind popular opinion.  
Such offhand promotion of misinformation can happen anywhere, but I've always been especially peeved by the publication of letters to the editor that miscorrect a previously published assertion -- or letters that leave readers with no clue who was right. This offense seems to be less common than it once was, or maybe I'm just mellowing with age.

*Doyle's post links to several, if you haven't seen them yet. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Anachronistic yuks

I'm listening to "Radio Boston," a local show on public radio, do a segment about Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the string of parks and waterways we call the Emerald Necklace. Nice, until the three chatters began to chuckle about Olmsted's original name for the project: the Jeweled Girdle. "Racy," one of them called it.

Not really. For the first 900 years of its recorded history, girdle meant simply "A belt worn round the waist to secure or confine the garments; also employed as a means of carrying light articles, esp. a weapon or purse," says the OED. The tie around Brother Cadfael's robe, the belt on which the household keys are carried, a decorative sash -- all have been called girdles.

But the OED's first citation for girdle meaning a kind of elasticized corset worn below the waist  dates only to 1925. Since the Emerald Necklace project began in 1878, and Olmsted died in 1903, it seems very unlikely that he was acquainted with the girdle as an uncomfortable specimen of what we now call "shapewear." As for "racy," well, I'm guessing the guy who offered that opinion was thinking of a garter belt, an obsolete item (practically speaking) but one still considered sexy in some circles.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"25 Manners Kids Should Know"

When this tease popped up on a website, I thought, uh-oh, the headline writer goofed: 25 Manners Kids Should Know, it read.

But the usage was intentional, it turned out. The story -- at -- did indeed treat manners as a countable plural: "If you reinforce these 25 must-do manners, you'll raise a polite, kind, well-liked child." And yes, the 25 were enumerated singular by singular: "Manner #17: If you bump into somebody, immediately say 'Excuse me.'" "Manner #25: Don't reach for things at the table; ask to have them passed."

According to the OED, manners in this sense -- "A person's social behaviour or habits, judged according to the degree of politeness or the degree of conformity to accepted standards" -- was once also used as a singular. But even then, it seems to have been a mass noun, not a countable: "Thoughe thou do me good, it is not good maner to abrayde me therof" (1530).

I like to think I'm adaptable, languagewise; I'm fine with to parent and to nap (transitive: to put a baby down for a nap) and to verse (to play versus: "We're versing the Tigers").  But referring to picking one's nose or slurping one's soup as "a bad manner" -- that reminds me of the faraway pen pal who once wrote me, "I have a new for you." It may take me a while to get used to "he has five bad manners."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can "argue that" mean "argue against"?

As a fairly heavy user of the em dash, I was please to see Erin Brenner 's defense of it at Visual Thesaurus (responding to a rather heavy-handed Slate article that called for abolishing the punctuation mark entirely).

But Brenner herself used one construction I think is odd, and relatively new (decades old, that is, rather than centuries). Yes, that may be the Recency Illusion at work. But I suspect her usage is more acceptable to younger speakers of English. The construction in question:

I won't argue that writers sometimes overuse the em dash.

What Brenner means is (in my dialect), "I won't dispute that writers sometimes overuse the em dash." It's the Slate writer who "argues that writers [do] sometimes overuse the em dash"; Brenner is countering that argument. And for me, "to argue that" means only "to state the case for" something -- not to argue against it. The OED seems to agree, since there's no definition or example of "argue that" meaning "dispute that" or "argue against the notion that."

Judging from a quick look at Google News, it looks as if "argue that" for "dispute that" generally appears in the negative form -- "I certainly would not argue that providing the opportunity for someone to take time off if they're not feeling well is a good idea," for instance. So maybe the people who use it assume that the not is enough to reverse the sense of "argue that." Not for me! "She argues that the em dash is overused" means "she makes a case for its being overused"; but "she doesn't argue that the em dash is overused" means she doesn't make a case for its being overused  -- not that she doesn't dispute the claim of overuse.

The usage isn't all that common in edited prose, apparently, and I can't find any stylebook advice or commentary on the issue; anyone else?

Monday, June 13, 2011

That's what not to write

Back in January, fev at Headsup: The Blog had a funny post about the "that's what" ledes favored by a certain Detroit Free Press writer. Ledes like:
Heroin for grandma? 
That's what an international airline passenger told federal agents in Detroit this week after getting busted trying to sneak $50,000 worth of heroin into the country. 
He had a pretty funny collection, but today, reading the paper from my Ohio hometown,  I found one (on the front page, no less) that I think tops them all:
Severe diarrhea.
That's what Melissa Campbell's 15-month-old son, Mason Holden, had from Wednesday night until about 4 p.m. Saturday.* 
Yes, it really is a news story: The pharmacist mixed the toddler's antibiotic solution at twice the specified strength. The store realized its mistake, according to the report, and phoned the mother later that day, so no harm was done. (And diarrhea is a side effect of the medicine in any case.) 

But it's hard to think of a news story of any description (anywhere but The Onion) that would be well served by the lede "Severe diarrhea." 

*If that's not enough information for you, just keep reading. "I'm changing him every 30 minutes," the mother says later.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Even after a week of hearing Netanyahu’s claim that Israel’s 1967 borders are “indefensible,” I’m not quite used to hearing the word in its literal meaning – “Incapable of being defended by force of arms” (OED).

I've surely encountered the literal use before, but the figurative sense of indefensible looms much, much larger in my lexicon. And because the figurative use is so pejorative – not just “incapable of being defended in argument” but “unjustifiable, inexcusable” – I have to make a tiny but conscious adjustment to hear the word as Netanyahu intended it. 

Of course, given our different geopolitical situations, it could well be that the literal definition of indefensible is as dominant in Netanyahu's world as the figurative sense is in mine. 

I have no idea whether the Hebrew word has the same figurative use as the English one; can somebody enlighten me? 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hapless sign, or hapless honker?

In today's After Deadline blog, NYT usage monitor Philip Corbett corrects this sentence:
The minimum fine is $350, higher if one of those hapless "DON’T HONK" signs are nearby.
Corbett says: "Make it 'if one … is nearby.'"

Fine -- but I have a different problem here: Can a sign be "hapless"? That is, "destitute of 'hap' or good fortune; unfortunate, unlucky, luckless" (OED)? Surely it's the driver who's unlucky; it would also be OK to say "if, unluckily, one of those DON'T HONK signs is nearby."

I don't mean that "hapless" can never be applied to things; "work performed on the hapless London Plane trees" is fine, since the trees are indeed having an unlucky streak. But (in my idiom, anyway) the New York sign isn't itself hapless just because its location is unlucky for some cabdriver.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fish and chips served AP style

My column in yesterday's Globe was about the AP Stylebook's new food section; reading it took me back to my days editing the food section, back when it had three zones' worth of advertising. (That was then ...) Food, I see, remains a maddening area for copy editors. For instance, AP has Monterey Jack but lowercase pepper jack -- same cheese, same Jack, whoever he was, but one is capped and one is not.

The "French" list was odd, too: French bread, French toast, French dressing, but french fries, lowercase -- "because it refers to the style of cut, not the nation." Really? I know of French cut  (or frenched) green beans, those lengthwise slivers, but I've never heard of french cut (or frenched) potatoes, up or down. (And where does the style of cut come from, if not "the nation"?)

Also, perhaps because I've never used AP style on the job, I was surprised when definitions didn't accurately reflect the entry word's part of speech: alfresco is called "a meal eaten outdoors," for instance, and dredge (a verb!) is  "a cooking technique in which food is lightly coated with flour." Has this always been AP stylebook style?

Finally, yet more evidence that a stylebook (or dictionary) can't do it all. The photo above ran with my column, with the competing fil(l)et spellings differentiated in one common way (though not the way AP now does it). That "fillet" o' fish fits the official definition -- "a boneless cut" -- just fine, as far as it goes. But at the fishmonger's and on the menu, that piece of fish is not a fillet; the cross-section serving is commonly known as a steak.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Left hand, meet right hand

From the preview for the (subscription only) May issue of The Vocabula Review, emphasis added:
Perhaps nothing in the fetid grammatical atmosphere we are all breathing is more disturbing than the frequent presence of so-called singular they. This should be seen as plain error but is tolerated by some … ("Another Plea for Avoidance of 'Singular They,'" by Robert Hollander) 
The English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge -- a first-rate, if underappreciated writer -- believed success could be had only in second-rate pursuits -- like becoming a millionaire or a prime minister. First-rate pursuits involved "trying to understand what life is about" and therefore must inevitably result in a sense of failure. Thus could a Napoleon or a Roosevelt feel themselves successful, but a Socrates, never. (“Too Wretched for Words,” by Christopher Orlet)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"No word for adultery"

In the current (May 16) New Yorker, a review of Sarah Vowell's "Unfamiliar Fishes" describes early missionaries to Hawaii as
... wan New Englanders confronted with a people whose language lacked a word for adultery. (Their approximation: "Mischievous mating.") 
The "no word for adultery" is Vowell's conceit, apparently, and I haven't tried to check its accuracy. But what immediately struck me is that "mischievous mating" is about a million times more descriptive than "adultery." How did a word like that come to mean "illicit sex with a married person?"

(Now I'll go look it up.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Where is pointer, where is pointer?

Yeah, I know you've probably moved on from royal-wedding-land, but I didn't watch it, so I'm catching up slowly, via print. Anyway, I was checking the text of the vows the other day when I ran across this very odd report:
Prince William then slipped the ring on the bride's index finger.*
Not very traditional, and also not true, judging by this AP photo:

I don't know anything about the source, International Business Times, except what I see on the website, but it doesn't seem to have any obvious problems with standard English. But I don't think I've ever seen "index finger" substituted for "ring finger" before. Anyone else?

* I hope you weren't expecting me to complain about "on" for "onto." 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Annals of prescriptivism: Remit

I’ve lately turned to crosswords as an insomnia remedy, so at last I’m getting familiar with the standard puzzle lexicon (ASTA, NOLO, LYE, SLOE, etc.). I wouldn’t have guessed REMIT would be on the list, but I’ve seen it twice this month in the NYT puzzle, both times with the same "send a payment" sense as a clue.

Remit caught my eye because, thanks to Ambrose Bierce, I know of its brief career as a usage shibboleth. For a few decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “send a check” sense of the verb was roundly disparaged by American usage mavens. Here is Richard Grant White, who knew how to rant, writing in “Words and Their Uses,” 1870:
Remit. — Why should this word be thrust continually into the place of send? In its proper sense, to send back, and hence to relax, to relinquish, to surrender, to forgive, it is a useful and respectable word; but why one man should say to another, I will remit you the money, instead of, I will send you the money, it would be difficult to say, did we not so frequently see the propensity of people for a big word of which they do not know the meaning exactly, in preference to a small one that they have understood since childhood.
J. H. Long, “Slips of Tongue and Pen,” 1889:
Do not use remit for send. Remit means to send back, to relax, to surrender, to forgive. "To send a remittance," is still worse.
Albert Newton Raub, “Helps in the Use of Good English,” 1897:
Remit for send. — The word remit means to "send again," or "to send back," and there seems to be no good reason why it should be used for the word send. If one were to comply literally with the request to remit when a bill is sent, he would send the bill back instead of paying it. The word has, however, found a place in commercial transactions from which it could be dislodged with difficulty.
Ambrose Bierce, “Write It Right,” 1909:
Remit for Send. "On receiving your bill I will remit the money." Remit does not mean that; it means give back, yield up, relinquish, etc. It means, also, to cancel, as in the phrase, the remission of sins.
You’ve got the usual objections here: The imputation that people who use the word are trying to sound fancy; the assertion that remit “doesn’t mean” what people are using it to mean; the lament that it’s business jargon, polluting the pure stream of noncommercial English.

But the outbreak of peeving didn't spread far. Robert Palfrey Utter, in “Every-Day Words and Their Uses” (1916), administered a dose of reality:
The facts do not bear out the assertion that "remit should not be used in place of send; remit means to send back." Remit does not mean send back except in the phrases now rare, remit  to prison, remit to custody. It does not mean send in ordinary senses, but has the special meaning to send money or valuables, used either with direct and indirect objects, as, "Remit me a hundred dollars," or absolutely, as, "He was compelled to remit," "Please remit."
How right he was:  The OED has remit meaning “To send or transfer (something, esp. money) to a person or place” dated to 1545-44, when it appeared in the Statutes of the Realm in the reign of Henry VIII, and in continuous use ever since. But quotes from Johnson, Jefferson, and Macaulay would  not, perhaps, have persuaded the most committed peevologists; remit probably survived not because of its pedigree but because (as Raub noted) it had made itself useful as a term of commerce.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Weeding, weaning, winnowing

In my Globe column Sunday, I looked at the spreading use of wean out in cases where I would have expected weed out. And I briefly mentioned the short-lived controversy over whether weaned on was proper English -- certain sticklers having claimed you could be weaned from mother’s milk, but not weaned on anything.

Too briefly, said reader Russ Greene, who wondered how I could have omitted the famous quip attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, that Calvin Coolidge looked as if he’d been “weaned on a pickle."

I have no excuse; I just didn't think of it. It's a great line, even though, as Greene noted, Longworth did not claim credit for the witticism; she heard it at her doctor’s office, as she recounts in her 1933 memoir, “Crowded Hours”: 

When I came in he was grinning with amusement and said, “Mrs. Longworth, the patient who has just left said something that I am sure will make you laugh. We were discussing the President, and he remarked, ‘Though I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr. Coolidge, I do wish he did not look as if he had been weaned on a pickle.’” Of course I shouted with pleasure and told every one, always carefully giving credit to the unnamed originator, but in a very short time it was attributed to me.*

In other wean/weed commentary, a couple of readers have suggested that wean out (in the sense “weed out”) could be short for winnow out, which would make more sense semantically. For some reason that doesn't sound plausible to me – because winnow doesn’t sound all that much like wean? Because winnow is less common in spoken English? But I don't know enough to evaluate the idea; maybe a Real Linguist will give us some help in the comments.

*"Crowded Hours" is available at Google Books, but I first found Longworth's account in Ralph Keyes's invaluable book, "The Quote Verifier." Barry Popik's etymology website, The Big Apple, quotes two reports from 1924 that attribute the witticism to Longworth. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Word: Isinglass

In my last post (on some British vocabulary) I mentioned blancmange, giving the first part of the definition from the (century-old) Century Dictionary. It’s worth quoting in full:
Blancmange: In cookery, a name of different preparations of the consistency of jelly, variously composed of dissolved isinglass, arrowroot, corn-starch, etc., with milk and flavoring substances. It is frequently made from a marine alga, Chondrus crispus, called Irish moss, which is common on the coasts of Europe and North America. The blancmanger mentioned by Chaucer in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1. 387, was apparently a compound made of capon minced with flour, sugar, and cream.
One of the commenters, Gil, didn’t see how the isinglass he knew could be edible:
I dunno where that cockamamie reference book got isinglass and such. Who today knows what isinglass is? I have seen some as a kid -- it's a transparent sort of quartz that can be split into thin sheets (and used for windows on the surrey with the fringe on top). … I don't think the FDA would approve of an isinglass pudding nowadays.
Like Gil, I knew the isinglass that was translucent (and a feature of the pretty little surrey in the song from “Oklahoma!”). But I also vaguely knew it was an animal product. So what is it really?

It’s both. The original isinglass (first OED cite 1545) is "a firm whitish semitransparent substance (being a comparatively pure form of gelatin) obtained from the sounds or air-bladders of some fresh-water fishes, esp. the sturgeon; used in cookery for making jellies, etc., also for clarifying liquors, in the manufacture of glue, and for other purposes." The word may be “a corruption or imperfect imitation of an obsolete Dutch huisenblas (Kilian huysenblase, huysblas), German hausenblase isinglass, lit. ‘sturgeon's bladder.’”

Two centuries later, the second sense of isinglass appears: “A name given to mica, from its resembling in appearance some kinds of isinglass.”

Whether this isinglass could be used in curtains that would "roll right down, in case there's a change in the weather" is still being debated. Luckily for me (and you), Joel Segal, a bookseller in England, looked into the matter quite thoroughly in January at his blog. The fish-based isinglass, he reports, "was a versatile and expensive commercial product, used as a gum, a food gelling agent, as the sticking medium for surgical plasters, as stiffener for cloth, as a sealant for preserving eggs, and for making mock pearls."

The other isinglass, he says, is
the transparent variety -- otherwise called muscovite -- of the mineral mica. In some parts of world, notably Russia (hence the name muscovite -- i.e. pertaining to Moscow), it's found in large enough sheets to make small window panes, so it was historically used for applications where tough, slightly flexible, heat-resistant, transparent material was needed, such as furnace or lantern windows.
But in actual usage, he finds, the two substances -- both now unfamiliar -- have often been conflated or confused. Thanks for all your research, Joel!