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Hello, goodbye, hello again

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 4, 2010 09:47 PM
The Word blog is moving to a new neighborhood and taking a new name. Come see me at Throw Grammar From the Train, subtitled Notes From a Recovering Nitpicker, and we'll pick some nits together.  

Crash blossoms: Christmas edition

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 24, 2009 03:20 PM
Over at Headsup: The Blog a few days ago, fev found a headline from the Columbus Dispatch confusing:

Children's major player in tumor war

Having lived around Boston for decades, I had no trouble interpreting it; I'm sure there have been plenty of Globe headlines that referred to our Children's Hospital the same way. But it reminded me of a headline that did mystify me, several years ago, in one of the suburban weeklies:

Fate of Infant Jesus unclear

Wait, what? Isn't the fate of Infant Jesus one thing Christians of all stripes have pretty much agreed on, at least in its broad strokes?

But reading on, I found that Brookline had a Catholic church called Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence, one of the churches the archdiocese put on the list for closing in 2004, and one whose parishioners were putting up a fuss. If the church had been St. Paul's or St. Mary's, there wouldn't have been even a whisper of ambiguity. As it was, the paper produced one of my all-time favorite crash blossoms.

Moderating the (sometimes) immoderate

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 21, 2009 09:01 PM

I liked Grant Barrett and Mark Leibovich's Buzzwords report in yesterday's Times -- especially the fact that they included the useful crash blossom on the list, and that they didn't suggest that salahi has any future as a verb meaning "crash a party." (A slippery word like salahied ousting the satisfyingly concrete and crunchy gatecrashed? Not gonna happen. And no, crash blossom is not an epithet for Mrs. Salahi.)

Even better, though, was Barrett's online talkback to some of the commenters on the piece, who'd been invited to contribute buzzwords (but often chose peeves instead). One of them offered a complaint I'd also heard from readers, about "the word 'so' to begin a sentence."  He got a swift (but polite) reality check:

Sentence-initial “so” has had a long run as a discourse marker in English. I’ve had a number of people swear to me that it’s more common than it used to be, but the data show it isn’t. I think some folks are just paying more attention as they grow older and wiser, so it only seems like they’re hearing it more.

If only all comment threads could have monitors on duty to correct misconceptions and reel in the rogue theorizers. But there's a limit to what one author can do. At the end, Barrett tried to point the gloomsters toward the sunny side:

If you took this as an opportunity to peeve about language rather than find something joyful and exciting in it, then, I fear, you have fallen out of love with the best tool you ever had.

Amen to that. But hostility is the default option in so many comment threads that people may now think a peeve (like a shower gift) is the expected contribution. And since any comment represents a reader (or at least a drive-by scanner), newspapers have no incentive to turn off the spigot; bilious readers, in these desperate days, are better than none.

Wish we knew 'may' from 'might'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 9, 2009 04:33 PM

A caption* on the Globe's front page last month read, "The median on Blue Hill Avenue where the Silver Line may have been placed."

A couple of readers were puzzled by that "may have been." "I hadn't realized that the Silver Line was missing," e-mailed David Devore of Newton. "The meaning is unclear unless you realize that what is meant is 'might have been placed,'" said William F. Bell of Lenox.

I'm with them. For me, the verb there can only be might, the past of may. ("May have been" means there's a chance the line was once placed there; we know that isn't true.)

But the distinction seems to be evaporating. Just two days earlier, I had spotted the construction on the New York Times op-ed page: "If dentists would just decide to withdraw the flossing directive, we may have enough additional spare time to learn Spanish." I could go with either "If dentists decide, we may," or "If dentists decided/would decide, we might," but as written it sounds wrong. This may/might choice is not about levels of likelihood, just about sequence of tenses; normal English uses "She said she was happy," not "she said she is happy" (unless, some say, you intend to emphasize the latter verb).

And today the Globe's op-ed page has, "I fought off the temptation to shoo the animal with a firm 'no!' or 'go to your bed!'’ -- commands that may have gotten results. " [But it never happened. So: "might have gotten results."]

Officially, the Times is on my side, as Philip Corbett explained in a recent After Deadline post:

A verb that is present tense in a direct quotation shifts to past tense in an indirect quotation after a past-tense verb: I am going to the store becomes He said he was going to the store, not He said he is going to the store. In such constructions, the future-tense “will” becomes “would” after a past-tense verb. In these cases, “would” is not acting as a conditional (He would go to the store if he needed something) but simply as the past-tense form of “will.”

Corbett calls this the "formal rule," but I don't think I learned it it as a formal usage; it's just the way everyone said it. So why the shift? It's another of those language mysteries. As I mentioned in a September Word column, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage can't explain it, and doesn’t approve: 'We advise you to use might in all contexts where the past tense is appropriate or where a hypothetical or highly unlikely situation is being referred to.'"

But a more recent discussion at Language Log quotes the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on the futility of resistance: "Conservative usage manuals tend to disapprove of [this] usage, but it is becoming increasingly common, and should probably be recognised as a variant within Standard English."

*It turned out the caption was wrong; the rapid bus service it referred to was not officially part of the Silver Line. But that doesn't affect the grammar question.

Oh no, Mr. Phil!

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 30, 2009 08:20 PM

Unbelievable.* In the new After Deadline blog post, the Times's Philip Corbett makes this (retroactive) correction:

[Caption] Mike L. has remained a father to a daughter that wasn’t really “his.”

Use "who" for people, not "that."

No, no, no. You can debate the advisability of that in any given sentence, but there is not, and never has been, a rule against using that to refer to people, as I reiterated in the Globe Sept. 27. (No, I don't imagine that the Times's usage guru is looking to me for advice. But surely he would value Bryan Garner's opinion, quoted below?)

Here's my rant, one more time:

NOT THAT AGAIN! Yes, the zombie rule that it’s wrong to use that as a pronoun for a person is still undead. I’ve had several recent complaints from readers who think "the person that cuts the lawn" and "the woman that arrived before you," where that refers to a person, are improper English.

But no. This isn’t even a bona fide zombie rule, because it never was fully alive. That has been applied to people for at least 1,000 years, and usage books have never said it shouldn’t. But somehow, the notion that it’s bad English stays in circulation.
There was a time, in the later 17th century, when the relative pronoun that fell out of favor among the literati, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. The dislike wasn’t aimed at that for people, but at all uses of the relative pronoun; as late as 1752, an anonymous grammarian was still urging writers to avoid that entirely. But they didn’t, and the fad was forgotten.
Of course, not every relative who or whom can be replaced with that. We no longer use that in nonrestrictive clauses, so we don’t say "my father, that I resemble" or "Jane Smith, that is in my biology class." But in the usual formulations -- "women that succeed," "friends that gather each week," "the boy that I was" -- that has always been standard English.
There is no real debate about this; in the new Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner says, "It’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans." And that’s that -- or at least it ought to be.

* Update: Not so unbelievable; turns out it's actually in the NYT stylebook. If I'd noticed it, I would have set them straight years ago.

He was mis-'informed'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 27, 2009 05:58 PM

"The gloomy side is perennially popular," writes Stan Carey in a comment on the previous post concerning concerning. So it is, and there's ample proof this month at the New York Times website, which has been diligently wooing the language gloomsters. Stanley Fish drew hundreds* of comments after he complained about some of his least favorite utterances. And Philip Corbett's After Deadline blog, which recaps the printed Times's infelicities, regularly prompts further language complaints.

It can be depressing to read these repetitive and familiar peeves, but often you're rewarded with a surprise -- a language bugaboo that you've never heard of. This month's prize, among the comments on the Nov. 10 After Deadline, was a demonstration of what Arnold Zwicky has labeled the Recency Illusion:

I may be a bit late with this complaint … but since when has it been acceptable to use the word "inform" as a substitute for what used to be "influenced"? As in, "Kandinsky’s early work is INFORMED by Fauvism …" It’s annoying as hell.

Yes, the complaint is a bit late. The usage is recorded since about 1400, says the OED (while the earliest citation for influence is dated 1658). This inform, it says, means "To give ‘form’, formative principle, or determinative character to; hence, to stamp, impress, imbue, or impregnate with some specific quality or attribute; esp. to impart some pervading, active, or vital quality to; … to inspire, animate. But since the earliest quotes are not absolutely clear examples, let's ignore them and start circa 1600:

1605 CHAPMAN Al Fooles I. i, Without loue...All vertues borne in men lye buried, For loue informes them as the Sunne dothe colours.
1607 SHAKES. Cor. V. iii. 71 The God of Souldiers... informe Thy thoughts with Noblenesse.
1758 BLACKSTONE Study of Law in Comm. (1765) I. 37 [To] inform them with a desire to be still better acquainted with the laws and constitution of their country.
1842 TENNYSON Day-Dream, Sleeping Beauty ii, Her constant beauty doth inform Stillness with love, and day with light.
1968 Listener 1 Aug. 153/2 Britten's exuberant cantata … is informed by a Stravinskian economy of gesture and dramatic style.

Is this informed by more common than it used to be? Perhaps, but so is influenced by, a Google News search suggests; inform is not replacing influence, which after all is not quite the same thing. So this is another non-peeve; do not add it to your hate list. We can hope (though we probably shouldn't expect) that the complainant, should someone inform him, will think that's good news.

*Fish refers to his 377 comments as "many hundreds of comments." In my idiolect, 377 would be "several hundred" or "nearly 400"; I'm not sure I would ever use "many hundreds," given that the groups of hundreds only go up to nine (at which point I'd say "nearly 1,000"). Anyone else have a figure in mind that would qualify as "many hundreds"?

A concerning usage

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 25, 2009 02:15 PM

A few months ago, reader JF from Milford wrote to express her concern about concerning, the adjective -- as in, "The current unemployment situation is very concerning." She was noticing it more and more on TV news reports, she said, and "I really hate it ... 'concerning' sounds like a made-up word."

I replied that though this concerning did seem to be enjoying a vogue, it wasn't a new use: The earliest quote from the OED -- "I cannot bear anything that is the least concerning to you" -- is from Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," 1741. And I vaguely promised to look into the rise of concerning.

But now I don't have to: Mark Liberman at Language Log, having received a similar query from a reader, has done it for me. He finds that the usage is gradually increasing, but thinks we should remain calm:

Why not just give up, get over it, and look on the bright side? Concerning has plenty of standard precedents ("This is troubling/annoying/terrifying/grating") where a prepositional-phrase version would be odd (?"This is of trouble/annoyance/terror/gratingness"). In fact, of concern is a bit of an outlier, so you could see the change to concerning as a move in the direction of linguistic consistency.

Or maybe you'd rather look on the gloomy side? After all, "some people enjoy watching the decay (as they see it) of everyone else's language," says Liberman. "If you're one of them, then never mind, and many happy returns of the peeve."

Who moved her 'only'?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 3, 2009 05:33 PM

One favorite language fetish, even among the more level-headed usage writers, is an obsession with placement of only -- often accompanied by an insistence that putting only in the wrong place can cause tragic misunderstandings.

My theory is that this nit persists because writers love to make up the horrible examples with which they buttress the rule. Language writer James Kilpatrick, for instance, has offered as evidence these unlikely utterances:

(1) Only John hit Peter in the nose, (2) John hit Peter only in the nose, (3) John only hit Peter in the nose, and (4) John hit only Peter in the nose.

Several times, over the years, I've challenged readers to show me an example of a truly misleading only in print, not in a made-up example, and nobody has yet responded. But over this morning's coffee, I stumbled onto one myself, in a Wall Street Journal story by Jennifer Corbett Dooren. The story, which discussed improvements in predicting which non-symptomatic people are about to get sick, noted:

Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.

OK, what this sentence wants to mean is that tests can detect the pathogens in people "only after they get sick." It's genuinely misleading, thanks to the long stretch between only and the clause it modifies; you have to revise your understanding of the sentence when you're well on the way down its garden path.

But there may be a twist. My Spidey editing sense, honed by years of service on the copy desk, is tingling with suspicion that this is an editor's error, not the writer's.*

Consider the way many of us would naturally have written the sentence:

Current tests can only detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.

No problem, right? But say you're an only-sensitive editor: You want that only to "snuggle up" (in Kilpatrick's phrase) to the word or phrase it modifies. Usually, that involves moving it rightward: "I only want seltzer" becomes "I want only seltzer." And so the editor duly moves only to the right of the verb.

But in this case, that's not far enough. If the only isn't in its natural position ("can only detect"), where it alerts us to wait for the conclusion ("after they get sick"), then it has to come much later, like this:

Current tests can detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with only after they get sick.

This doesn't really work either, though. It sounds as if it's making a positive statement about what tests can do, then it pulls a 180 on the reader four-fifths of the way through the sentence.

So let me implore, once more: Let's stop worrying about only. Usually, it's fine just where it is. As a linguist would say -- in this case, Geoff Pullum, on Language Log -- "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."

Not just permissible but better. Or, as we sometimes remember to say on the copy desk: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

*I've e-mailed the author to ask whether this is the case.
[Update: Jennifer Corbett Dooren confirms that her original read "Current tests can only detect," and that the change came somewhere during the editing process.]

Spooky fruit

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 31, 2009 09:09 PM


Just in time for Halloween, a New Yorker story alerted me to the existence of an apple variety I'd never heard of. "Half-eaten apples lay on the ground, left by the Columbus Day pick-your-own crowds," wrote Lizzie Widdicombe. "Wickham pointed out new apple varieties -- Empire, Razor, Jonagold."

Paging Nancy Friedman! I like a tart, crisp apple myself, but who would name one the Razor, given the decades-old worries (justified and not) about treat-tampering evildoers?

A bit of Googling suggests that the apple is actually the Razor Russet, "discovered by the late W. Armstrong of the University of Kentucky as a limb mutation of Golden Delicious. Fruit is large, round, conical, and uniformly fawn-brown. Flavor is more intense than Golden, yet still sweet."

And oddly enough, it was introduced in 1970, around the dawn of the great Halloween poison-and-sabotage scares. Surely there's no connection, but in the absence of any other explanation, the name sounds a bit like a bad joke.

Photo from

Nettle to the mettle

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 10, 2009 10:44 PM

Like Michael Quinion in today's World Wide Words, I'm surprised to learn that some people think the idiom grasp the nettle is a corruption of grasp the mettle. I suppose mettle isn't utterly fantastic here; if being on one's mettle means "ready for any challenge," I can see how grasp the mettle might be understood as something like "gird your loins" or "cowboy up." Still, it sounds odd if you've always been familiar with grasp the nettle.

The phrase is based on the folk wisdom that firmly seizing hold of a stinging nettle (or a nettlesome problem) is like yanking off a Band-Aid; doing it decisively lessens the pain. Quinion quotes an 18th-century verse that states the maxim (and even rhymes it with mettle):

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you, for your pains:
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

Nice rhyme, and total hogwash, as I can painfully testify. Once upon a time, weeding along a backyard fence, I innocently grasped a nettle and pulled hard. It stung like crazy. According to the US Forest Service, the plant's poison is formic acid, and "contact with needle-like, stinging hairs on the twigs and lower surface of leaves of this plant can cause SEVERE SKIN IRRITATION AND MILD SKIN RASH." The all-caps emphasis is entirely appropriate.

Quinion wonders if the plant lore was a prankster's invention. I always figured the metaphor was coined by someone who had never been near a nettle -- possibly the same guy who thought "like taking candy from a baby" was a good way of saying "easy."

Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite, R.I.P.

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 17, 2009 10:21 PM

The news of Walter Cronkite's death at 92 was naturally rushed into print and onto the Web. And the first draft of history, as offered by the Chicago Tribune website, seems to include several instances of what Ben Zimmer has dubbed a Cupertino* error.** The Tribune, like the Globe, apparently uses the courtesy title "Mr." only when you're not around to enjoy it, so an editor must have used search-and-replace to make "Cronkite" into "Mr. Cronkite."

There was some collateral damage.

His last regularly scheduled assignment with CBS News was a 90-second radio segment called "Walter Mr. Cronkite's 20th Century."
Johnson reportedly turned to an aide and said, "If I've lost Mr. Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
The son and grandson of dentists, he was born Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite Jr. on Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo.
At home, he was "gregarious," relishing "spinning a one-line joke out into an elaborate shaggy dog story," daughter Kathy Mr. Cronkite once recalled.
Mr. Cronkite's survivors include his son, Walter Mr. Cronkite III, who is known as Chip; and daughters Kathy and Nancy.

I could get used to this form of address; after all, it's no weirder than "Richard, Cardinal Cushing" or "George Gordon, Lord Byron." But I think a daughter might prefer the feminine form: "Kathy, Ms. Cronkite."

*The blog spellchecker, which I have never heard from before, naturally chimed in here to ask whether "Cupertino" should perhaps be Pertinacious, Pertinence, or Pertinacity. That would have been fun ... but no thanks.

** Ben Zimmer corrects me: A Cupertino is an error that starts with the spellchecker, not a mere search-and-replace error like the one that made Tyson Gay into Tyson Homosexual. For more on those, see his Language Log post.

In a crazy place

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 27, 2009 11:25 AM

"The Court should return to the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis," said Clarence Thomas on Thursday, dissenting from the Supreme Court's 8-1 decision that strip-searching middle-schoolers for suspected contraband Tylenol was unconstitutional.

That conjured up unsettling images of parents strip-searching their own 13-year-olds, but it also reminded me to dig out a "loco parentis" variation I'd buried in a pile of notes.

It appeared last month in a Globe op-ed by the president of Wesleyan University, who was explaining how the killing of a student had changed his feelings about "in loco parentis," the notion that the institution stands in the place of a parent.

But he called it "in locus parentis." Twice. And unfortunately, an editor used one of those examples in the callout quote, in nice big type nobody could miss.

Now, I'm not going to profess any shock that a university president doesn't know his Latin declensions. The job has changed a lot in the past half-century, and as Peter Cook might have said,* You don't need the Latin for the fund-raisin'.

But "in loco parentis" isn't some obscure legal term; it's in English dictionaries, along with "ad nauseam" and "in toto" and other familiar tags. The American Heritage Dictionary has everything you might need to know: "Latin in locō parentis: in, in + locō, ablative of locus, place + parentis, genitive of parēns, parent." ("In locus" is just grammatically wrong, like "I believe in she.")

Just two days later, though, I heard a similar usage in a radio interview -- this time it was the even wronger "in locus parenti." That sent me searching, but it was slim pickings: Nexis news has only 11 cites over 30-plus years for "in locus parentis" (three of them in the Globe, one in the Times). Google has a measly 184 overall, along with hits for "in locum," "in local," "in loci," and the aforementioned "in locus parenti." So there's no need for Latin lovers to sound the alarm.

Still, I'm curious; are these random mistakes, or do some people feel an aversion to using "loco" -- given its colloquial sense of "crazy" -- in a dignified Latin phrase? Does "locus" sound better with "parentis," because they both end in s? Or is the word "locus" -- good English, after all, in its place -- just more familiar? Speculation is welcome, though no doubt fruitless.

*"Sitting on the Bench," from "Beyond the Fringe." If you're too young to remember it, you're young enough to find an MP3 of it.

Elusive 'Ms.' may be a Mass. invention

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 23, 2009 11:53 AM

Ben Zimmer, who has been on the lookout for early uses of Ms for several years, has found what may be the first proposal for the all-purpose female honorific -- in a 1901 edition of the Springfield Republican newspaper. Zimmer, executive producer of the language website Visual Thesaurus, reports the discovery today in his Word Routes column.

Previously, writes Zimmer, the earliest known Ms. dated from 1949, when Mario Pei mentioned it in "The Story of Language": "Feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, 'Miss' (to be written 'Ms.')."

But the 1901 proposal makes clear that the issue was convenience, not feminist concerns. "Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman," the writer notes. "To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss."

Clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two terms have in common. The abbreviation "Ms" is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

This commonsense wisdom has more or less prevailed, but only after decades of resistance. Ms. magazine debuted in 1972; a decade later, the New York Times still banned Ms., and when William Safire endorsed it in a 1982 language column, he heard from a disapproving Mrs. Havens Grant: ''A woman who wants to be addressed as 'Ms.' is either ashamed of not being married or ashamed of being married.''

But Safire also quoted the Globe's Ellen Goodman, explaining why using Ms. would improve the Times's accuracy: "[The paper has] referred to me each time as Miss Goodman. Actually, my Miss name was Holtz. My Mrs. name was Goodman. But I am in fact no longer married to Goodman, or Dr. Goodman as The Times would put it. Now Miss Holtz isn't exactly right. Nor is Miss Goodman. Nor is Mrs. Goodman."

Four years later, in 1986, the Times officially admitted Ms. to its pages.

And yes, it does (now) have a period.

Fish or cut bait: the footnotes

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 15, 2009 08:01 PM

Judging from the mail, I should have given more space to "fish or cut bait" in yesterday's column.

Barry Hoberman wondered why I ignored the parallel phrase that ends "get off the pot"; the answer is that Globe style doesn't permit suggestively asterisked words, and rather than come up with a labored paraphrase, I figured I would let readers think of it for themselves.

"In the last line of Act I, scene 2 of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream,' Bottom enjoins his comrades, 'Hold or cut bowstrings!' which I assume is an archery-based equivalent of 'Fish or cut bait,'" e-mailed Charlie Rathbone. "Cut bowstrings," if you accept the reading by William Godshalk (also discussed at Wikipedia), would mean "stop fighting," since retreating crossbow archers cut the strings of the weapons they left behind.

Larry Stabile said his understanding of "fish or cut bait" has always been "that if we seize our opportunity we'll get to do the exciting, glamorous job, otherwise we'll be consigned to the menial." But "glamorous" didn't come into it in early uses of the phrase. "The fisherman's life is arduous … Those who do not clean and prepare the fish cut bait for the lines, replace the lost tackle, and repair the nets. ("Land of the Midnight Sun: Summer and Winter Journeys through Sweden," by Paul Du Chaillu, 1881)

Both "The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" (2003) and the UK site The Phrase Finder say that "cut bait" means "to stop fishing." I couldn't find any textual support for that as a literal sense, however, even though the "cut bait" part of the idiom now usually means "abandon the endeavor."

The Phrase Finder credits a US circuit judge, Levi Hubbell, with the first use of the phrase: "Judge Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. Judge Cushing must either fish or cut bait."

But there's a earlier citation -- though a murky one -- in The Opal: A Monthly Periodical of the State Lunatic Asylum (in Utica, N.Y.), edited by the patients, in 1852. "The moral turpitude of such customs, among those who profess so loud, and long, their fortunate position among folks, and hence, their infallibility bids him who indulges his time to pass in their narration, to fish or cut bait."

Most subsequent uses, however, are fairly clear. Here's a sampling of the fossil evidence, from Google Books and Nexis, offering more than you probably want to know about the evolution of "cut bait":


If you're still wondering, there's an answer

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 3, 2009 10:43 PM

Way back in 2001, a reader e-mailed The Word (the weekly column, not this extremely sporadic blog) to ask about her pet peeve, sentences that go like this:

"I'm going to the store, if you need anything."
"If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Laura Linney."

She thought this ubiquitous construction deserved an official name, and for lack of a better, she had temporarily dubbed it the "inappropriate conditional." Here's what I said:

[Her] complaint is clear enough: In these sentences, the "if" clause -- or protasis, if you want technical terms -- doesn't logically relate to the conclusion, or apodosis. Aren't you going to the store even if I don't need anything? Isn't the interview guest the same whether or not I've just tuned in to "Fresh Air"? In fact, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, of NPR's "Car Talk," have made a running joke of this disjunction: "If you'd like to call us, the number is 1-800-323-9287." "And what if they don't want to call us? Is it still the same number?"

I couldn't improve on her name for it, though, back then; it was in the dark ages BLL, or Before Language Log. Then, the other day, Mark Liberman noticed an example of a very similar construction in the "Stone Soup" comic strip, and he posted about it at the Log, calling it a "relevance conditional. "

He quotes Rajesh Bhatt and Roumyana Pancheva's "Conditionals" from the "Blackwell Companion to Syntax": "They explain that 'The if-clause in relevance conditionals specifies the circumstances in which the consequent is discourse-relevant, not the circumstances in which it is true.'" Or as Dr. Seuss put it, that's why I'm bothering telling you so.

That may not be the last word on the subject -- check out the comments on Liberman's post -- but I'm easy; just having a name for the thing makes me feel better.

P.S. As I was fetching the strip from GoComics, I noticed that commenters at the "Stone Soup" pages were criticizing Holly as if she were a real teenager: "Holly, Had you not slacked off during the school year, you would be Free as a Bird." "Just stop whining." "Why are young girls so lazy, flippant, self-involved?" What's that about? Do these people not know that Holly is fictional and that her creator is already making fun of her bad attitude? People, they're called the comics for a reason!

Figuratively speaking, that is

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April March 18, 2009 08:26 PM

The lawyer for Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in the basement and fathered seven children with her, wins the inappropriate metaphor of the week award for his description of his client in the Guardian today. Rudolf Mayer said the taped testimony of the daughter, Elisabeth -- and perhaps her presence in the court -- was the catalyst for Fritzl's surprise guilty plea:

"The testimony which [Fritzl] saw for the first time had a profoundly devastating effect on him and led to the change of direction in this trial. ... I was indeed surprised, not least because someone with such a personality disorder as he has -- which involves keeping up appearances and giving the impression that he's the one with the power -- finds it difficult to drop his trousers in front of the world."

Sick, sick, sick

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April March 7, 2009 12:38 PM

In his latest column at Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer looks at the continuing controversy over the proper sense of nauseous: Some readers think it should only mean "nauseating" -- "he served us a nauseous concoction" -- while others use it to mean "nauseated," as in "I'm feeling nauseous." The word has a complicated usage history, Zimmer says:

Even though nauseous in the "affected with nausea" sense has been lurking under the radar since the mid-19th century, it took until the mid-20th century for someone to assert that this meaning was wrong. MWDEU* observes that this sense of the word became a bugaboo for American usage guides after Theodore Bernstein griped about it in his 1958 book, "Watch Your Language." British usage guides, on the other hand, seem indifferent to the dispute.

I've been doing some research in old usage books, and when I read Zimmer's post, I had just seen the entry on sick in the 1872 book "Americanisms," by Maximilian Schele de Vere. His discussion of terms for nausea and vomiting is not precisely on topic, but it's close, and it's a nice description of what Steven Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill."

Sick, in England used only for sickness of the stomach, is in America applied to indisposition of any kind, in the manner in which, as Sir C. Lyell already noticed, it was used by Shakespeare and the authors of the Liturgy of the Established Church. It is said that a Virginia lady in Europe, happening to be ill, sent for an English physician, who, hearing from her servant that she was sick, soon made his appearance with a stomach-pump and other instruments of the kind. Evelyn writes, November 16, 1652: "Visited Dean Stewart, who had been sick about two days." Pepys also employs sick in the same general sense (Diary, Vol. III., p. 264). It is curious to notice how sickness of the stomach changed in England first into nausea, which soon became vulgar and gave way to throwing up; this also fell in disfavor, and vomit was substituted, as it is used in the Bible; in its turn this gave way to puking, when the great king, with knee-buckles, silk-stockings, and gold-headed canes, also gave [the word] pukes to high-bred matrons and fastidious belles, some fifty years ago. This also was soon banished; but as people might get rid of the word but could not free themselves of the thing, they turned once more to their first love, and sickness was restored to favor.

*Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which you really, really ought to own but can also consult online for the entire nauseating story.

Get smart for Grammar Day

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April March 3, 2009 12:30 PM

National Grammar Day is tomorrow, March 4, and its sponsor, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, has a website offering T-shirts, advice, and the new book by SPOGG founder Martha Brockenbrough.

But your homework will be a pleasure: Hotfoot it over to John McIntyre's blog, You Don't Say, and give the up-and-down to his tale of deadly doings in the usage world. Brockenbrough is cast as the sweet-seeming dame in dire need of a copy editor; it's a terrific yarn, and I'm thrilled to have a cameo as a tough-talking descriptivist moll. (Read to the end, so you don't miss it.)

I. "Down those mean sentences I walk alone"

2. "'What are we going to do now?'" she asked

3. "The Fat Man chuckles"

4. "The rule you don't break"

Losing it

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April February 16, 2009 11:54 AM

One of the oddest things about usage books is their penchant for assuring readers that really, the things people often get wrong are very, very simple. Lie, lay, lain? No problem! Spelling its and it's correctly? It's a snap! Lose vs. loose? Duh! You'd think these writers would grasp that if getting it right were so easy, it wouldn't be wrong (or "wrong") so often.

So it was refreshing to come across a language maven's more realistic assessment of the lose-loose problem. Says Henry Alford, dean of Canterbury, in "A Plea for the Queen's English" (1864):

I have several times noticed, and once in a letter censuring some of my own views on the Queen's English, the verb to lose spelt loose. A more curious instance of the arbitrary character of English usage as to spelling and pronunciation, could hardly be given, than these two words furnish: but usage must be obeyed. In this case it is not consistent with itself in either of the two practices: the syllable "-ooze" keeps the sound of "s" in loose, noose, goose, but changes it for that of "z" in choose: the syllable "-ose'' keeps the sound of "s" in close, dose, but changes it for that of "z" in chose, hose, nose, pose, rose. But when usage besides this requires us to give the "o" in lose the sound of "u" in luminary, we feel indeed that reasoning about spelling and pronunciation is almost at an end.

How many words for 'snow job'?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April February 1, 2009 05:43 PM

A story in today's Globe Magazine about the insult "salted" brings distressing news: Even among students at Boston Latin School, the notion that "Eskimos have all those words for snow" still flourishes. Luckily, the truth is out there -- at Language Log, where just a few days ago, Mark Liberman helpfully posted a collection of links to the site's many treatments of the issue, from last week's "No word for fair?" to 2004's "No word for robins."

Also at Language Log, Ben Zimmer comments on the article's claims about "salted": "Investing so much revelatory power in one particular word can make for a compelling magazine article, but it's another form of pop-Whorfian reductionism nonetheless."

As for the cartoon -- which I first saw several years ago at Language Log -- it really should be the last word on the Eskimos-and-snow cliche. Artist Matt Bors's work runs locally in the Boston Phoenix, and there's more at his website,

Bootstraps and Baron Munchausen

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 27, 2009 05:34 PM

My item on bootstraps in Sunday's column prompted a note from Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus, who researched the bootstrap idiom a few years ago, with a link to the discussion at the American Dialect Society listserv.

The earliest example Zimmer found (a quarter-century before mine) appeared in the Workingman's Advocate in 1834: "It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots."

In addition, says Zimmer,

There was further discussion about the theory that the image of lifting oneself up by one's own bootstraps originated in the Baron von Münchhausen stories. But the closest the good Baron came to doing such a thing was lifting himself (and his horse) out of the mud by pulling on his own pigtail. That got conflated with the "bootstraps" figure of speech so that many now claim Münchhausen was the first bootstrapper.

So far, however, there's no sign that anyone has found an explicit reference to bootstraps in the various versions of the Munchausen tales.

How do you say inaugural?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 24, 2009 11:51 PM

I've enjoyed the wide-ranging linguistic commentary* on Obama's inauguration -- the oath and the speech -- around the blogosphere and printosphere. But so far, nobody has mentioned the language issue I couldn't escape: The ambivalence of broadcasters about the pronunciation of inaugural.

This isn't a new issue, and probably I only noticed it because I was paying closer attention than usual to the more celebratory than usual runup to the big day. But everywhere I turned the dials, or clicked the clickers, I heard alternating pronunciations: Here an i-NAW-gyur-ul, my way, and there an i-NAW-gur-ul, with a gur-gly third syllable.

I-NAW-gyur-ul is the traditional pronunciation, with a -gu- sound like the ones in regular, singular, and triangulate. But the other version is older than I suspected. According to Charles Harrington Elster's "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations," the i-NAW-gur-ul variants showed up in a dictionary in 1949 and have "gradually achieved the status of acceptable alternative pronunciations," though "no authority prefers them and no dictionary lists them first."

Inaugural, however, has some ambiguity built in. Augur, "to foretell," is pronounced AW-gur, just like auger, the tool; but augury, "divination," is AW-gyur-ee. It would be reasonable enough if a speaker decided that inaugural could go either way.

More likely, though, it's just one of those fashions that ripple through the language -- perhaps especially through broadcasting language -- from time to time. Is there any other way to explain may-OR-al and elec-TOR-al?

*Including, in no particular order: Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded, Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar, Ben Zimmer and Geoff Nunberg and Mark Liberman at Language Log, Steve Pinker in the New York Times, and John McWhorter at

Please mag me, bro

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 18, 2009 04:49 PM

Beth David e-mailed to ask about Obama's use of the word "magged" in his TV interview with George Stephanopoulos last Sunday. "You don't want to subject your fellow church members, the rest of the congregation, to being magged every time you go to church," Obama said, but David couldn't find a definition anywhere for "magged."

I didn't have one myself, but luckily, the Reuters version of the story helped out, glossing "being magged" as "walking through metal detectors." Logical enough, as slang goes, since metal detectors work by generating a magnetic field.

Still, it was interesting that so many news outlets ran the word without a definition, since it's not all that common in everyday language. The earliest cite on Nexis is from 1983, when the AP reported that a group of Hispanic visitors were "magged" before being allowed to see President Reagan. But "magged" has only appeared in US newspapers 27 times in 26 years -- not a frequency that would suggest it's on everyone's lips.

In any case, isn't Obama being oversolicitous in his concern for his fellow parishioners? Surely Washingtonians -- for now, at least -- will be lined up at the church doors, begging to be "magged" (or more), if that's the price of worshiping along with the president's family.

20 years of 'only' hooey

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 13, 2009 05:37 PM

I knew James Kilpatrick was nutty on the subject of only, but it was only when Neal Whitman blogged about it that I learned the depth of his obsession. Kilpatrick has devoted an annual language column to this largely bogus writing tip for 20 years.

In this year's outing he says, "The trick is to snuggle the limiting 'only' as closely as possible to the noun it modifies. It works every time."

Even after 20 tries, though, Kilpatrick hasn't quite gotten a grip on the fine points of his subject, as Whitman demonstrates:

[W]hen he says to put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, I’m sure he meant word, since Kilpatrick certainly knows that hit is a verb, and in a preposition. The trouble is that Kilpatrick’s rule doesn’t work every time. …He is assuming, and leading his readers to believe, that the only things that only can modify are words. In fact, it can modify whole phrases.

One of Kilpatrick's sample sentences is "John hit Peter only in the nose." Not good enough, says Whitman: "If he wants only to narrow down just what parts of Peter’s body John hit, he should follow his own advice and put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, and write John hit Peter in only the nose." It's either that or admit that only can modify phrases, and that moving only around can't eliminate every last theoretical ambiguity.

Some years ago, I decided that usagists must be stuck on only because they love ringing the changes on those sample sentences: I only have eyes for you, etc. And more than once, I've asked readers to send me an example of an only, in edited prose, whose placement produces genuine ambiguity. That challenge went out in 2001, and I'm still waiting.

WOTY 2008: "Bailout" vs. "shovel-ready"

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 11, 2009 04:49 PM

Our long national word-of-the-year season is over. On Friday, members of the American Dialect Society -- founders of the WOTY concept -- gathered at their annual meeting and voted "bailout" Word of the Year 2008. A bit anticlimactic, perhaps, since the word had already been woty'd by Merriam-Webster, and it's hardly new. Maybe the San Francisco meeting included lots of voters too young to remember the last time "bailout" was big, the government's bailout of Chrysler* in 1979.

Anyway, the complete results are here. And for a summary of WOTYs named earlier, check out Bill Brohaugh's linkfest at Everything You Know About English Is Wrong.

Ben Zimmer made an excellent case for one of my favorites, the down-to-earth "shovel-ready," over at his Visual Thesaurus stomping grounds (it took the title Most Likely to Succeed). And though it's too unwieldy for everyday use, I also like the Most Creative winner, "recombobulation area": "An area at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee in which passengers that have just passed through security screening can get their clothes and belongings back in order."

"Joe," as in Joe the Plumber and all related hypothetical Joes, was a nominee but not a winner. It did, however, inspire a fantastic essay on the history of Joes in America by linguist Geoff Nunberg. If you didn't hear it on "Fresh Air" a few weeks ago, you can read it here, with illustrations. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Even if you did hear it on "Fresh Air," you can read it online. Quit nitpicking and link already!)

* I unaccountably wrote "GM" here -- and I am old enough to remember! Thanks for the correction, Jonathon!

Koozie, coozie, floozie?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 4, 2009 02:26 PM

Today's Word column on beer koozies (and coozies and cozies) reminded Adrienne Beaton of how she learned the word: "A long time ago, my father referred to the girlfriend of a married man as a koozie. I don't have a slang dictonary, and this usage may have been in my home only! But Dad was often correct in the terms he used."

Dad was right. As I mentioned in the column, coozie was once vulgar slang for the female genitals -- and though you could make up a folk etymology connecting that with "cozy," there's no evidence of a link. Since it was a dead end, I didn't pursue that sense.

But coozy also meant "A sexually attractive or promiscuous woman," or floozie, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its earliest example is a 1912 definition from the Evening Observer in Dunkirk, N.Y.: "Coozie, a girl whom you don't know, but whom you would like to get acquainted with: a new proposition."

Floozy, also spelled floosie or -- as in the 1950 pulp novel above -- floozie, is of the same vintage, first recorded in 1911. Its origins are also uncertain, but the OED points to the dialect adjective floosy, meaning fluffy or soft, as a possible source.

Czar trek

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 30, 2008 03:22 PM

Ben Zimmer has been exploring the long journey of czar, the word and the office, through American political history.

Czar was used as an insult, he says in Slate magazine, during the 19th century, when Russia's repressive rulers were notorious around the world.

That would all change after the Russian Revolution deposed the last real-life czar in 1917; painful images of imperial repression quickly faded to the background and Communist leaders became the new dictatorial icons. Accordingly, kinder, gentler "czars" made their way into American public life. When Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball in 1920, "czar of baseball" worked just fine for the headline writers. New York had its "boxing czar" (Athletic Commission Chairman William Muldoon) and its "beer czar" (Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Edward Mulrooney).

Following up in his Word Routes column at Visual Thesaurus, Zimmer wonders why czar was our pick to designate a figurative dictator "while other titles for foreign potentates like pasha, sultan, raja, and emir have never had much of an impact." We do use mogul -- "a member of the Muslim dynasty that ruled India until 1857" -- but mostly for captains of industry, not heads of state.

Here's a guess at the reason: Those Eastern rulers, deservedly or not, have a more romantic aura than the militaristic czars of Russia. They may have had absolute power, but we picture them as we've learned about them through pop culture -- Rudolph Valentino as a sheik, Yul Brynner in "The King and I," "Arabian Nights" (ncluding Disney's "Aladdin"), and so on. Czars (or tsars) have been scary since Ivan the Terrible; but sultan and pasha and raja are more likely to conjure up visions of hookahs and harems and elephants than bloody battles. Inaccurate these associations may be, but I suspect I'm not the only Westerner who makes them.

Sudden enlightenment

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 27, 2008 04:45 PM

Like Kevin in last week's Word column -- whose high school teacher banned negatives like "we have no bananas" on the grounds that you can't have nothing -- Gary Lucia was led astray by an English teacher, he reports:

In seventh grade, my teacher corrected a paper in which I wrote "all of a sudden." She said it should be "all of THE sudden." I started writing it (and saying it) this way for years -- and argued with people about it, with my teacher's admonishment as my 'proof' of its correctness. But after finally researching it, I realized that my teacher was (gulp) wrong!

Yes, she was -- but you might also say she was simply a few centuries out of date. (It wouldn't be the first time a teacher earned the label "dinosaur.") Because according to the OED, "the sudden" is a bit older than "a sudden," and was once at least as popular.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were lots of variants of our idiom using the noun "sudden" (spelling slightly corrected):

"I thinke, that none can justly account them selves Architectes, of the suddeyne" (1570).

"These verses were devised ... upon a very great sudden" (1575).

"I was ... compelled … to answere of the sodaine" (1590).

"[F]or more reasonable hire in hope of present payment than can be had or done upon the soden" (1558).

"It is an easie thing in the sight of the Lord, on the sudden to make a poore man rich" (1611, King James Bible).

This does not mean "all of the sudden" (or "all the sudden") is standard today; it's a minority usage that makes many readers scratch their heads. And Lucia's teacher was certainly wrong to call it the correct version.

But there's nothing logically or historically objectionable about "the sudden"; it just happens to have lost the popularity contest of the past four centuries. In another four centuries, it could be the version our descendants prefer.

"I bet you could do a whole column with submissions from your readers who have been affected by false information from their teachers," adds Lucia. Maybe so -- though some people find it really hard to admit that their instructors' grammar gospel is false. Still, if you've got a story of usage deprogramming to share, I'd love to hear it.

Dick's disappearing act

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 13, 2008 02:05 PM

Over at the Daily Beast, Michael Schaffer recently predicted that Dick Cheney's nickname, like the man himself, is on the way out. Not because of its associations with the Vice President's tenure, but because the slang use of the word has spread into casual usage, tainting the traditional name:

As dirty-word prohibitions loosened over the 20th century, more and more people began to hear the word and think of something other than, say, NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Slang dictionaries show a progression of other negative connotations for the word, which was used to connote an incompetent or a bully. Newly abusive conjunctions* also came into fashion, as the word became attached to -head, -brain, and -nose, the latter of which the OED helpfully informs us first cropped up in 1974, the year Tricky Dick and his own ski-slope nose left Washington for good.

Like most fashion changes, this one strikes people of different generations in different ways. Most anyone old enough to remember Dick Clark in his heyday had plenty of high school friends named Dick, and perhaps less exposure to the negative slang elaborations. But younger men, Schaffer says, are opting for Rick and Richard and Ricky instead of Dick.

Still, unlike some naming fads, this one need not affect the proper name itself, with all those Richard nicknames. (Though Richard is already in trouble, says Schaffer: The former name of kings now ranks 99th -- behind Kaden and Cooper! -- among boys' names.)

And Schaffer admits he's only guessing. With Dick Lugar and Dick Holbrooke still on the political scene, the name isn't going to vanish from the news. But Schaffer hopes the end is near:

Cheney . . . is all that we could want for an already anachronistic moniker's last turn in the spotlight: so bald, so taciturn, such a . . . well, you know. Goodbye, Mr. Vice President. You did your name proud.

*Schaffer seems to mean "compound words" here, not "conjunctions" in the part-of-speech sense.

AP file photo

Addie Mock, meet Miss Nomer

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 12, 2008 07:05 PM

So far, in my seasonal catalog browsing, I haven't found any shockers to rival the one my friend Louise recently spotted in a tasteful museum catalog, a nightgown of "dotted swill." Nor have I seen a color name any stranger than my all-time favorite, "perineal blue," one of the available shades for a department store sweater.

But I did find a brain teaser of a product name in the Woolrich catalog this fall: a sweater called the Addie Mock Cardigan.


At first glance I thought it was a "mock cardigan," one that looked as if it opened but didn't. But no, the small type said "full-zip front." Was it a mock turtleneck? It was -- but that didn't answer for sure whether "mock" was short for "mock turtleneck" or part of the name. Many of the clothing items, like Oscar Mayer's bologna, seemed to have both a first name and a second name: Pine Tree, Still Creek, Misty Ridge, West Valley.

Scouting the catalog, I found a clue. Personal names for garments, as opposed to place names and tree names, tended to be one-word: Wanetta, Marylee, Katee. So although Addie Mock would be an excellent pioneer name -- an American Girl doll's name, say -- it looks as if the intention here is: Addie (Mock [turtleneck]) Cardigan.

As for that dotted swill: It's really dotted Swiss, a lightweight cotton with allover dots (usually) woven or embroidered into it, a sweet fabric for little girls and little curtains. The "Swiss" is short for "Swiss muslin," says the OED; it dates "dotted Swiss" to an 1897 Sears, Roebuck catalog offering a shirt "with wide pleated puff bosom of snow white dotted Swiss." Sounds like something Addie Mock might have liked.

High school consequential

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 9, 2008 10:56 PM

At the end of Sunday's column item on using consequence as a verb, I asked, "will naughty children and criminals someday be consequenced?"

Well, it's not standard English yet, but it has found a niche, e-mails D., who works at a residential treatment center for adolescents. "Not only are they consequenced, but there is a Consequence Log," she writes. "The teenagers have even shortened the verb to 'quence, as in 'Are you gonna 'quence me?' "

Those kids, apparently, are truly on the cutting edge (or the clipping edge, I should say, since that's what they're doing to the word consequence). There are several hundred Googlehits for the verb consequence, but so far their 'quence seems to appear only as a typo for quench.

You type recreate, I type re-create

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 5, 2008 05:58 PM
Exercising or recreating?

Should we maintain the orthographic distinction between re-create (to create again) and recreate (have fun)? Editrix wants to keep the hyphen, despite the lack of support from her reference library, and she's posted a poll where readers can vote.

I infer from the discussion that I was probably already a copy editor when Editrix was riding her tricycle. Because I was taught, during my usage indoctrination, that recreate meaning "play, amuse oneself" was a low sort of verb, if not actually forbidden.

I remember that at some point it became OK, but I must not have ever looked it up, because it turns out it's not -- as I vaguely assumed -- a back formation from recreation; in fact, it's older than the other recreate, and its current "have fun" sense dates to 1587!

But the OED has one clue to my instructors' prejudice: It labels recreate "Now chiefly U.S." A good many words that were dropped by the Brits, but retained by us colonials, suffered a temporary loss of status among educated Americans; maybe recreate was one of them.

My search among the usage books, however, hasn't done much to validate my memory. Nobody denounces recreate "play"; the prissy Wilson Follett, who's still proselytizing (in 1966) for the shall/will distinction, says of recreate merely -- this one's for you, Editrix -- that the hyphen must stay: "Only the hyphen can distinguish re-create (create anew) from recreate (amuse, divert)."

But thanks to Paul Brians, I know my animus wasn't just a fantasy. At his Common Errors in English website, Brians is still keeping the faith: "While we’re at it, 'recreate' does not mean 'to engage in recreation.' If you play basketball, you may be exercising, but you’re not recreating."

I no longer believe it, but I sure was glad to find it.

Photo: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Word's RSS feed is fixed

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 5, 2008 10:59 AM

You didn't even know it was broken? Neither did I, till last week, when someone told me that subscribing to the Word blog brought readers posts from Brainiac, the other Ideas blog, written by Christopher Shea. (Once upon a time, when the Word blog was a baby, it was a subset of Brainiac.)

For a one-click subscription, look for my name at's RSS page:

'Bloody' still banned in Britain

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 30, 2008 07:15 PM

While our media have to deploy the f-word to attract official attention, in England all it takes to offend is bloody -- even though nobody has ever connected the word conclusively to anything offensive.

Last week, the Guardian reported that

A cheeky ad by the Sun gloating about Britain winning more medals than Australia at the Beijing Olympics, using a twist on Australia "Where the bloody hell are you?" tourism, has been banned by the advertising regulator.
The ad featured as a giant billboard on a truck comparing Britain's 19 Beijing gold medals alongside Australia's 14 with the strapline "Where the bloody hell were you?"

Rupert Murdoch's News Group argued that the ad was a "light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, and gentle ribbing" of Australia. But the British Advertising Standards Authority said bloody was a swearword, not to be blazoned on buses for children to read.

Bloody is far more acceptable in Australia, but even there, the original tourist ad catchphrase -- "Where the bloody hell are you?" -- was hard for some to swallow. Prime Minister John Howard defended its use, but wouldn't repeat it on the air: "I'm not somebody who uses that expression, certainly not on radio," he told an interviewer in 2006.

More books to give (or get)

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 30, 2008 12:27 AM

As I say in today's Word column, it was a very good year for language books of all kinds. Here are a few more worthy titles that didn't make it into the print list:

"An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction," by Anatoly Liberman (University of Minnesota, $50). When a dictionary labels a word "origin unknown," it doesn't mean there aren't any good guesses. In this introductory volume of Liberman's project, he treats 55 English words of uncertain origin, from older (clover, toad) to newer (pimp, jeep), laying out the arguments for various etymologies and explaining which is most likely.

"Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling," by David Wolman (Collins, 24.95). In the course of this engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets, Wolman visits the Gutenberg Museum, pickets the Scripps National Spelling Bee, gets tested for dyslexia, and investigates the progress of spellchecking.

"When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge," by K. David Harrison (Oxford, $17.95). A linguist's close-up guide to some of the many ways of knowing -- of mapping, counting, keeping time, preserving history -- embedded in languages that are disappearing.

"Let's Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America's Favorite Expressions," by Rosemarie Ostler (Prometheus, $18.98). Homegrown idioms explained (except when they're inexplicable) by a careful researcher and entertaining writer.

"I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History's Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes," by Mardy Grothe (Collins, $14.95). Well, some are greater than others, but you're sure to find something memorable, like Brigitte Bardot's "Peanut butter is pate for children."

"Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider," by Michelle Arnot (Perigee, $13.95). I don't do crosswords much (I'm a double-crostic fan), but I found this guide enjoyable until -- through some binding error, presumably -- instead of the last chapter, my advance copy had 20-plus pages of one of those "Law of Attraction" books. (An Amazon search suggests that final copies are all fixed -- though maybe there's a market for the crossword-law of attraction combination?)

Previously mentioned in the course of 2008:

"The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus," by Joshua Kendall (Putman, $25.95). The life and times of Peter Mark Roget before he was a household name.

"Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change," by Lawrence A. Weinstein (Quest, $16.95). A writing teacher and playwright explores some psychological aspects of punctuation and grammar.

"The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English," by Mark Abley (Houghton Mifflin, $25). What's happening to English in L.A., Japan, cyberspace, and beyond.

A grateful jangle

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 25, 2008 04:10 PM

Reader Amy Kaufman is puzzled, she says in an e-mail, by a usage in the book "How Starbucks Saved My Life," by Michael Gates Gill. The sentence in question: "Fortunately, a train came quickly, and I rode up to Ninety-sixth Street in a grateful jangle of swaying noise and screeching rails."

Ignoring for the moment the mystifying "swaying noise," what I am wondering about is the "grateful jangle." I'm sure the author means that he, not the jangle, was the grateful one.

Grateful applied to a thing rather than a person sounds odd to me too -- a bit poetic or archaic -- but according to my dictionaries, grateful meaning "gratifying" is still standard usage. Says American Heritage, 4th edition: "Affording pleasure or comfort; agreeable." Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate: "affording pleasure or contentment; PLEASING."

As it happens, the inanimate grateful came up in a recent Language Log post about the use of the word "welcome" in a quote from Barack Obama: "I'll be welcome to ideas and suggestions from both sides of the aisle."

Such "role-shifting" by words is not unusual, wrote Mark Liberman, who cited grateful -- though he too was under the impression that its application to inanimate things was obsolete: "Thus grateful used to be used to mean not only "feeling gratitude", but also (alternatively) "engendering gratitude", i.e. (OED sense 1) "Pleasing to the mind or the senses, agreeable, acceptable, welcome." He gave the OED's 1814 quote from Sir Walter Scott: "Enjoying the grateful and cooling shade."

Ungrateful, not surprisingly, behaves the same way. The OED quotes, among other examples, "Certain foods are recognised, consciously or not, as grateful or ungrateful" (1897).

It may be ungrateful news in some quarters, but Gill's "grateful jangle" is good -- and current -- English.

We like 'mike'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 11, 2008 05:15 PM

It was only last month that I complained about the way "mic" for "microphone" makes me squint, so I was pleased to find fev at Headsup: The Blog -- in a post triggered by a headline with "Pads" for "Padres" -- casting a solid vote on my side.

In the beginning, he says, it was simple:

I had a bike, and a parental unit named Mike, and a reasonable pre-Sesame Street idea of what that "silent E" thing was up to. "Mike" seemed like the sensible way to shorten "microphone," partly because that's what grownups and experts did. …

So imagine my surprise, years later, to find out that I was apparently an irrational loony. "Open mike" means an Irishman in surgery! There's no "k" in "microphone"! Everybody knows the only proper spelling is "mic"!

What we're watching here, he says, is the a rule evolving and maybe changing, according to younger readers' notion of what's "natural."

If I was in charge of the how-to-spell-clippings rule, it'd look something like:
Most clippings are words on their own. Spell them the way you pronounce them. If a clipping resembles an existing word, you should expect people to read it that way.

That is: Many people will read "Pads" as "pads" (not "pods," as in Padres), and will see "miced" and think it rhymes with "sliced." That's the way our spelling conventions work … for now.

(Reuters Photo by Jessica Rinaldi)

More on #@!*

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 9, 2008 06:52 PM

Just as I was finishing up today's column about the swearing-on-TV case before the Supreme Court, Geoff Nunberg weighed in at Language Log on the side (theoretically) of the FCC, arguing that the F-word "can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning."

[When cultural liberals] uphold people's right to use this sort of language in public against the attempts to censor or limit it, they think of themselves not just as defending free speech, but as striking a blow against sexual repression and hypocrisy.

But taboo words have deeper roots, he thinks.

[D]irty words are magic spells that conjure up their references. We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power. That's why we behave as if we could render them inefficacious by the simple expedient of using asterisks in place of some of their letters -- magical spells have no power unless you say them just so.

Not all of the (several dozen) commenters are persuaded, but it's a terrific discussion.

If you missed the NPR interview on this topic with Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED and author of "The F-Word," hear it here.

And for another funny (semi-)dirty-word discussion, see John McIntyre's blog, here and here, on the brouhaha that ensued after his employer, the Baltimore Sun Group, published an issue of its youth-oriented free tabloid, B, with the one-word headline "Douchebag!" There's more to the story, he swears -- and demonstrates -- than "Those Damn Kids/Those Old Crocks predictabilities."

Language change we can believe in

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 8, 2008 12:33 PM

Ronald Reagan believed that enormity meant "vastness": ''I have always been well aware of the enormity of [the job of President]," he said in 1981. William Safire thought that was just fine: "The time has come to abandon the ramparts on enormity's connotations of wickedness," he wrote that same year in his New York Times language column.

Bill Clinton agreed. "Our support of reform must combine patience for the enormity of the task and vigilance for our fundamental interests," he said in his 1994 State of the Union speech.

Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, education activist, and Ph.D. in English, did too: "The enormity of the honor ... is just sinking in," Cheney said, more than once, after her husband's nomination.

Now Barack Obama is on the bandwagon; he has spoken of "the enormity of the task that lies ahead" in both post-election speeches.

Will this be the administration that ends the nitpicking over enormity?

A few critics are already tut-tutting, because for a century and more we've been told by usage writers to use enormity only for "great wickedness."

Dictionaries have not necessarily agreed. Webster's Second unabridged (1934, 1959) defined enormity as "State or quality of exceeding a measure or rule, or of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous." And the earliest English sense, says the OED, was "Divergence from a normal standard or type," reflecting the etymology of the word, literally "outside the norm."

The use of enormity to mean merely "vastness" dates to the late 18th century; in the late 19th, an editor of the OED added the note "this use is now regarded as incorrect." The American Heritage Usage Panel, as of 2002, agreed, by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. But the disapproval rating was down sharply from 1967, when 93 percent rejected enormity for "hugeness."

And the naysayers have never prevailed upon actual usage, as the multitude of quotations under enormity in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage shows. The sense presidential speechwriters like -- implying "a size that is daunting or overwhelming" -- is one of the commoner figurative uses.

Grant Barrett, language blogger and co-host of the radio show "A Way With Words," takes a middle ground on enormity: He doesn't disapprove of Obama's usage, "but I also believe that since the term is a bit 'skunked,' -- that is, there is a dispute about proper usage -- that in a speech of historical importance it should have been avoided."

On the other hand, this latest presidential seal of approval may help it get un-skunked faster. Wouldn't it be nice if four years from now, the dispute over enormity was forgotten?

(Photo: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Attack of the killer bee

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 1, 2008 06:25 PM

Well, I have just spent more time than I could spare at the new Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee site. Expugnable, ecchymosis, caitiff -- all those old bee friends are there, and some new ones too (hello, unau!).

I've been in a few real spelling bees -- local ones, to benefit public schools, and big-bucks corporate ones, to benefit the Literacy Foundation -- and they're fun, once you accept that luck plays a major role. Your team might get an ordinary word like abscission, or something unguessable, like haulm. ("Chiefly British. The stems of peas, beans, potatoes, or grasses.")

But for a spelling geek, the VT bee improves on the social version in a couple of satisfying ways. It gives you several tries -- infinite tries, for all I know -- to spell a word: cachumenal? cacuminole? cacumenal? -- only giving the answer when you click the surrender button (cacuminal: "Articulated with the tip of the tongue turned back and up toward the roof of the mouth").

And unlike a traditional spelling bee, it shuffles your misspelled words back into the list so you can try, try again. Urceole! Urceole! Urceole! ("A vessel for water for washing the hands.")

Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Visual Thesaurus, explains the inner workings of the bee, with graphs, at the Oxford University Press blog. The process is addictive, he says, because

it’s been designed to be adaptive, so the more words that are spelled correctly, the more difficult the words become. And conversely, if you’re not a great speller, the words will get easier and easier. That way a player will always be quizzed at the appropriate skill level.

The algorithm is constantly refining itself:

Every five minutes, words are rescored for difficulty taking into account the latest data from the Bee spellers. That means there’s an increasingly better fit to different skill levels. As the player continues to spell, the quiz narrows in on his or her score, on a scale from 200 to 800.

And if you're a Visual Thesaurus member, with a $19.99 subscription, the site will post your name and score when you rank in the top 10 spellers of the day or month.

Wear headphones, advises the site, but even with headphones I had trouble distinguishing between some initial-consonant pairs, like th/ph, v/b, and t/k; you want to look extra carefully at the (not always helpful) definitions when one of these consonants comes along.

Mark my words, and his, and hers

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 25, 2008 02:40 PM

Lionel Shriver, author of "The Post-Birthday World" and other novels, has an essay in today's Wall Street Journal about the missing quotation marks in modern fiction. Someone must have issued a memo, she writes, saying "Cool writers don't use quotes in dialogue anymore."

She thinks (and I, a traditionalist when it comes to fiction, agree) that making the reader do the work of quotation marks has a downside.

By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous. Surely what should distinguish literature isn't that it's hard but that it's good.

And, she argues, omitting quote marks makes it hard to turn up the volume of dialogue. Reading a line like

Is this what you're like with LizAnn? I heard myself scream,

you don't hear the scream; it's "like watching chase scenes in 'The Bourne Supremacy' with the sound off."

But there are a couple of problems with the example she has chosen for her demonstration, a passage from Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men":

You could head south to the river.

Yeah. You could.

Less open ground.

Less aint none.

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. No cloud cover in sight.

Shriver then gives the same passage with quotes:

"You could head south to the river."

"Yeah. You could."

"Less open ground."

"Less aint none."

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. "No cloud cover in sight."

With the quotation marks added, "Is that landscape any less vast?" she asks.

But her repunctuation poses other questions. Why put "No cloud cover in sight" in quotation marks? I read it as the author's voice, not the character's.

More problematic yet: These lines of "dialogue" aren't really. They're interior monologue; Llewellyn Moss (played in the movie by Josh Brolin, above) is alone in the West Texas desert, debating his options. The monologue-styled-as-dialogue goes on:

You need to be somewhere come daylight.

Home in bed would be good.

Punctuating those back-and-forth thoughts as separate utterances wouldn't be appropriate when they're really one person's musings. Maybe italics would work -- at least then we'd know whether the "cloud cover" line is meant as a thought balloon (her interpretation) or part of the narrative (mine).

I'm still with Shriver in general; I pump my own gas and load my own groceries, but I'd rather not be asked to bring my own punctuation. But the McCarthy excerpt isn't the example that proves the point.

Proofs for puddingheads

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 19, 2008 06:15 PM

In today's On Language column, William Safire argues that our modern streamlining of the old saying "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" does violence to the original. Shortening it, as Gwen Ifill did on TV recently, to "the proof is in the pudding" has "leached out its historical meaning," says Safire.

I've written about "the proof is in the pudding" before, but unlike Safire and Michael Quinion, whom Safire quotes, I thought the expression remained pretty transparent in its short form. "The proof is in the pudding" surely implies that you taste the pudding -- nobody takes it to mean that the proof is conceealed inside the pudding, like a fortune in a fortune cookie.

But I'd never looked into the age of the short version. Its popularity is relatively new -- you can tell that by the fact that many of us grew up with the long form, while there are younger people have heard only the short form -- but is the phrasing itself a 20th-century innovation?

It is not, it turns out. Google Books finds it in an 1863 novel by D.S. Henry: "The proof is in the pudding -- or the turkey if you please, so I will even ring for it."

It shows up in the British Farmer's Magazine in 1867: "Although, as the proof is in the pudding, as seen at this and other gatherings, there was ample material even without cattle, to make a capital show."

And in the U.S., in "The Aunts' Cook Book" in 1922:

Love's protestations naught confirm,
Despite all would-and-shoulding;
Love's labour marks the final test,
The proof is in the pudding.

After the mid-20th century there are abundant examples to choose from, but perhaps my favorite comes from "Acid Test," a 1963 collection by the sharp-tongued theater and film critic John Simon. Simon has long been an outspoken usage traditionalist, but not in this case: "Ultimately, however," he writes, "the proof is in the pudding, and there is no more pudding-headed dramaturgy around town than in 'A Passage to lndia' and 'The Aspern Papers.'"

Perhaps Simon has since repented of his casual usage. But if he didn't see a problem with "the proof is in the pudding," I can pretty much guarantee that the campaign against it is doomed.

Red herring a mystery no more

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 18, 2008 02:53 PM


Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has thought for years that there was something fishy about the expression "red herring," meaning a false trail or distraction. If the red (smoked) herring scent was meant to lead foxhounds astray, who would have been laying down that trail, and why?

In today's weekly newsletter, however, he reports the mystery has been solved by a couple of scholars, and the newly verified story will soon take its place in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The metaphor had previously been traced to a 17th-century fox-hunting handbook suggesting that "a dead cat or fox should be dragged as a training-scent for the hounds, so that the horses could follow them. If you had no acceptably ripe dead animals handy . . . you could as a last resort use a red herring." But nothing in the source hinted that herring might be used to lay a false trail.

In fact, the false-scent sense apparently originated with journalist William Cobbett, "whose Weekly Political Register thundered in the years 1803-35 against the English political system."

He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off more important domestic matters: "It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone."

Red herring as "false scent" is of course deeply embedded in the language -- mere facts are not about to dislodge it from its metaphorical perch. But now we know that the story it's based on was one writer's politically useful yarn, not an ancient fox-hunting ritual.

Green and clean behind the ears

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 15, 2008 08:34 PM

In a couple of hours we'll be chewing over the highlights of the third presidential debate, but you'll still want to check out Ben Zimmer's nice column on the blended idiom Obama produced in debate no. 2: "green behind the ears."

Surely this is just a combination of green (as in naïve) and "wet behind the ears" (as in newborn and not yet dry in all the hollows). What's surprising is its age: Zimmer finds "green behind the ears" in print as early as 1924. And according to a couple of commenters, the variant exists in German too.

All these damp ears reminded me of "wash behind your ears," a familiar admonition from books if not from my own childhood. How did that area come to be singled out for special scrubbing?

Google Books turns up some references to washing behind the ears for therapeutic purposes -- headache cures and the like -- in the early 19th century. But the earliest reference to childish ablutions comes from the British humor magazine Puppet Show, in 1849, in a list of (supposed) etchings done by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who really did do etchings):

-- Portrait of the Princess Royal. -- Portrait of the Princess Royal with her hair in papers. -- Portrait of the Princess Royal before having her face washed. -- Portrait of the Princess Royal refusing to allow the nurserymaid to wash behind her ears. --Portrait of the Prince of Wales being sent into the corner.

Then comes "Portrait of the Prince of Wales being sent into a corner," and so on.

This focus on ear cleanliness continues for more than a century. A few samples:

"'Bathe other people's children; but don't wash behind their ears.' -- That is to
say: Do not be servile in obsequiousness to others." (Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs, 1885)

"I'll wash behind my ears too, without being told." (Lucy Maud Montgomery, "Anne of Avonlea," 1909)

"[W]ith the expression of a small boy who has been publicly exhorted to wash behind the ears, [he] said: "Some days he's here, some not." (Dorothy Sayers, "Busman's Honeymoon," 1937)

"[S]he would never really forgive him for being able to button his own buttons and wash behind his ears." (William Faulkner, "Intruder in the Dust," 1948)

Why the century-long ear thing? It must have been the intersection of the Industrial Revolution's built-up grime and the dawn of indoor plumbing, with its rising standards of cleanliness, that triggered it. A century or so later, getting really clean was no longer hard work, and we've gradually given up treating retroaural cleanliness as the index of a young person's hygienic competence.

Brie and chablis: A match made in Washington?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 10, 2008 01:33 PM

In today's Wall Street Journal, wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher do a "fact check" on a politically charged wine-and-cheese combo. Their conclusion, in the words of the subhead: "Whoever came up with this slam on liberal voters never tasted the pairing." Brie and chablis, they say, both deserve better partners.

They're tasting cap-C Chablis, of course -- the real French stuff, not the domestic "chablis" that comes in a jug. But linguistically that doesn't matter; we all know the phrase is about political flavors, not actual refreshments. So where did it come from?

Dottie feels it has something to do with Leonard Bernstein's famous party to raise legal-defense money from rich white liberals for a group of Black Panthers. … However, according to Tom Wolfe's famous, liberal-lampooning, satirical account of the party, the cheese served that night was Roquefort. ["Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts," in fact.]
The catchphrase "Brie and Chablis" to mean snooty liberal seems to have really caught fire during the third-party presidential campaign of John Anderson in 1980.

Sure enough, the earliest cite in the Nexis news database comes from a Mark Shields column in the Washington Post in April 1980: "For John Anderson to be a true challenger for the presidency, he cannot be either a 'spoiler' or simply the favorite of the brie-and-chablis set."

But during the '70s, political news stories do mention "wine and cheese" parties, generally for liberal candidates. In 1977, said the Washington Post, "There were garage sales, auctions jogging exhibitions, wine and cheese parties … all in the name of participatory democracy. For the most part, the campaigns were low-budget operations."

Wine and cheese, you may notice (or remember), has a somewhat different connotation from brie and chablis. In the '70s, a wine and cheese party is not what the Bernsteins were hosting on Park Avenue; it's a cheap and simple alternative to a cocktail party, beloved by tweedy professors and graduate students and young couples on a budget.

They were escaping from the sort of party fare Peg Bracken prescribed in her 1960 blockbuster, "The I Hate to Cook Book": processed cheese mashed up with port or bacon or onions, store-bought biscuit dough wrapped around anchovies and baked. If a platter of Jarlsberg and St.-Andre had been an option for the harried hostess, that processed cheese would have been off the menu quicker than you can say Olive-Oyster Dip.

So here's my theory: Wine and cheese parties come along with the foodie movement, as an obvious and convenient improvement on the bourbon-and-cheese puffs cocktail party. Around 1980, some political wordsmith notices that "brie and chablis" not only rhymes, it sounds much snootier than "wine and cheese," even though this chablis is probably California jug wine.

The mystery is that nobody has taken credit for the coinage. In a 2003 column, William Safire claimed that "the brie-and-Chablis set" was used by politicians in the '60s, but I suspect that's a shot in the dark. Safire himself doesn't use "brie and chablis" till 1983, nor does he have earlier citations of it in "Safire's Political Dictionary."

So I'm paging Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus, who among other feats of word sleuthing has tracked the legend of Churchill's "up with which I will not put." If Ben can't find the culprit, no one can.

And by the way, say Brecher and Gaiter: "According to a July Gallup poll, among Americans who consume any type of alcoholic beverage, 37% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say wine is what they drink most often."

Parsing Palin

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April October 6, 2008 12:16 PM

After last week's VP debate, reader James Maiewski e-mailed about a Sarah Palinism that struck him: "The way she uses 'that' as a demonstrative even when there's no apparent antecedent" -- for instance, "Americans are craving that straight talk."

"Any thoughts?" he asked. But there was no need to think: Real linguists have been parsing Sarah Palin so I don't have to. Before I even opened Maiewski's e-mail, Mark Liberman at Language Log had already laid out the terms of the that question, the stats, and the history, and comments on the subtleties of the "affective demonstrative" were rolling in.

There's more Palinalia, much more, at Language Log. Liberman also diagrams the Palin sentence that Maureen Dowd called undiagrammable and, separately, analyzes Palin's deployment of also. Geoff Nunberg disagrees with Steven Pinker's analysis of the "nucular" pronunciation Palin favors. And Arnold Zwicky explores Palin's so-called g-dropping and use of "gonna," asking, among other things, why the New Yorker chose (unusually) to transcribe it as "gonna" in its recent Palin profile.

And if you're curious about Paul J.J. Payack's assertion, repeated by CNN, that Palin spoke at an eighth-grade-plus level in the debate while Joe Biden clung by his fingertips to the seventh-grade level, go read Michael Covarrubias, at Wishydig, for a patient (and sometimes impatient) explanation of the utter silliness of the claim.

Are you smarter than a fourth-grader?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 30, 2008 03:18 PM

Today's "Curtis" has me utterly baffled. Why is it a good thing Coach Otlowski wasn't hired to teach English, aside from his general abusiveness? The only thing nonstandard in his speech is "chubbery," which seems like a reasonable enough coinage as a noun for collective chubbiness -- and more appropriate than "flab" for a bunch of kids.

Am I missing something?

UPDATE 10/5: Well, on Wednesday, "Curtis" made another stab at some bad English, when Coach said "It's them video games and textin' and iPods what's dunnit!"

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage -- and if you're reading this you want to own MWDEU -- says of demonstrative them:

It has been in use for about four centuries, and has still not reached respectability. In writing, then, you can expect to find it in the same places you would find words of similar status: In reported speech, in fictitious speech (especially of little-educated characters), and, especially in the 20th century, in the familiar usage of educated people when they are being humorous.

And of what used as a relative pronoun ("what's dunnit"):

As a relative pronoun, what is quite old, apparently having been introduced into Old English on analogy with some uses of quod in Latin. . . . Our present evidence shows that relative what survives in the United States primarily in Midland and Southern speech areas and is used chiefly by the little educated. It was once in frequent use by dialect humorists.

As for dunnit, it's what is often called "eye dialect" -- it looks nonstandard, but the pronunciation it represents is the one we all use. It wouldn't sound odd to Curtis and his classmates.

The Ridger's suggestion -- that Curtis is glad this bully isn't teaching English, a class where he's vulnerable -- strikes me as too subtle, especially given the (lack of) development of the theme since Tuesday. But we'll see where it goes.

So long, summer

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 22, 2008 07:39 PM

Another deadline missed: As of 11:44 this morning, it's officially autumn. I meant to squeeze in a few more summer blog items, but unlike Arlo, I''m too late; my summer reading roundup, part 2, will now be a fall book report.

Still, the inexorable calendar is no reason not to share some of the Words I Noticed on My Summer Vacation.

No Bicycles No Walkers: When I saw this sign above a state highway in Ohio, warning of a construction zone ahead, the picture that popped up for me was a line of elderly shoppers forced to push their walkers around the block on a detour. A blink later, I realized it meant "no pedestrians." I was led astray, I suppose, by the mismatch of terms: If the sign read "No Bicyclists No Walkers" it would have been clear it meant people, not mechanical devices. And besides, who ever heard of a bureaucrat choosing a normal word like "walkers" when he could have used "pedestrians" or "foot traffic"? That's what I call misleading.

Bunglehouse Blue: Every paint maker's fandeck includes some bizarre color names, but even in a world of Leisure Time, Taupe Trivia, and Eccentricity, Sherwin-Williams's Bunglehouse Blue leaped out at me. Choosing a paint is tough enough -- why tempt fate with something labeled a "bungle"?

But it turns out bunglehouse has a charming history: It comes from the Roycroft settlement in East Aurora, N.Y., a late-19th-century hotbed of Arts & Crafts design. The original bunglehouse, a converted chicken coop/blacksmith shop, now a museum, served as a studio for the artist Alexis Fournier. According to American Bungalow magazine, "Fournier named this idyllic but somewhat haphazard little building the 'bungle-house,' because, he said, 'it didn't deserve to be called a bungalow.'"

So paint in peace, bungle or no. Or if your home renovation is up to date, try the paint name game: I scored 7 out of 10, so I'm a Paint Color God. (In theory only: The unused gallons in the basement tell a different story.)

Give it to the Goodwill: This summer I heard my mom say "the Goodwill," which I couldn't remember hearing before in her (and my former) neck of the woods. "Give it to Goodwill," we said, or "Give it to charity." But of course it was "Give it to the Salvation Army."

"The Goodwill" is a minority option, but it doesn't seem to be a regionalism, like Southern Californians' calling highways "the 405" and "the 10." "The Goodwill" shows up all over the nation. Could be the influence of "the Salvation Army," "the dump," "the rummage sale." Could be that the specific use ("Let's stop at the Goodwill store") is influencing the generic use, or that the two versions are used in different situations. Or is it a generational thing? Readers, tell us what you say: Goodwill or the Goodwill?

Abe Lincoln, cool cat?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 21, 2008 10:01 AM

It would be so cool if Abe Lincoln had been the first person to use cool to mean something like, you know, cool. That seems to be what William Safire, my wordie counterpart at the New York Times, is suggesting in today's column.

"Earliest use I can find in an ironic context -- meaning 'really something' -- is in the political speech" Lincoln gave on Feb. 27, 1860, says Safire:

The visitor from Illinois took on those who were threatening secession if an anti-slavery Republican were elected: "In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' "

But in the tradition of Honest Abe, I have to record a dissent. Lincoln's "That is cool" means something more specific than "that's really something"; today he might say "What chutzpah!" His highwayman analogy, in fact, is very like the classic example of chutzpah, the guy who kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan.

But this sense of cool was not Lincoln's invention, nor even unusual. The 1852 edition of Noah Webster's dictionary has it: "3. Not hasty; deliberate; as, a cool falsehood or deception. Hence, 4. Impudent in a high degree, as when speaking of some trick, pretension, &c., we say 'that is cool.' "

Thanks to Google Books, it's easy to find the usage in 19th-century works. In Evelyn Benson's "Ashcombe Churchyard" (1862), for example, a man rebukes his sister for referring to a trouser pocket. "Upon my word," said George, "that is cool! let me never hear you dare to mention that part of a gentleman's dress, Lucy."

And the online Oxford English Dictionary, which just this month published an updated entry for cool, dates this use of the word -- "deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption" -- to 1723.

Lincoln's cool may well have led, decades later, to our modern cool -- so long-lived it's now labeled "colloquial" instead of "slang." But our cool isn't clearly attested till 1918, when the OED lists "*a cool kid" as one way of "expressing admiration for another's cleverness or cunning." Lincoln's cool may have been effective speechifying, but it was no novelty to his audience.

Update 2:30 p.m.: Mr. Verb has questions about "cool" too, and about some of the column's other assertions.

The photo of Lincoln, from the Slave Heritage Resource Center, is labeled as dating from the 1860 Cooper Union appearance where Lincoln said "That is cool."

Dissing 'disconnect'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 15, 2008 01:42 PM

Carrie and friends were surprised by L.A.'s scenes -- and sounds.

Marc McGarry e-mails to ask about a noun that seems all wrong: "Lots of people speak these days about 'a disconnect' between this and that. … What's wrong with 'disconnection'?"

Nothing is wrong with disconnection, the noun of the 18th and 19th centuries -- except maybe that it's a little bit long. But the 20th-century noun, disconnect, seems to have arisen separately from telephone company usage -- or so the OED's early citations suggest.

The first sense is "an act or instance of disconnecting; a break of (esp. electrical or telephone) connection." The evidence:

1951 N.Y. Times 22 Dec. 15/1 They were not liable when local law enforcement agencies provided information upon which a disconnect order was based. 1958 Los Angeles Times 19 Aug. B4/2 Now if someone would only invent a telephone that would sift out unwanted calls with a disconnect on the first ring. 1987 E. H. J. PALLETT Aircraft Electr. Syst. (ed. 3) ii. 40 When a disconnect has taken place, the indicator button is released from magnetic attraction.
Then there's sense 2, "a complete lack of understanding, agreement, or consistency; a discrepancy":
1983 N.Y. Times 17 June B6/5 There is a total, absolute disconnect between the Administration and the Congress as to what the armed forces are to do. 1993 Coloradoan (Fort Collins) 16 Jan. A8/5 Experts on the presidency routinely talk about there being a ‘disconnect’ or ‘disengagement’ between what candidates promise on the campaign trail and what they say and do once they are elected. 2002 Business Week 5 Aug. 54/1 In a disturbing disconnect, Stanley Furniture Co ... has seen furniture sales slide even as the housing industry has continued to boom.

Me, I experienced a disconnect over disconnect back in 2000, when an episode of "Sex and the City" set in Los Angeles showed Carrie hearing the word for the first time. "Disconnect?" she asked wonderingly. Even in a series with few pretensions to plausibility, I didn't buy the notion that a New York writer would be learning this word only in 2000, and from a Los Angeles hustler at that. See that first citation, dated 1951? That's the New York Times, deploying disconnect seven years ahead of the L.A. Times. Would it take a Carrie Bradshaw 49 years to catch up with it? I don't think so.

The semicolon: not dead yet

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 14, 2008 03:29 PM

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, which picked up last month's Word column about semicolons, I heard from semicolon fans around the world -- sending me back for another round on the topic in today's column.

Even there I didn't have space for all the good semicolon comments from readers, so here are some of the highlights:

* Meredith Rose e-mailed from Australia: "Loved your piece ‘Sex and the Semicolon’ and couldn’t resist emailing to tell you of an Australian writer, Xavier Herbert ("Poor Fellow My Country," among other novels), who so hated the semicolon he sawed the key off his typewriter. Guess that meant he didn’t use colons either."

Actually, Herbert is quoted in Sean Monahan's 2003 biography, "A Long and Winding Road," saying "Why use a Semicolon (which is an ugly thing) when you can use a Colon, which has symmetry?" So the tale is probably apocryphal, though entertaining.

* Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, sent along a link to his post on the semicolon -- in Orwell's prose and his own -- from Emerson College's ArtsJournal.

* B.G. Thorpe mentioned an appreciation of the Bembo typeface used in the text with "the first ever printed semi-colons," in Aldus Manutius's "De Aetna," 1495. "How can anyone know that that is true?" asked Thorpe.

No one can, of course -- they mean it's the earliest extant printed semicolon; there might have been earlier semicolons that failed to survive. But Aldus gets the credit generally: In Slate, Paul Collins wrote that ancient Greeks used the semicolon as a question mark, and "after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe."

Lynne Truss also credited Aldus with the semicolon in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," and so does the National Library of Scotland, which has Aldus works in its rare books collection, and probably knows whereof it speaks.

* Jesse Jones was inspired by the semicolon column "to re-read the clever short story 'The Creative Impulse' by Somerset Maugham, which pointedly has a density of semicolons."

I haven't read the story, but I found this tantalizing excerpt, which introduces Mrs. Albert Forrester as a writer who "in a flash of inspiration ... had discovered the comic possibilities of the semi-colon":

She was able to place it in such a way that if you were a person of culture with a keen sense of humour, you did not exactly laugh through a horse-collar, but you giggled delightedly. … [W]hatever else you might say about Mrs Albert Forrester you were bound to admit that she was able to get every ounce of humour out of the semi-colon and no one else could get within a mile of her.

* Finally, both Marc McGarry and Peter Ash wrote to remind me that "Wit," the 1999 play by Margaret Edson, makes much of the importance of punctuation in Donne's "Death Be Not Proud." A teacher tells the protagonist that the end of the poem should read,

And death shall be no more,
Death thou shalt die.

A semicolon after "more" is too much, says the professor: "Nothing but a breath -- a comma -- separates life from life everlasting."

So if you can't go admire Emerson's semicolon in Concord to mark National Punctuation Day, you might watch the film version of "Wit," starring Emma Thompson, instead. Or maybe you, like me, are ready for a little vacation from the semicolon.

Where in the world was Robert Novak?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 10, 2008 01:28 PM

"Near Cape Cod" -- does that sound normal to you, or a little bit weird? The question has been bugging me since late July, when the news broke that syndicated columnist Robert Novak had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Several sources, including the AP and the New York Times, reported that Novak had been taken ill while he was on a family vacation "near Cape Cod."

That phrase struck me as unusual, at least for New Englanders. What's "near Cape Cod"? Maybe, if you were telling someone from Burbank or Mumbai where Buzzards Bay was, you might say "near Cape Cod." But in common usage, vacation spots are generally on the Cape or off the Cape, not "near the Cape."

So where was Novak? In a column about his illness published Sunday, he explained:

My wife, Geraldine, and I left Washington on Saturday to spend the weekend with our daughter, Zelda, and her husband, Christopher Caldwell, and their children at their summer house at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.

Near Cape Cod? No. Near Cape Ann, northeast of Boston? Yes. Part of Cape Ann, even, according to the Chamber of Commerce, which lists Manchester, Essex, Gloucester, and Rockport as the Cape's four towns.

And where did the mixup come from? The earliest reports with "near Cape Cod" quote a statement at the website of the Chicago Sun-Times, Novak's home newspaper, that's no longer available, but that seems to credit the information to Novak's assistant, Kathleen Connolly.

Did Connolly name the wrong Cape, or did someone else goof writing down her quote? I'm trying to track down the origin of the error, though it may prove impossible. But I feel better knowing that "near Cape Cod" really was just as fishy as it smelled when I first encountered it.

Me, myself, and her

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 7, 2008 11:24 AM

IMG_2380-JAN-EDITED.jpgAs I mention in today's Word column, I met the other Jan Freeman, the poet and publisher from Ashfield, Mass., last week, after learning that she, like me, had fans -- relatives, even! -- who didn't know we were two different people.

There's no particular reason one's name-sharer should share any other traits, of course, but when two women have come from elsewhere and settled in Massachusetts for careers in publishing, it's also no surprise when they do have things in common. We arrived at the DeCordova Museum, our meeting place, in our respective Subarus; we drank diet Cokes and agreed that a milkshake -- the real kind, with ice cream -- is the the appropriate treat for anyone still numb from a dental procedure (don't ask). We confessed to literary or otherwise clever names for dogs past and present.


That's the prosaic Jan (me) in the top photo, and the poetic Jan in the one to the left.

The other Jan -- who, of course, thinks of me as "the other Jan" -- grew up near Philadelphia, lived in Ohio and New York City, and came here in the '90s to found Paris Press, which has published prose and poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and others.

I've known of the other Jan's existence since 2000, when a Globe colleague handed me a copy of "Simon Says," her second book of poems, with what looked like my byline on the cover. But I hadn't suspected she was fielding so many Word questions till this summer, when my own cousin asked about "my" poetry reading in Hartford, and I decided to investigate.

So for the record, here we are, in not especially flattering snapshots (another point on which we agree). And here too, as a memory aid for our confused friends and relations, are a few lines from the poetic Jan. (And that's definitely not me.)

A Winter's Story

Once a bear found a yellow window
and she sat beside the window during the day
She watched the dogs eat breakfast and clean their paws
She watched a lady wash dishes and eat a piece of bread covered with jam
Once a bear slept through winter and dreamed of a yellow window
No one woke the bear
Snow covered her den
Night and day were the same for the bear
Once a woman lit a fire
and imagined that the flames were cities,
people ran from door to door leaving gifts and love letters
Sometimes they ate bread and jam and watched the fire
Once two dogs slept during the day and cleaned their paws
at the same time in the late morning and early evening
They ate spaghetti for special occasions
and slept side by side
Once the sky was the sky
and no one spoke to the meadow
The maples waved through loneliness
The hilltop was a flag signaling seasons changing
Some birds slept in the maples some slept in the birch
Some were loyal, some were fickle
Once an orange fish noticed a bear admiring herself in the pond's reflection
Once a bear grabbed an orange fish under water
She stuffed it in her mouth
Better than jam and bread, she said
The dogs saw the bear and ran to the hilltop
The lady watched the dogs run and followed them with a long gun
The maples and birch swayed happily
The dogs and the lady stood beside them
and watched the bear swallow the orange fish
No one thought about the yellow window
They all ran around outside
and then the snow fell like feathers onto the ground.

Friendship Song

Empathy sympathy empathy kiss
empathy hold sympathy kiss
sympathy sympathy empathy hold
empathy hold kiss hold
sympathy kiss sympathy kiss
sympathy kiss empathy hold
empathy hold kiss hold
empathy sympathy kiss hold
hold kiss empathy hold
kiss hold sympathy kiss
kiss kiss kiss kiss
sympathy empathy kiss hold

Return of the living dead

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 6, 2008 04:34 PM

Oh, no -- it's back! Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's book critic, has favored readers with a back-to-school appreciation of Strunk and White's unkillable usage manual, "The Elements of Style":

For half a century "The Elements of Style" has been my constant companion. ... It is that to this day, and if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste.

But Yardley, who calls himself a Strunkaholic, credits the wrong author with some of the rules he finds so helpful. The 1959 book (and later editions) is packed with midcentury fetishes that E.B. White subscribed to, but that Strunk -- already deceased when White took on the expansion of Strunk's "little book," published in 1918 --- had not.

Yardley notes, for instance, that Strunkaholics mustn't confuse which and that. Strunk, however, did not follow this rule: He uses the restrictive which that White theoretically opposes. For instance, Strunk says:

Thanking you in advance. This sounds as if the writer meant, "It will not be worth my while to write to you again." Simply write, "Thanking you," and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.

But wait, there's more: Even E.B. White used restrictive which (or perhaps left out a comma?) on the first page of "Stuart Little," as Geoffrey Pullum noted at Language Log: ''Mrs. Little ... weighed him on a small scale which was really meant for weighing letters."

And if Strunk believed that none must take a singular verb -- a "rule" unknown for most of the history of English -- I can't find him saying so in the little book. Usage tastes changed between Strunk's heyday and White's, just as they have changed since 1959.

As I wrote a few years ago, the book has a lot of silly or half-explained "rules" and a little advice about writing that's fine if you're already a good enough writer to apply it.

But treating "Elements" as a bible of good usage is literally laughable. Read through the chapter on "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused": If you can get past the entry for "Clever" with a straight face, you've got too much self-control for your own good.

Still more tats (and tattoos too)

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 1, 2008 01:28 PM

tweety.jpgSeveral readers of this week's Word column have asked if "tit for tat" plays a role here -- either in the history of tats as an abbreviation for tattoos or in my (mild) aversion to the word tats.

Says one faithful reader (after apologizing preemptively): "I couldn't help but think that the origin of 'tit for tat' must have been a strip show catering to tattooed sailors."

But tit for tat is a different story entirely (except for irrepressible punsters and giggly middle-schoolers). It's an alteration of "tip for tap," a less gory version of "an eye for an eye," and has no more connection to tattoos than Tweety Bird's "I tawt I taw a puddy tat."

Tat, however, has a number of obscure senses besides those I mentioned in the column. The OED lists it, with an 1840 citation, as an abbreviation for a different tattoo, a pony native to India. Another tat, of about the same vintage, means "rag" -- origin uncertain, but it could be related to Old English tættec, also "rag." A tat is also a tangle of hair. And tats or tatts can mean loaded dice (1688) or, in Australian slang, teeth (1919).

Then there's the military tattoo, a drumbeat or bugle call signaling troops to return to quarters. That one began as tap-too in the 17th century, from the Dutch taptoe in same sense. Who'd have thought English had adopted tattoo three times, in three senses, from three different languages?

Tat's all for now!

Is that why they call it dummy type?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 26, 2008 01:08 PM

A not-quite-finished headline from the Springfield, Ohio, News-Sun (dated Aug. 24 but still on the website in this form):


We're laughing with you, fellow editors, not at you; everyone who works on deadline eventually misses one of these. Even so, the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation -- also known as Hartman's, McKean's, Skitt's, or Muphry's Law -- all but guarantees that I'll be publishing something mockable in the next week or two. (Or maybe the retribution will fall upon those who sent me the link. Thanks, Vicki Croke and Mike Pingree, and good luck evading the Law, you guys!)

You can look but you better not touch

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 25, 2008 03:51 PM

As the Globe and many others have reported, Somerville resident Jeff Deck and his buddy Benjamin Herson pleaded guilty to vandalism in Arizona, after they corrected some of the punctuation on a sign inside the Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park.

The sign, unfortunately for the punctuation vigilantes, had been handpainted by the watchtower's architect, Mary Colter; they're paying $3,000 to have it restored.

Here's a photo of the sign, pre-correction, from Flickr, where you can find the original with large enough lettering to edit (remotely and theoretically, of course).


For more comments on the apostrophe hunters' bust, see Language Log (which provided the Flickr link), You Don't Say, The Greenbelt, and Watch Yer Language.

A semicolon is forever

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 23, 2008 09:25 AM

Since my Word column and blog post on the decline of the semicolon, defenders of the threatened mark have risen to support it against the calumnies -- "girly," "ugly," "pusillanimous," and the like -- that I quoted.

But Rachel Manwill has endorsed the semicolon with more than words: She has the mark tattooed on the back of her neck.

Manwill, an editor for PR Newswire in Washington, D.C., won over her mother with a "poetic" rationale for the tattoo:

I find the semicolon to be an appropriate metaphor or reminder for how I'd like to live my life. The placement of the tattoo is especially important. I forever struggle in making decisions; either I overanalyze and overthink even after the choice has been made, or I shoot from the gut or rely on emotion. The semicolon tattoo exists (on my neck) to remind me that my head and my body (gut/heart/emotions) are separate entities, but should also be used together as a fluid, cooperative unit.

As an editor, she naturally looked at a lot of typefaces before settling on 80-point Times New Roman. "I'm not particularly fond of TNR as a font to type with, but there's something very classic and appropriately elegant about using it" as a tattoo, she says.

And the (potentially) discreet location has worked out well. "My mom is very happy that it is easy to hide, but my editorial director likes to show it off to her colleagues and clients."

How big is your empire?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 18, 2008 11:47 PM


Erin McKean is both lexicographer and sewing maven, and the two vocations blend seamlessly today at her blog A Dress a Day. McKean asks whether the empire waist -- that style that makes Jane Austen heroines look so fetching, and real people so pregnant -- is fostering the notion that the "empire" is a location on the body.

She quotes a dress description: "It cinches at the empire (the ideal spot for a wrap to fall)."

"If you had never made the connection that 'empire' in this context refers to an actual empire, it would be completely logical to assume that 'empire' is a more genteel way to say 'high-waisted' or 'under bust,' right? Folk etymologies come up with explanations that seem logical and that fit the facts. Which is a simpler explanation: that a silhouette is named after some long-dead French people, or that the name is based on the part of the body it emphasizes?"

(Actually, it might make sense to have a name for that under-the-bust circumference, since the bra people -- the ones who are always claiming that 7 or 8 or 9 out of 10 women wear the wrong size, though how the heck would they know? -- always instruct you to measure there first. They could say it more economically: "Your cup size depends on the difference between your empire and your bust.")

If the usage catches on, McKean says, "I also look forward to finding out that the part of my body where the knee meets the calf is called 'the capri,' and that a little further down I have a 'clamdigger.' "

Give another listen

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 18, 2008 01:31 PM

RCA.jpgSo there I was, waiting for takeout in the parking lot of Lobsta Land in Gloucester, and I switched on the radio, just in time to hear Bill Littlefield, of WBUR's "Only a Game," read a listener's e-mail.

The writer was castigating Littlefield for saying people could "take a closer listen" to the program online. Listen is a verb, not a noun, he said.

And he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Now, I understand that people send off these protests in haste, consulting their dudgeon rather than their dictionary. But why, I ask every time, why do their targets meekly accept such rebukes, instead of checking the facts?

Bill gets partial credit, since he didn't actually apologize. Still, by airing the letter he implicitly conceded that the critic's point, thus helping reinforce his error.

Here's the scoop: Listen was a noun as early as 1788 (the online OED's oldest citation). In 1817, Jane Austen's sister Cassandra used it in a letter: "But that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house." (Thanks to for the text.)

Listen, n., was in Webster's Second Unabridged 50 years ago (and probably earlier, but that's my edition), with a quote from Kipling: "I listened, and with each listen the game grew clearer."

Even if this listen weren't in our dictionaries, that wouldn't make the usage wrong, of course -- but that's another point, one Erin McKean made so effectively in a recent column that I don't need to restate it here.

Taking the zhing out of Beijing

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 16, 2008 05:02 PM

Olympics watchers may have noticed that the balance of power is shifting between two pronunciations of Beijing. As the word spreads, announcers are trying -- some of them, anyway -- to say bay-jing instead of the faux-French bay-zhing.

Yesterday on "All Things Considered," NPR's Anthony Kuhn explained why it's "j as in juice." And today the Globe ran an AP story on it, contrasting Brian Williams's correct pronunciation with Bob Costas and Meredith Vieira's bay-zhing.

Bay-zhing came into usage because it sounded more foreign, said one AP source, echoing a common explanation -- that we tend to add a foreign sound, appropriate or not, to an unfamiliar but non-English word. It's not that we have to pronounce foreign place names as native speakers do: We don't say Paree or Venezia. But the pronunciation should make sense in English, if not in its language of origin, and the -zh- in bay-zhing fails that test.

Ossetia is a tougher one. Steve Dodson at LanguageHat blogged about it last Sunday:

I realize none of the broadcasters and reporters have ever heard of Ossetia before, but you'd think the patterns of English spelling would clue them in to its proper pronunciation, ah-SEE-shə.* I suppose it's another case of hyperforeignification, like "bei-ZHING."

That's right, he said ah-SEE-shə. You can hear Ossetia pronounced at Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (though they give it four syllables, not LanguageHat's three): ah-SEE-she-ə.

But Russians say os-SET-ee-ə, and if you listen to BBC radio, you may have heard Russian interviewees using this pronunciation -- which the British broadcasters echoed, naturally enough.

Also, there's a fairly universal impulse to use so-called spelling pronunciations, or at least to overarticulate words, when you think your listeners might not recognize them without help. That might explain why consortium is losing its -sh- sound; on the other hand, it could hardly apply to species or controversial, which are going the same way.

At any rate, opinion remains mixed on Ossetia, but on Beijing, the bay-jing wing is coming on strong. Tune your tongues accordingly.

*The first syllable can be ah- or oh-; see the 88 comments on LanguageHat's post for much, much more.

Medaling: Just do it!

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 12, 2008 04:57 PM

MEDALS.jpgMedal (verb, intransitive): To win a medal, as in a sports contest: "We were the first Americans to medal" (Jill Watson).

That’s the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, giving to medal its blessing, but you’ll find the verb in other current dictionaries too, though possibly labeled "informal."

When I wrote about to medal a decade ago, the online Oxford English Dictionary didn’t list the intransitive verb -- though it did have the transitive verb, which meant "bestow a medal upon," with a quote from Lord Byron in 1822.

The June 2008 revision of the entry, though, dates our intransitive to medal to a 1966 edition of the Valley News in Van Nuys, Calif: "Divers from the Rita Curtis ... Club gold-medaled in all of the events but three." The Washington Post adopted it in 1979: "Our women are coming along beautifully -- they’ve medalled well recently."

Ben Zimmer, who provided the OED's earliest citation, also noted that "there are much earlier usages of intransitive 'medal' in golf, referring to 'medal play' ('in which the score is reckoned by counting the number of strokes taken to complete a round by each side')"; he cited a report in the Port Arthur (Texas) News in January of 1926:

Phil Hesler, Tulsa professional, and Ross Youngs of San Antonio, New York Giant outfield star, medaled around the 18 holes with a best ball card of 68.

In fact. resistance to medaling has faded noticeably since I last explored the topic. This time around, the Olympic usage has provoked only a few objections.

Harry Pearson of the Guardian wrote a parodic paragraph or two on sports reporters' love of verbing, predicting we would hear reports of scandaling, furore-ing, and controversying.

In the Montreal Gazette, Martin Coles offered a plea for restraint:

I'm cringing at the thought of the upcoming assault on that poor little word "medal," as in "she medalled for the first time." Don't do it, sports commentators of the world. Don't meddle with the English language. "Medal" is a noun, not a verb.

And a few blogs have recently bemoaned the "new" verb. But most sticklers seem to have moved on. Are they all out campaigning against the verbing of podium?

More sex and the semicolon

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 10, 2008 03:14 PM

semicolon_shirt_black.jpgWho’d have thought there was so much more to say about semicolons than I could fit into today’s Word column?

Trevor Butterworth would have, of course. His treatise on the macho prejudice against semicolons, available online, is stuffed with supporting quotes from the likes of James Wolcott:

The semicolon adds a note of formality, and informality has been all the rage for decades [in America]. 'Real' writing is butch and cinematic, so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases.

Not all commentators focus on the semicolon’s alleged lack of masculine bravado. Jon Henley’s article in the Guardian last spring treats the semicolon debate as a French-British conflict -- a Gallic defense of "the point-virgule from the inexorable march of Anglo-Saxon inelegance" -- and it has a nice collection of non-sexy quotes:

You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life. (George Bernard Shaw to T.E. Lawrence, on "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom")
They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature. (Gertrude Stein)

semicolon_shirt_back.jpgThree years earlier, Ian Jack of the Guardian wondered "whether the totality of American literature has fewer semi-colons than British literature," and a reader, Jo Clarke, undertook to dig up some answers for him:

I can report that "Tom Jones" has 5,604 semi-colons, the highest count among my random sample. But the most densely semi-coloned work is "Moby-Dick" with 4,174 semi-colons or 3.4 per 1,000 letters (as against 2.9 for "Tom Jones").

If you want to celebrate National Punctuation Day next month, I’ll be publishing (soon) a suggestion for a Boston-area site to visit. But if a meal is your idea of a proper observance, the NPD website has a recipe for meatloaf in the shape of a semicolon. (I’d be more inclined to celebrate the delicate mark with semicolon-shaped meringues, but then, I haven’t offered a recipe, have I?)

Finally, thanks to lexicographer Erin McKean, you can join the Semicolon Appreciation Society, which offers the T-shirts shown here, proclaiming your appreciation for one of the finer points of punctuation. And yes, they do come in real men’s sizes.

A cry for {hellip}

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 4, 2008 11:30 PM

I’ve been out of town (that’s part of the reason for the yawning silence here), so I read this week’s Word column, by the redoubtable Erin McKean, on the website just now. And one line gave me a moment’s pause:

Someone, somewhere, is using [words like funner] with a disclaimer like "I know it's not a real word {hellip}"

If you read the print version, you didn’t see that {hellip} -- you saw (I hope) three dots, or ellipsis points . . . like these. I assume the {hellip} is code for ellipses, but with some crucial bit missing, so that what appears on screen is not the expected punctuation, but the command itself. It happens; just Google "hellip" for other examples, some in earlier Word columns.

There were two especially funny things about this hellip, though. First, that the phrase "not a real word" was followed by . . . a truly not-real word. Second, that the not-word fit the sentence so well: I took it, at first, as a mistyped "help!" -- the writer’s plea for indulgence in this use of a non-real word.

I’m not much of a neologizer -- with the dictionaries full of words I don’t know, I’m in no rush to coin new ones -- but in this case I’m tempted. Wouldn’t {hellip} -- or even hellip, without the curly brackets -- work nicely as slang for "I’ve just exceeded the limits of my knowledge, everything I say from here on will be just guesswork"? I for one would make good use of such a shorthand expression.

No, seriously -- don't tell me!

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 29, 2008 03:23 PM

This week's Word column on language lies was all wrapped up on Friday, but the very next day, along came some more bad examples -- this time on NPR’s weekly quiz show, "Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me."

Guest host Adam Felber asked contestant Peter Bogdanovich three multiple-choice questions about word derivations, taken from a book by Karlen Evins called "I Didn’t Know That." Where does nag come from? Answer: It began as a Scandinavian word to describe the sound of rats gnawing annoyingly in the thatched roofs of dwellings.

Bzzzzzzzz! Well, "Scandinavian" is probably right. But the original word, nagga -- which meant "grumble" or "rub" in Old Icelandic -- has no special connection with the sounds of vermin in the thatch, so far as I could find out. (And doesn’t it seem unlikely that the sound of little teeth gnawing would keep a hard-working Viking family awake at night?)

Here’s what Take Our Word For It says about nag:

It is thought to come from a Scandinavian source, for Norwegian and Swedish have nagga "to gnaw, bite, nibble; to irritate." The English and Scandinavian words go back to the Indo-European root *ghen- "to gnaw." . . . Thus, a "nagging pain" is one which seems to gnaw at one and it is from this sense that the modern verb to nag derives.

Maybe the thatched-roof detail was borrowed from "Life in the 1500’s," the online word-origins hoax (which claims that "raining cats and dogs" derives from the animals’ thatched-roof refuge).

The next question was on "Charley horse," and the "answer" was that the term comes from a real horse who once worked (gallantly limping) at the Chicago White Sox ballpark. This Charley allegedly lent his name first to limping players, then to the condition causing the limp.

But the book that supplied this legend gives the date of Charley's service as the 1890s. Word sleuths have found several citations for charley horse from the preceding decade, and none of them mention ol’ Charley. The earliest citation, posted in 2005 at LinguistList, came from Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, who also wrote the “On Language” column in Sunday’s New York Times.

And though it mentions Chicago, it comes from the Boston Globe, in July 1886.

Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of "Charlie horse" to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which base ball players are especially liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls, as well as the frequent slides in base running. Pfetlor, Anson and Kelly are so badly troubled with "Charley horse" there are times they can scarcely walk.

How can you ace a quiz when two of the three official answers aren't right? Peter Bogdanovich, you deserve a do-over.

He's 'the' man

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 22, 2008 03:08 PM

Congratulations to Boston’s own Corby Kummer, who in today’s New York Times got a subtle status upgrade, jounalistically speaking. In the page one story on locally grown food, he is identified as "Corby Kummer, the food columnist and book author."

It’s that the I'm talking about. Last year, and for 18 years before that, the Times called Kummer "a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly."

As the late Timesman Theodore Bernstein explained in "Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins" (1971), there are four levels of article use, corresponding with a person's fame (or notoriety). People at the top of their fields "need no identification at all (Beethoven, Shakespeare, Newton)."

Those in the second tier, "a cut or two lower," get a the: "Glinka, the composer; Uris, the novelist." Third-tier celebrities are "semiprominent": "John Ciardi, poet; Hideki Yukawa, physicist." (Or "poet John Ciardi," as I would write, though Bernstein wouldn’t.)

And fourth-tier wannabes are "struggling to be known": "Evelyn Whozis, a poet."

As Bernstein’s choices reveal, those middle tiers are slippery perches; I had to look up Hideki Yukawa. But earning that honorific the -- which means, essentially, "the novelist/composer/food writer, as of course everyone knows" -- is still an achievement to savor.

Inspirado, back in the day

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 21, 2008 11:37 PM

I learned the word inspirado only a few weeks ago, when Ben Zimmer, writing The Word column while I was on vacation, mentioned it in connection with Jack Black and his new "Kung Fu Panda" word, skadoosh:

Fans of Jack Black's oeuvre are already familiar with his inventive wordplay. When he first gained attention as one half of the satirical rock duo Tenacious D, he was prone to such neologisms as "inspirado," a zingier version of "inspiration."

ammon%20shea.jpgBut last night, I picked up Ammon Shea’s new book, “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages,” a ramble through the entire Oxford English Dictionary that includes a selection of Shea's favorite words. And there it was, between Insordescent and Interdespise:

Inspirado (n.) A person who thinks himself inspired.

That’s Shea’s definition, not the OED’s, so of course I went to the source, where I found:

A person who imagines himself, or professes, to be inspired.
1664 H. MORE Myst. Iniq., Apol. 545 The Sectarian Rabbles that phansy themselves such Inspiradoes. Ibid. 562 The boasting Inspiradoes of our Nation.

henry-more.jpgThat is (the bibliography revealed), both citations come from Henry More’s "Modest Inquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity, The First Part, Containing a Careful and Impartial Delineation of the True Idea of Antichristianism," published in London in 1664.

Did anyone use the word in the centuries between H. More and J. Black? Presumably we'll find out when the OED editors get around to revising the I's.

Black, of course, gave his re-coinage of inspirado a different sense. Professor More, a Protestant philosopher, was writing in order to reconcile faith with reason, and his “inspiradoes” were probably demonstrating the "enthusiasm" he and his 17th-century soulmates disdained. But I’ll leave that part of the story for a commenter who knows more about the subject than Wikipedia and I do.

Names for the unspeakable

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 20, 2008 07:30 PM

It could be scary, an e-mail from your editor with the subject line %&#$&$!!!. Luckily, I’m not an alarmist; I figured this was a mention, not a use, of the symbols for an unprintable expostulation, and so it was: The e-mail contained a link to a comment on an old name for such cartoon swearing:

The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though it’s yet to gain admission to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower describes it as "undeniably useful, certainly a word, and one that I’d love to see used more."

Mort Walker has been in the news lately -- the Wall Street Journal had a page one story last week on his search for a home for his valuable cartoon collection. And Nancy Friedman, at her Fritinancy blog, made another Walker coinage word of the week: Emanata, the squiggles that emanate from a character or object to reveal its state of being (worried, hot, in motion).


The Kerry quote that won't die

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 15, 2008 11:50 PM

Dan Kennedy’s press blog, Media Nation, is always worth reading, but it’s not usually about language in The Word’s relatively narrow sense.

Today, though, Kennedy takes aim at a long-discredited -- but still ambulatory -- myth about John Kerry's presidential campaign, revived this morning by the Boston Herald’s Margery Eagan:

Lots of us didn’t like Kerry: the faux Kennedy thing. The Brahmin-esque cadence. “Who among us,” he bellowed as often as McCain says “my friends.”

Not true, says Kennedy. The much-repeated and much-mocked quote Eagan is referring to is “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?” which first appeared in Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column in 2004. But Kerry never said it. And, says Kennedy, "to the extent that the haughty 'who among us' construction was used to demonstrate that Kerry was not a man of the people, it's important to point out that it was all based on a falsehood" -- one repeated by the Times and other mainstream newspapers.*

It's not even true, says Kennedy -- who has done his Nexis research -- that Kerry had any special affinity for the phrase "who among us." And the whole sordid story was detailed at The Daily Howler nearly four years ago.

"Not to pick on Margery Eagan," concludes Kennedy. "The journalist who bears the responsibility for this is Maureen Dowd. But can we finally put this urban legend to rest?"

I guess we'll find out.

*The Globe used the quote just once, a few days after Dowd’s column, in a feature about whether Kerry’s speaking style was too formal. In it, (liberal) Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg commented on the "quote": "Sentences that begin with 'Who among us does not like . . . ' should end with 'Placido Domingo.' "

A zebra of a different vowel

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 12, 2008 10:05 PM

What with my near-daily dose of BBC News on the radio, I thought I was pretty current on British-American pronunciation differences: furore with three syllables (and an extra letter), vitamin with a short I (VITT-a-min), con-TROV-er-sy with a different stress, and so on.

But zebra rhyming with Debra? Weird! And yet true, at least in parts of England. Bidialectal linguist Lynne Murphy, who blogs at Separated by a Common Language, explains why she now says zebra two different ways:

I pronounce it (to the extent that my American articulatory organs allow) in the British way when I say (BrE)* zebra crossing (a pedestrian [AmE]* crosswalk marked by stripes on the road -- as seen on the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road). But when talking to my baby about toy animals, I revert to my mother tongue -- now my mothering tongue.

*BrE = British English, AmE=American English

Attack of the teenage texters

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 10, 2008 05:43 PM

In his hilarious commentary on today’s “Fresh Air,” linguist Geoff Nunberg recalls a time when it was telegrams, not text messages, that were going to “transform the language.” According to an 1848 essay by Conrad Swackhamer, a New York attorney and editor,

as people got used to sending and receiving telegrams and reading the telegraphed dispatches in the newspapers, they would inevitably cast off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The "telegraphic style," as Swackhamer called it, would be, "terse, condensed, expressive, sparing of expletives, and utterly ignorant of synonyms," and would propel the English language toward a new standard of perfection.

Now we’re all aflutter at the idea that text message is going to change English forever -- a notion irresistible to journalists, says Nunberg, because

it combined three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: "the language is going to hell in a handbasket"; "you'll never get me onto one of those newfangled things"; and "kids today, I'm here to tell you."

Nunberg zings the Globe for rising to the bait:

The Boston Globe published an editorial called "the revenge of e. e. cummings" that had no capital letters and was laced with LOL's and texting abbreviations. It had me wondering which is more embarrassing, hearing old people use teenage slang or hearing them make fun of it.

Decide for yourself: You can read Nunberg’s text here, or listen to the broadcast here.

Summer book sampler, part 1

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 6, 2008 12:55 PM

Stormy weather has been sabotaging beach plans this summer, but the climate has been ideal for afternoons of reading; for the first time in a year, my stack of must-read word books is shrinking rather than growing. Here are some snack-size samples from the (more or less) recent titles I’ve been catching up with:

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, by Seth Lerer (Columbia University Press)

“During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, manhood found its challenges not just from the temptations of the telephone, but from the allure of aestheticism. The word dude was picked up in the early 1880s to define the new dandy of that movement. But it had appeared earlier, in the late 1870s, to describe the fastidious man of the city. The artist Frederic Remington wrote to a friend, in 1877, 'don’t send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villans [sic] or toughs.' . . .

"By the early 1880s the word was everywhere. New York newspapers made sport of it. Provincial papers noted its spread. Even Ulysses S. Grant deployed it (conscious of its recent coinage) in his Memoirs: 'Before the car I was in had started, a dapper little fellow – he would be called a dude at this day – stepped in.'"

The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, by Mark Abley (Houghton Mifflin)

"For people in eastern Europe a generation ago, the allure of English was not technological but political. Moscow walls in the 1980s were alive with graffiti like QUEEN GROUP THE BEST and KISS FAN (a fan of the rock group Kiss, that is). Russian bands, such as Primus, attracted smaller amounts of graffiti. When a graffiti writer wanted to celebrate Primus, he used English: PRIMUS FANS. But if he disliked their music or their style, he reverted to Russian: PRIMUS GOVNO ('Primus is s---’). English became the language of adoration. After the Soviet Union collapsed, young Russians began to realize that the West was not the paradise of their fantasies. But regardless of politics, the language of rock, and more recently of rap, continues to be an object of European desire."


Who was that masked e-mailer?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 5, 2008 05:15 PM

After I used the word "e-mails" in a recent column, an e-mail arrived from someone identified only as

I'm only in the 6th grade, but it made me laugh to see you use e.-mails for more than one. Even our class knows that mail can be used as either singular or plural. My friend says that you should use e- mail messages for multiple. Sorry to be a pain.

But I didn’t bother replying, because I’ve tried that already -- back in December, when "limblob" sent me a nearly identical rebuke:

I'm only in the 5th grade, but it made me laugh to see you use e.-mails for more than one. Even our class knows that mail can be used as singular or plural. My friend says that you should use e.-mail messages for multiple.

On that occasion, I tried to send the eager young scholar a copy of a Word column from 2004 in which I discussed whether "e-mail" had to follow the model of "mail." But my attempt came back as undeliverable. Looking a bit further, I learned that "Limblob" is a rude nickname for Rush Limbaugh.

It seems unlikely that a sixth-grader would adopt a disparaging nickname for himself and send out unanswerable e-mails (yes, e-mails!). But then, it seems unlikely anyone else would do it, too. I would have thought an everyday e-mail pseudonym would be more than enough anonymity for a discussion of English plurals. But maybe I don’t understand true paranoia.

Anyway, "limblob," if you’re out there, please take a look at my column on “e-mails." And write again sometime -- with a return address.

Chicken Little goes to Italy

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 4, 2008 02:21 PM

From my multilingual friend Wahyd Vannoni comes a link to a tale of a language-testing scandal in Italy, as reported last month in Corriere delle Sera, along with a summary in the language I actually read:

An official English-language exam organized by Italy's tourism ministry was full of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Apparently the official responsible for selecting the text copied and pasted an article written by a Yemeni journalist who interviewed two German-speaking hotel owners in Namibia. The three spoke English, because it was their only common language.

My opera-and-pasta Italian wasn’t equal to the original, though I knew that the phrase “Gravamente insufficiente” was bad news. Luckily, the newspaper website includes an English translation of the tale, explaining that the “gobbet” of text lifted from the Web came to the attention of Jean Woodhouse, an English teacher in Italy, and propelled her into high dudgeon. "If the examiner had been one of my pupils I would have failed him or her," Woodhouse told Corriere della Sera. "Frankly the text should have been thrown in the wastepaper basket."

A retired professor in Venice chimed in too, telling the Times of London that the text was "a kind of pseudo-English, or what was once called pidgin English. Even the average waiter in Venice speaks English more correctly than this."

Well, I’ve seen the text -- rather wildly marked up by Woodhouse -- and all I can say is, Really?


Here’s a bit of the "pidgin English":


Let the irony-free times roll

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 30, 2008 11:21 PM

From an Associated Press story so piquantly sauced with its own commentary that mine would be superfluous:

HOUMA, La. -- As an agency created in response to the long suppression of French in state schools turned 40, a south Louisiana school board member suggested that only English should be allowed in graduation speeches.

Rickie Pitre (pronounced "PEE-tree") is among six people with French surnames on the nine-member school board in Terrebonne Parish, where the county's name is French for "Good Earth" and elders of the local Native American tribe speak French as their first language.

His proposal was made after co-valedictorians and cousins Hue and Cindy Vo, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, gave parts of their commencement speeches in Vietnamese during Ellender High School's graduation ceremony.

Cindy Vo translated her single sentence in Vietnamese, telling her classmates it was a command to always be your own person. Hue Vo spoke a bit longer in her parents' language, without translation, said board president Clark Bonvillain and schools superintendent Ed Richard.

"I don't like them addressing in a foreign language. They should be in English," Pitre said during a recent committee meeting.

But Richard -- pronounced "REE-shard" -- is dubious. "I did advise them that I didn't think they needed to go there," he said. "But I'm only a superintendent, not a board member."

. . .

As late as the 1950s, children who spoke French in school were routinely punished. "It seems like these issues will never go away," said Warren Perrin, president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, which is turning 40 this year.


Advertising a royal muddle

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 25, 2008 10:05 PM

I came across this ad for a Fifth Avenue jewelry store in the New York Times last month, when The Word blog was still dormant, so I sent a note about it to Nancy Friedman, who blogs about words, naming, and branding at Fritinancy.

But I see it’s a recurring ad, this delightful mashup of English royal history, so now that the blog has been revived, I thought I’d share it with my own readers. Here’s the comment that I e-mailed and Nancy published:

The headline is "My Kingdom for your Old Jewelry," from, of course, Shakespeare's libellous* play about the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III. The picture is a portrait of Henry (Tudor) VIII, son of the Henry whose rebellion killed off Richard and his line. The name of the store is Windsor Jewelers Inc.-- and though Windsor is old, it wasn't a royal name till the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha royals decided WWI was a good reason for the name change.
Perhaps I was sensitive to this because I [had] just finished reading Josephine Tey's classic pro-Richard III mystery, "The Daughter of Time." But I would think many a Shakespeare fan would notice the odd juxtaposition. Or am I too optimistic?

*I should have spelled this "libelous" – I must have been temporarily seduced by the British spellings in “Daughter of Time.”

Fingernails on a blackboard? Not so bad.

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 24, 2008 08:49 PM

"It’s like fingernails on a blackboard" is probably the peevologist’s favorite description of how a usage fumble affects his or her nervous system. But according to a report in today’s New York Times, "nails on a blackboard" ranks only 16th on the list of Noises Humans Hate.

So if you really, really recoil at "me and him went fishing," you should say it’s like listening to someone upchuck. Yes, the most unpleasant noise, according to thousands of online voters, was the sound of someone (else) vomiting.

The survey is still online, but it’s not entirely satisfying; you may get the same sample three times (there are 30-plus noises, randomly shuffled). I heard a coughing fit that sounded just like me, a couple of pollen-drenched weeks ago, and a reasonable impression of my husband’s snore, but I never did get to the barfing. And while almost any noise, repeated at night, could keep a person awake and homicidal, few of these were truly horripilating.

Anyway, as I waited for the scraping fingernails to turn up, I began to wonder: Do they really make a horrible sound on a blackboard? I tried it myself, and I couldn’t raise a squeak. On the other hand, chalk on a blackboard -- or charcoal on drawing paper -- can produce a shriek that makes my teeth twang like banjo strings.


No usage mistake has ever done that to me. But some people think it’s possible. In their book "Forbidden Words" (2006), linguists Kate Burridge and Keith Allan speculated[*] that grammar errors might have measurable physiological effects on certain people, just as obscenities do. One day perhaps they’ll assemble a group of sticklers, wire them up, and see whether split infinitives really do make them sweat.

Till then, only you will know whether your "fingernails on a blackboard" comparison is hyperbole or plain physiological truth.


Squiggly who?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 22, 2008 10:59 AM

When I was writing today’s column on “if” and “whether,” I e-mailed Grammar Girl -- Mignon Fogarty, in real life -- to ask about the characters she uses to illustrate her usage examples: Squiggly didn’t know if Aardvark would arrive on Friday or Saturday, etc.

As someone with a unisex name, I try to be careful when I identify others in the same condition, even if they are fictional, so I wanted to know: Are they male, female, neuter? And what is Squiggly, anyway?

She answered:

Squiggly and Aardvark are my own characters. Both are male. Aardvark is a somewhat grumpy blue aardvark, and Squiggly is somewhat bumbling yellow snail. They are friends and go on adventures together. (They are sometimes joined by Sir Fragalot, a tall knight who likes to shout sentence fragments.)

So now we know. Grammar Girl is best known as a podcaster, but you can also read her episodes online, complete with footnotes and comments; the post on “if/whether” that inspired today's Word column is here.

Let's not and say we did

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 21, 2008 06:29 PM

In today’s edition of his weekly (free) newsletter, World Wide Words (subscribe here), Michael Quinion puts his foot down on the alternate/alternative debate:

ALTERNATE Several readers queried my phrase "Harry Turtledove's
alternate history.” No, they cried, it should be "alternative."
"Alternate history," for an SF story which takes place in a world
in which history has taken a different course, is first recorded in
1957 and is older than the other form by 20 years. It was coined in
the U.S., in which "alternate" has taken over much of the territory
of "alternative" during the past 50 years. It is mostly the British
who prefer "alternative history," though even here -- as you will
note from my using it -- the other form is often used because of US
influence. Let us not, please not, argue the relative merits of the
two words.

The mysterious 'Midwest'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 21, 2008 12:55 PM

The story on White Lily flour, a Southern favorite, that ran in the New York Times’s Wednesday Food section was one of the top 10 e-mailed pieces, and it more than earned that flurry of forwarding. Author Shaila Dewan separated the (soft red winter) wheat from the chaff, detail-wise, and really got down to the nitty-gritty -- or, in this case, the silky-downy -- of her subject:

Underneath the husk of a wheat kernel, a layer of bran encloses the germ and a white substance called endosperm. White Lily is a patent flour, meaning it uses only the heart of the endosperm, the purest part.
White Lily is bleached with chlorine, a process that not only whitens the flour but weakens the proteins. Chlorination alters the starch particles to make batters more viscous, and thus less likely to fall. It loosens the strict balance of starch, liquid, fat and sugar that baking requires to allow for higher proportions of sugar -- thus, sweeter cakes.

But when I reached the end, I forwarded the story to a fellow Ohio native, asking “Can you spot the geographical labeling bias?”

The news here is that White Lily’s Knoxville mill, source of the flour for 125 years, is closing because the newish owner, J.M. Smucker, is moving the milling elsewhere -- to “two plants in the Midwest.” Ah, yes, the Midwest, that vast uncharted territory. Anywhere in particular?

Sure, it’s only natural that a story datelined “Knoxville” would focus on that city. But to identify the new home of White Lily as only “the Midwest” seems a bit dismissive -- kind of like Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue” triangulated with the Tennessee perspective.

The Midwest (like the South) is a big region, with debatable borders; the language blogger Wishydig polled readers on which states to include, and generated this map from the results:

Where in the world is the Midwest? Wishydig's reader poll results

But (also like the South), it’s far from homogeneous.

In any case, the geographical fact is that the new White Lily -- taste-tested for the article -- is being milled in Toledo, Ohio. (Smucker’s is based in Orrville, Ohio.) From Knoxville to Toledo is essentially a straight shot north on I-75 for 450 miles -- the distance from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Knoxville is sorry to lose the flower of baking flours: fair enough. But White Lily isn’t leaving for a distant, unknown galaxy. There is a there there, just a tankful or two up the Interstate.

Welcome (back) to The Word blog

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 18, 2008 04:37 PM

Readers with longish memories will know -- and others have been reminded by Josh Glenn of Brainiac, the other Ideas section blog -- that there were some posts about language back in the day, before we made Brainiac a one-person show last September. Well, The Word blog now has its own space, and will be ready for visitors in a few days. Come back soon!

Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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