Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The outage outrage

Nick Kristof, call your editor. The two of you committed a language gaffe -- by Times standards, at least -- in your Nov. 22 column. But I doubt that any ordinary New York Times readers saw the problem in your third paragraph:
A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy -- and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I’m feeling less snarky than jealous!
I wouldn't have noticed it either, had I not learned of the issue two days earlier in the Times’s weekly After Deadline blog. Commenting on a reference to “storm damage and power outages,” Philip Corbett, the paper's standards editor, said, “The utilities prefer this euphemism, but we should call them what they are: blackouts or power failures.”

Outage is a euphemism? In decades of editing and peeve-watching, I've never seen that nit picked. But Corbett is just enforcing the Times style guide, which (in the book version, published 1999) calls outage “jargon and a euphemism for failure, shutdown or cutoff.”

I couldn’t find much support for this notion in the usage archives, but one source went into it deeply enough that I suspect it of starting the anti-outage movement. That source is the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris. In the second edition, published in 1977, the authors go into the outage question in detail:
One winter our town was hit by a particularly damaging sleet storm, with the result that we were without light and heat for five days. Partly out of understandable vexation at the hardships resulting, we expressed our displeasure at the term used by the electric light company to cover the situation. It was, they said, a ‘power outage.’ We thought ‘power failure’ would be more expressive – and said so.
The authors don’t say where they expressed their displeasure -- perhaps in the first edition of their Dictionary, 10 years earlier -- but in response, they say, “a knowledgeable reader wrote,” and they print his comment:
An outage is not a synonym for “power failure.” In the electrical generating industry, the term covers any situation in which equipment is not functioning; it means simply “The equipment is out.” It might be out for maintenance, improvement or replacement, as well as for breakdowns in service due to malfunction, accidents or acts of nature …
Knowledgeable Reader has a very plausible analysis of the situation:
I’m of the opinion that this bit of industrial jargon has moved from power plant usage to application throughout the industry and only recently into the vocabulary of the information media. Of course, the mass media’s uses would be during times when the public was inconvenienced and doubtless irritated by unplanned, accidental outages. Perhaps that more restrictive application has resulted in the unfavorable connotation and impression, as you seem to have implied, that outage is a euphemism.
KR points out that this use of outage was newish in general usage and associated with a special lexicon, both traits that can arouse word rage. Indeed, in 1977, not long after the Morrises encountered their outage, the Times heard from a reader not enchanted with the novel usage:
Re: “Outage” -- a new word.  In the “age” of lawlessness there should be no shortage of courage in dealing with an “outage” spawning “lootage” by “loutage.” The system demands “stoppage” or there may be no system to salvage. 
And the Morrises, as I read them, accept the Knowlegeable Reader's point of view. They don't press their case against outage; they give KR the last word. And they don't mention outage at all in the second edition of their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985).

But it's harder to kill a peeve than to invent it. Some editor apparently took the Morrises' initial rant to heart, and kept the animus alive long enough to infect a contributor to the Times style manual -- and now it's online, trolling for new fans. Here's hoping it fails; this misbegotten peeve has earned its current obscurity.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Keeping the "suck" in "successful"

I’ve heard accessories called “assessories,” and succinct pronounced “sussinct” (not so often, but then it’s not so common a word), and flaccid started down the road to flassidity so long ago that the wrong pronunciation is now right. (That is, all our dictionaries list it, some as the majority usage.) Still, most English words with this Latin-derived double-c -- originally pronounced kk, as John Wells explains at his phonetics blog – continue to sound the cc as ks: accident, success, vaccinate.

But just as there’s no apparent reason for succinct to change its sound, there’s no way to know when another new pronunciation may appear. A couple of weeks ago, I had my first encounter with the nouveau successful, pronounced “sussessful.” The speaker was a caller to “On Point,” WBUR-FM’s talk show, who hailed from White House, Tenn., and who predicted an electoral victory for Mitt Romney. Why? “He’s a sussessful governor and a sussessful businessman as well.”

Yes, he had a Southern accent, but my Southern-speaking friend doesn’t recognize this as a regional thing, and of course it could be idiosyncratic. Anyone else out there hearing – or saying – “sussessful”?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fighting off the 'were'-wolves

It's a good day, with the sun shining again and, over at Lingua Franca, a post by Geoff Pullum addressing Philip Corbett’s unnecessary anxiety about the was vs. were choice in the New York Times's columns.

As Pullum notes, many of us waffle on the choice of was or were in the subjunctive, or irrealis, construction. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Swift, Byron, Thackeray, Frost, and other worthies opting for was where a purist would use were. (Byron: "I wish H. was not so fat.") 

Like these august writers, and like many educated users of English, I go back and forth in actual usage. I learned early on that it was OK to be blasé about was vs. were, thanks to Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). Back in the mid-20th century, a lot of language authorities thought the subjunctive were was dying, and the Evanses were among them: "Was has been used as a past subjunctive in literary English for more than three hundred years and is the preferred form today." 

It's unlikely the Evanses had statistical proof for that "preferred form" judgment, and I doubt that it's even true. But given the number of subjunctive wases they saw in educated writing, they were confident in saying there were only two constructions in which were was clearly preferred: "If I were you," more or less a fixed phrase, and the literary "were I in a desert." 

We haven't abandoned subjunctive were as quickly as the midcentury mavens predicted. But if it disappeared overnight, as Pullum points out, there would be no loss of clarity; for other English verbs, the irrealis form is already the same as the simple past, or preterite: "If he had the money, he'd buy a generator." Is there any example in print of a failure to use the irrealis were causing genuine ambiguity? I don't think I've ever seen even a made-up example.*

By contrast, the recent blending of may and might – saying “if he had a raft, he may have survived” when you know that he didn’t survive -- can cause actual misunderstanding. (Way back in 2002 and 2003, Language Hat was bemoaning the development: "One of the changes going on in English that distresses me the most ... is the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past 'might have.'") Yet the takeover by may continues, and few notice the ambiguity. 

Why, then, should the meaningless was/were distinction persist, where no ambiguity ensues? I guess it's just one of those quirks of peevology.

*The myth of the "misplaced" only, on the other hand, has inspired dozens of made-up examples of alleged ambiguity, of the "I ate only the almonds/I ate the only almonds" genre. Yet I''m still waiting for a reader to show me an edited, printed example of an ambiguously placed only.