Monday, February 27, 2012

A mind-buggering mystery

Last Friday on "On Point," the WBUR talk show, panelists were discussion the violent response to the burning of Korans in Afghanistan when that day's host, Mike Pesca, chimed in: "This buggers my mind," he said.

Did he mean to say "boggles my mind"? Maybe, maybe not. It buggers the/my mind gets 50-some  Google hits, and mind-buggering (combining hyphened and hyphenless spellings) nets roughly 300. Mind-buggering could be an eggcorn* -- an inadvertent reanalysis of the idiom -- but it's impossible to tell; mind-buggering, at least for English speakers who use bugger to mean "mess with, screw up," would be a perfectly logical expression. But Americans don't use that bugger much; I wonder how it sounded to the public radio audience.

My research into the term, however, turned up an even more interesting question. Did Douglas Adams use the term mind-buggering in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"? Several citations from bloggers credit him with the coinage, and a couple of PDFs of (what seems to be) the text show the relevant paragraphs -- the arrival of the Vogons, Ch. 3 --  reading thus (my bold):
"What the hell's that?" [Arthur] shrieked.
Whatever it was raced across the sky in monstrous yellowness, tore the sky apart with mind-buggering noise and leapt off into the distance leaving the gaping air to shut behind it with a bang that drove your ears six feet into your skull.
But the editions available (and searchable) on Amazon have it as "tore the sky apart with mind-boggling noise and leapt off into the distance." So if you've got an early edition of the book at hand -- or any other clues to the authenticity of that "mind-buggering" version -- please share.

* Mind-buggering is not in the Eggcorn Database, but the Forum section of the site offers examples of many other mind-boggling variants, including mind-bugling, mind-buckling,  mind-blogging, mind-bungling, and mind-bottling. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Did you hear the one about "hysterical"?

After a reader e-mailed me, a few years back, to explain that only God could be said to “create” anything -- the rest of us, his teachers insisted, can only make, fabricate, and build -- I thought I’d heard everything in the weird-peeve department. But Henry Hitchings, of all people, is nurturing a language prejudice almost as eccentric. I learned of it from a review of his latest book, “The Language Wars,” in the Wall Street Journal, where Barton Swaim writes that Hitchings
knows that the meanings of words change over time, and rightly deplores the conceit of those "fusspots" who berate people for incorrect usages, but "I wince," he admits, "when 'hysterical' is used as a synonym for 'hilarious.' "
I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of word peeves in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across this one. Surely Hitchings, who’s still in his 30s, has never lived in a world where hysterical didn’t mean “funny.” So where did he learn to wince at it?

It's true that hysterical "funny" is not especially ancient. The OED didn't add a listing for the sense until 1993, with the earliest example from Mario Pei in 1969:  "To describe something as really funny, a woman will use 'hysterical'." As, indeed, Elizabeth Janeway did in her 1943 novel, “The Walsh Girls”:
She had never seen anything so funny in the world as Alice's face when Connie called her a bitch. It was the funniest thing that could have happened. It was hysterical.
But it wasn't just women. Google Books also finds the usage in Vincent Price's “I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography‎” (1959):
The evening was a plodding delight . . . plodding because I was determined to find something hysterical in every word she said, and when I left … I felt like an idiot because she hadn’t been that funny.
Hysterically funny, the long form of our "hilarious" hysterical, shows up quite a bit earlier. This example from an 1886 short story may be transitional – the narrator is both trying to amuse a young woman and being driven slightly crazy:
My behaviour was often fatuously absurd. Anon I became hysterically funny. Altogether I compared very unfavourably with the bright and facile Stephen.
But in this report from the City College Quarterly, about a student play performed in 1913, hysterically clearly means “exceedingly”:
In particular, David Grant and David Bogen distinguished themselves for remarkable acting. … Mr. Bogen's antics and falsetto voice were hysterically funny.
As it does in this story in Boy’s Life, 1936:
“Funny, aren’t you?” said Alan. "Screamingly, hysterically funny," Happy agreed pleasantly.
You might be guessing, about now, that hysterical is a British nit, but no; none of the usual 20th-century guidebooks, British or American, mention the usage, though a couple of reference works label it informal. In fact, I found just one writer who condemns it: Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, who seems to have launched a campaign to restore the purity of hysterical.

Don’t use it to mean "funny," she advised in "The Grammar Devotional" (2009). "Hysterical means 'excited.'" And she made hilarious/hysterical one of the confusable word pairs in her 2011 book, "Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again."  "People will say 'hysterical' when they think something is funny," she told Neal Conan in an NPR broadcast.
But hysterical actually means excited in a negative way … when you're saying someone is hysterical, it's like, you know, hysterical laughter after a bank robbery when everyone is freaking out.
I doubt that Fogarty and Hitchings influenced each other; more likely, there's a lurking anti-hysterical movement out there, a scattering of teachers or editors hoping to reverse this previously uncontroversial extension of the word's meaning. Or is it not so tiny? If you've ever been cautioned about using hysterical to mean "hilarious," please let us hear the particulars. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Dickens's fine point

Ben Zimmer has a terrific piece at Visual Thesaurus on Charles Dickens's many contributions (slang and otherwise) to the English language. And among the locutions he credits Dickens with introducing or popularizing is one whose origins I've tried, unsuccessfully, to discover: "Not to put too fine a point upon it," meaning "not to mince words," which is, as Ben notes, a favorite expression of Mr. Snagsby in "Bleak House."

What is the literal origin of this "fine point" (if any?). Here's a chunk of the Boston Globe column I wrote in 2009 asking that  question. (I omit the paragraph in which I inaccurately called Henry James a fan of "not to put too fine a point on it."  Well, he should have been!)
It's tempting to read the phrase as a pen-based metaphor, an explanation offered at the British etymology site The Phrase Finder: "I would imagine it has its origins in either pencils or quill pens which would be used for delicate work if sharpened to a fine point, but for cruder stuff if left blunt.'' But no other source seconds that appealing theory.
I thought the answer was about to emerge last month, when Patricia O'Conner wrote about the phrase at her Grammarphobia blog. But no: She is as baffled as everyone else. "The OED describes the usage as figurative,'' she reports, "but doesn't say exactly what the figure is. Go figure.''
As she says, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't give the answer, but it does offer clues: In the entry for fine, the cross-reference for "put too fine a point'' (listed under point) appears under the sense of fine applied to tools and weapons: "sharp-pointed, keen-edged.'' The figurative examples come from Shakespeare ("blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure,'' 1600) and Bacon ("the finer edges or points of wit,'' 1622). These uses blend the idea of a sharp tool with a refined apprehension, and other early uses of "fine point'' share that notion. 
These examples are often positive, not negative; today, we're always not putting too fine a point on it, but that wasn't always the case. For instance, in an 1842 issue of The Knickerbocker, a New York literary monthly, a writer sardonically advised readers, "If any passage appears to you as dull, consider it a piece of latent wit, whose point is too fine for your obtuse perceptions.''
And the Warren Street Chapel, according to an 1861 "Historical Sketch of Boston,'' was not only a refuge for the destitute: "It aims also to benefit those who, 'to put a fine point upon it,' are in less favored circumstances as regards the means of a true culture.''
If a fine point is a delicate bit of wit or observation, "too fine a point'' implies language that is too refined for the immediate purpose, more polite than the object deserves. This sense seems to emerge seamlessly from earlier figurative uses of fine and point, without reference to anything so concrete as a quill and penknife. If it's more opaque now than it was to earlier writers, that may be because we're far less concerned with gradations of subtlety.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

You can't bring it with you (or maybe you can)

Like any enforcer of an institutional style, the New York Times’s Philip Corbett has to defend certain distinctions well into their obsolescence. One of his probably-lost causes came up in a December After Deadline blog post:
A Met official took the stage to say Ms. White had suffered a short fall and was brought to the hospital.*

Here’s what the stylebook says:

bring, take. Use bring to mean movement toward the speaker or writer; take means movement away from the speaker or writer (in fact, any movement that is not toward the speaker or writer). So the Canadian prime minister cannot be bringing a group of industrialists to a conference in Detroit, except in an article written from Detroit.
I grew up following this rule -- or, rather, not knowing there was any other way to use bring and take;  you bring something with you when you come, and take it when you go. And when I asked Boston Globe readers about their usage, in a 1998 column ($ except for subscribers), 73 percent said they did it my way.

But over the years I've gotten used to hearing bring where I would say take -- "I'll bring this to New York," for instance, spoken by a husband sitting next to me in Boston. And even when I was still suspicious of that bring, it was clear that bring and take often hovered on an imaginary threshold, with only the speaker knowing which point of view was assumed: "Shall we bring/take an umbrella?" (See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage for a thorough and sympathetic analysis.)

I don't think I'm alone in my growing tolerance for that minority use of bring, because I keep seeing it in respectable publications. I haven't gone looking for examples, but the usage is still odd enough to my ear that I (sometimes) notice it; here are a few cites I've clipped in the past year or so.
This week, I tested three computer mice that laptop users will actually want to bring along with them. (Katherine Boehret, Wall Streeet Journal, January 2011)
Burch wraps up a slice of cake and two cupcakes for me to bring home to my daughter. (Daphne Merkin, NYT T Magazine, December 2011)
So Wayne and Judy took over their son’s care, bringing him [from Memphis] first to a premier brain-injury center in Atlanta  ... and then to a clinic in Destin, Fla. (Jeneen Interlandi, NYT Magazine, December 2011)
[If the world were going to end in December 2012] I’d love to bring my family to the Serengeti to see migrating herds of zebra and gazelles. (Scott Simon, WSJ, January 2012)
And here's one that uses both verbs alternately:
Bring This Checklist with You Next Time You’re Apartment Hunting
Just print it out and take it with you when you're at an apartment showing ... You may also want to bring your camera along so you can take a few photos.
(Adam Dachis,, January 2012)
[Edited to add this example, 2/2/2012:]
At some point, most adoptive families do bring their children back to China.  (Good Housekeeping magazine, January 2012)
I haven't seen an example yet in the New Yorker, but it sure looks as if certain NYT and WSJ editors think bring sounds normal in these contexts. I'm not there yet myself, but since I'm no longer a working editor, I don't plan to lose any sleep over the question.

* I'd make it "had suffered a short fall and was (had) been brought to the hospital," but Corbett didn't comment on the lack of parallelism.