Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can your dishwasher do this?

Today's Home section of the NY Times has this wonderful caption:
TIME TRAVELER Peter McGough, half of the art duo McDermott & McGough, has traded the 1800s for a life of modernity. Now he has appliances. On the wall, a painting by them. 
(The caption isn't in the online story, though the accompanying slideshow has a longer and more comprehensible version of it.)

In other language news, I learned today from Ben Zimmer -- posting about catfishing and gaslighting at Visual Thesaurus* -- that a few people labor under the illusion that droll means dull. Ben quotes a man in the documentary movie "Catfish":
And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.
I had never come across this, but Ben pointed me to Bryan Garner, who mentions the mistake for the first time in the third edition (2009) of Garner's Modern American Usage: "Perhaps because the words look and sound a bit similar, droll is sometimes misused as a synonym for dull." Garner says this misuse is at Stage 1 of his Language-Change Index, meaning it's (all but universally) "rejected."

OK, I'll second that rejection (for as long as possible), but I have my usual question about the never-before-seen Stage 1 encroachments Garner unearths: How widespread are they really? Is droll for dull as rare as I think, or have I just not been paying attention? 

*And also, in greater depth, in his newest Boston Globe column.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I have certainly never seen it - but two anecdotes are not, as they say, data.

John Burgess said...

Nope, never seen/heard it either.

Kay L. Davies said...

I'd like to have an dishwasher that doubles as an artist. I could send it out to work by day, and have it home washing dishes every night.
I've never seen anyone use "droll" instead of "dull" and, in the Catfish example, both words are used in the same sentence, so the writer obviously didn't think them synonymous.

Bryan White said...

Sadly, my dishwasher hasn't demonstrated any painting skills. It has, however, composed a few sonnets and - if you get the setting just right - it sometimes play the violin during the rinse cycle ;)

Bryan White said...

@Kay: It's possible that they don't think "droll" and "dull" are the same (Although I have frequently seen people pair up synonymous adjectives in a list before. Heck, I've probably done it myself), but at any rate, don't you find it odd that they're even using the term in a somewhat derogatory sense, as part of description of the boring we would all supposedly be without the catfish around? That has to indicate something, does it not?

Bryan White said...

That should say.

"...part of the description of the boring people..."

Woof! I really wish blogger had a comment editing feature.

Marc Leavitt said...

I find it droll that anyone thinks the word is dull.

empty said...

I'm trying to imagine the process by which someone might wrongly figure that "droll" means something like "dull". Guesswork, incorrect. Maybe something to do with the fact that humor or comedy described as "droll" tends to be deadpan.

Gregory Lee said...

The theory that "droll" is misused to mean the same as "dull" is, so far as I can tell, not supported by any evidence so far mentioned. I agree with Kay L. Davies that the Catfish example shows nothing of the sort. My own best effort to characterize my understanding of the word is "said of an odd attempt to be amusing", so I have no problem finding a derogatory sense to it.

Michael Gilbert-Koplow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Gilbert-Koplow said...

I find Garner close to useless.

Michael Gilbert-Koplow said...

Yick! I'm embarrassed about and ashamed of the comment I left yesterday--it was just a fancy way of saying "Garner sux!!" I hate those comments. I was in a hurry, and I apologize.

My dislike for Garner is based on his chapter in the Chicago manual. It's snobbish: "The words someone uses and the way they go together tell us something about the education and background of that person" (CMS 16, sec. 5.217). "Gentleman" is a "vulgarism" (usage glossary s.v. "gentleman"). In spite of his pontificating about "the careful writer," he's careless. Again from the listing for "gentleman": "When used in reference to a cultured, refined man, it is susceptible to some of the same objections as those leveled against lady...Cf. lady." And when you go to the listing for lady, there are no objections that apply to gentleman that aren't already in the gentleman listing. It's inane. "The verb is the most essential part of speech--the only one that can express a thought by itself (with the subject understood) {Run!} {Enjoy!} {Think!})" (5.95, curly brackets in original). Why? We don't know, and he doesn't tell us. Neither does his very own usage book. It pretty much just amounts to "Verbs are cool!!"

I've posted some trifles about Garner, and some day I'm finally going to post my complete screed.

Let me summarize by saying I don't have much use for Garner's stuff.

auntiecoagualant said...

I'm surprised so few people have encountered the word droll being misused, I rarely see it actually used correctly. Just this week I was reading a story on r/nosleep and the author used it to mean dull. Someone also used it wrong in r/lounge as well, and that's just on one website!