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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.

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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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