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The Fat Man chuckles

Continued from “What are we going to do now?” she asked

I stood in front of the Fat Man’s house and waited. Our reporters would have called it a manse, but it was grander than anything the Presbyterian clergy ever set foot inside. One light was on — the ground floor, the library.

I knew he would be there.

Only seconds after I rang the bell, the door opened a crack as narrow as a consultant’s brainpan. The Fat Man’s houseboy took my name, let me in and offered to take my battered fedora. “Just tell your boss I’m here,” I said.

“Very well, Mr. McIntyre,” he said. He was back almost immediately. “This way,” he said, and led me down the hall to the library.

“Ah, McIntyre, delighted to see you again,” the Fat Man wheezed as he heaved himself out of his armchair to greet me. “Come take a pew, while I try to do something about this vile chill,” he said, throwing another copy of Strunk and White onto the fire.

I’d known him for years. We’d been honor students together — teacher’s pets — and then he started his slide. It began innocently enough, with a little amateur lexicography. But then he fell in with that hard set at Language Log. He was pals with both the Geoffs — Pullum and Nunberg — Arnold Zwicky, the lot. Before you could say lexeme, he was too deep into descriptivism to ever come back. But, maybe because of our old school ties, we had always managed a gingerly balance.

“So, dear boy,” he said, “what brings you out in the rain and the dark?”

 “I just came from the Brockenbrough house.”

“Nothing amiss with the charming Martha, I hope.”

“She’s OK. A little white around the gills. Somebody did in the Mister.”

“Oh. How?”

“Col-erase straight through the ticker.”

“Ah. Oddly appropriate, nil nisi bonum and all. That puts paid to his grand scheme, I suppose.”


“You really ought to get out of the newsroom more often, dear boy. Yes, a scheme, a cabal, a conspiracy, a plot as loony as Booth’s plan to decapitate the Union government in ’65. And the Mister was in the thick of it.”

I settled back in my chair. “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

“You must have known that the Mister, despite dear little Martha’s charm, was as hard-edged a proponent of prescriptivist poppycock as any pedant who has ever bemoaned the decline of his language. I once saw him throw a hard roll at a waitress who had merely told him that hopefully his entree would be ready in a few minutes.”

“Go on.”

“Like Cassius, he insinuated himself into a company of like-minded mavens — John Simon, William Safire, James J. Kilpatrick, that lot — and inveigled them into a planning a crack-brained putsch. They were going to kidnap Jesse Sheidlower and storm the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary to ‘purify’ the language by force majeure. And they were going to pull this off —"

“On National Grammar Day. March 4,” I said. “So who would have wanted to snuff him?”

“You could assemble a cast of thousands for that task.” He paused. “But I wonder…”


“It’s just, dear boy,” he said with an evil little chuckle, “that I wouldn’t imagine that he alone could be stirred to wrath over the little niceties and false commandments of usage, or that he alone may have had plans for National Grammar Day.”

I saw then what I had to do.

To be continued …



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:57 AM | | Comments (4)


"Wait a minute," gasped the politically correct copy-editor-turned minister, defensively and sensitively. "Manse ... Presbyterian ... Fat Man? You're not laying the foundation for some East Coast effetist, pedantic, anti-Protestant, Catholic and/or Episcopalian screed, are you?"

Sheidlower has been moved to a secure undisclosed location. Thanks for the tip.

... that he alone ...

Well, no. There was Kilpatrick, right, best known for his signature ejaculation, "Jane, you ignorant slut!"? Or is the Fat Man hinting of competing putscheners? Not John Roberts, surely?

Careful, John. Language Log is on to you.

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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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