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Nothing about Rush Limbaugh

The Sun’s Web site registered a flurry of hits last week when articles about the vandalizing of a billboard featuring Rush Limbaugh attracted widespread attention. So did the video from the Preakness last weekend showing young men running the gantlet (NOT gauntlet) over the portable outhouses in the infield.

But this blog concerns itself with precision in using the language, and nothing here will generate the kind of attention that goes to Rush Limbaugh, professional sports and young men being bombarded with containers of beer as they run across the Port-A-Potties. You who are reading it constitute a highly select audience. Bask in your singularity. 

Now for today’s arbitrary pronouncements:

Spree and/or rampage

Tim Sager, the accomplished news copy desk chief at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, takes issue with my suggestion that spree should not be used to describe homicides or shootings or anything other than casual or relatively innocuous activities:

According to the first definition listed in my copy of the much-reviled Webster’s Third, spree means “an unrestrained and usually excessive indulgence in or outburst of any activity: splurge, rampage.”

I think that limiting its meaning to binge drinking or shopping is being a bit more restrictive than necessary. I can’t imagine any reader objecting to the reporter’s diction – or droll sense of humor – when “killing spree” or “murder spree” appears in copy. Prohibitions based on the fact that it’s a cliché are, of course, another kettle of fish.

He is probably right about the direction in which usage is moving, or has already moved. But I still cringe.

Years ago, at A Newspaper Far Away, the copy desk objected to a substantial project about a multi-sate killing spree that the paper labeled “The Killer’s Trail.” The copy desk’s objection was the that man who, the story flatly stated, killed all those people had not been convicted in any homicide and had, in fact, not even been charged in some of them.

No problem, the editor said in a posted memo. “He’s in so much legal trouble he’ll never be able to sue us.”

I wish I had thought to keep a copy of that memo. But recollection of it inevitably links in my mind the phrases killing spree and irresponsible editor.

Natty is tatty

An article came to the copy desk with a phrase about nattily dressed people. And a couple of copy editors came to me wanting to change it to smartly dressed.  Why? I asked. Natty is a perfectly innocuous word, usually applied, with some condescension, to people who wear bow ties.

No, they said; it means gross and dirty. Huh? I shrewdly asked. (It should be explained here that I was talking to colleagues whose memories do not go back before the administration of the elder George Bush, if that far.) So they sent me an entry from Urban

Something gross, low-class or unclean. Originally meaning neat in appearance, the word natty ironically became an antonym for itself over time, thanks in large part to its adoption by Rastafarian slang. When the Bob Marley and the Wailers album Natty Dread was released, "natty" was used positively to describe the "dread" as hip or cool. When people realized that Rastafarians are stupid and don't shower and the "natty" dread is actually gross, the word changed meanings.

Urban is a site for do-it-yourself lexicographers, but it is plain that it cannot be ignored simply on that ground. So I endorsed the change.

Now, as I knot my tie in the morning, I have to wonder; will everyone think me smartly dressed, or just natty?

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 AM | | Comments (5)


I don't have a hardcopy dictionary handy here (sorry), but the couple of online dictionaries I checked show "gantlet" as a variant spelling of "gauntlet".

I readily confess that I had ample opportunity to assess Il Professore McIntyre's ensemble over the years in which we both called Syracuse University 'home.' While it is true that, with the exception of the Sun photograph, I haven't recently seen his wardrobe, I can assure you, Dear Readers, that 'natty' is closer to the money. I for one do not inhabit an 'urban' anything (whatever happened to the word 'city 'when we talk about a city?) and have no truck, so to speak, with Urban Dictionaries or Bob Marley. The hair alone is enough to put me off, but Dreadlocks notwithstanding, the only Marley to whom I can say "Thou" is by Dickens writ. Natty it is and natty it shall remain.

I'm surprised that you accepted Urban Dictionary as a source. There's that single negative use on Urban Dictionary and then...nothing. Nobody else defines it that way, even on Urban Dictionary. In fact, Urban Dictionary visitors rate that entry poorly, giving it 22 thumbs-down and 5 thumbs-up. If you do a search on blogs, news, or any other kind of recent text, all you'll find is positive "natty," one use after the other. I find no negative uses in my daily word-hunting and none of the three dictionaries I have of Caribbean or Jamaican English define it that way. In fact, none of the dictionaries I checked (I have hundreds, but checked only a few that specialize in slang) define it negatively. It's possible that it's some burgeoning slang among 22-year-olds in Baltimore, but if so, that negative "natty" is an outlier that can safely be ignored.

u r all nerds

Well, facts are facts.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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