Thursday, May 9, 2013

Making it up at the Wall St. Journal

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger tries a little grammatico-rhetorical analysis in his critique of Obama's Sunday speech at Ohio State:
The job market, he said, is "steadily healing." An adverb fronting a gerund; talk doesn't get any weaker than that.
Wait, aren't we all supposed to think that the passive voice is the wimpiest wording in the English language?  But leave that aside. Ignore, as well, the fact that in a grammar that distinguishes between gerunds and participles -- the grammar Henninger and I learned in school -- Obama's "healing" is a participle.

No, what's interesting is the Henninger's idea that the grammatical combination itself -- adverb modifying participle -- results in a "weak" expression, regardless of content. Yes, there are writers who make a fetish of disdaining adverbs. But even Elmore Leonard probably wouldn't argue that "[is] steadily healing" is somehow weaker than "[is experiencing a] steady recovery" (adjective, noun). 

And what if the economy happened to be “rapidly improving” or “audibly humming” or “still booming”? Are those adverb-participle combos examples of talk that "doesn't get any weaker than that"? "Steadily healing" may be an optimistic description of a limping economy, but there's nothing inherently "weak" about the grammatical structure of the phrase.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

DARE to struggle, DARE to win?

This recent "Big Nate" strip took me back to my Ohio childhood, and to those exciting occasions when a box of assorted chocolates made its appearance at our table. With five kids competing for the "good" candies, there were a fair number of disappointments (maple nut! mystery fruit jelly!) and frequent attempts to return these rejects, poked or slightly bitten, to their little fluted cups. At which point another kid was sure to say, "No spitbacks!"

(In Nate's case, I guess it would be "No sniffbacks!")

And what does spitback have to do with DARE, the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional Usage? Well, when I went to check the status of spitback -- real Midwestern word or just family usage? -- DARE was the first place I looked. It wasn't there, nor in my slang dictionaries, which only gave the later (carburetor-, drug-, and sex-related) senses.

I emailed DARE's editor, Joan Houston Hall, to ask if the word had shown up in the project's files after the S volume was printed. No, she said, "but your comment has just been filed so that we can include this if we're able to update the text." And she has a lead on it: "I do remember that one staff member has told of her grandmother's going through a new box of chocolates, poking a hole in the bottom of each before deciding which one to choose. I'll see if she had a name for it."

But her if, as you've probably heard, is a very big if. DARE has completed its print edition, but to publish online and keep updating its research, it needs money, and funding is falling short. Aside from the Oxford English Dictionary and a couple of fine slang dictionaries, I can't think of another reference work I'd rather see in a searchable online format. So I've made a donation (the DARE website takes you to the relevant University of Wisconsin form), and I hope you will too. (And think about possible angels; wouldn't Garrison Keillor, regionalist and word lover, be a great spokesman, even if he is a Minnesotan?) 

Back to spitback. My search continued on the Web, where I did eventually find a couple of cites that suggest the word was not our family's coinage. "Valentine gift-giving is complicated," one blogger advised:
Rung Two on the Chocolate ladder is inhabited by Godiva, Esther Price, Fanny Farmer and Sees. You can’t go wrong with these, unless you dive in, take a bite and leave a spitback -- before she opens up the box. 
Another online commenter asked, "How many of those candies are spitbacks? You know, you take a little bite off a candy, make a face and put it back?"  And there are clues (though not conclusive ones) that both hail from Chicago, near enough for a connection to Northern Ohio speech.

But as this meager sample shows, spitback is fading away. My sister says even her kids (still Ohioans) don't know it -- perhaps because candy nowadays is regularly available in bars and individually wrapped bites, so an assortment is a rare and not so special treat. If you've heard the word, I hope you'll let me know, and Joan Houston Hall as well. It deserves to be in DARE, and DARE deserves a shining place in the online firmament.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Who'll take charge?

Until this morning, the only reference to the impending Kentucky Derby I had noticed was John McIntyre's annual guide to the concoction of a mint julep. Then I opened today's Wall Street Journal and promptly misread a headline:

17 Reasons Not to Bet on Will Take Charge

"Not to Bet on," I thought. "Wow, Thoroughbred names just keep getting stranger."

But the piece was not about why a horse called Not to Bet on will take charge in this year's race. It was advice to readers not to bet on the horse called Will Take Charge.  (The "17 reasons" are really one reason: He's the "unlucky" horse starting at post position 17, the only position that has never launched a winner. Well, it's not science, it's horse racing.)

Fellow journalists will have noticed that the headline is an argument in favor of "down" style in headlines, using caps sparingly rather than capitalizing most headline words as the Journal and the NYT do. In a down-style paper like the Boston Globe, the headline would have read

17 reasons not to bet on Will Take Charge

And voila -- the story may still be fanciful, but the headline ambiguity has evaporated.