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November 30, 2010

Don't let's be beastly to the barbarians

Much of what passes for commentary on language is of the things-have-gone-downhill-since-I-was-a-boy variety. That lost golden age of universal literacy and good taste is always one or two generations back.

Time should grant us better perspective. I recommend, for example, picking up Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain for a look at his essays of the 1950s and 1960s inveighing against Webster’s Third International, the twentieth-century translations of the Bible, and other subjects. They are unintentionally hilarious, not so much for the substance of his arguments—though his arguments are certainly open to challenge—but for the over-the-top tone. It is the high-pitched whine of the peever, the embattled defender of Standards, alone on the parapet as the barbarians wheel up their siege engines.

What a lot of codswallop.

I came across a reference in the Edit Hawai‘I blog to a Language Log post by Arnold Zwicky, “Miss Gould Passes,” on the death on 2005 of the famed New Yorker copy editor Eleanor Gould Packard: “[W]hat Gould was trying to do was help writers say what they were aiming for in a language with "a kind of Euclidean clarity—transparent, precise, muscular" (Remnick).” But the writer of a letter to The New York Times “instead celebrates her career with ravings about the disintegration of civilization. We aim for grace and style, but somehow we get barbarians at the gates. Undisciplined barbarians, at that. Some people seem unable to think about matters of syntax, usage, logic, rhetoric, and diction except through the distorting glass of the image of the Great Decline.”

In the first quarter of the eighteenth century Jonathan Swift thought that English was in decline and needed the services of a royal academy to regulate it. He was wrong. Contemporary calls for an English Academy are equally mistaken, though less elegantly expressed. English is not in decline. The people whose usages you deplore may be slovenly writers with questionable judgment, but they are not a threat to the language. Those of us who get our bread as editors need to keep this in mind.

As Professor Zwicky says, “I've had many experiences with editors. Some I remember with distaste even after many years; few things are quite as alarming and frustrating as an editor who comes at your manuscript like a grammar-checking program, with nothing more than a long list of Don'ts and fixes for them. But other encounters were rewarding, with editors who aimed for clarity, an effective voice, and an appreciation of the audience, and who negotiated choices and changes with me.”

Take one of those deep, cleansing breaths. There is a great quantity of substandard prose out there that requires your attention. And there are choices by able writers that are open to question and subject to discussion. If you want to do a favor to Civilization, do your job without losing your head.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (2)
        

November 29, 2010

Imagine my chagrin

This morning The Baltimore Sun published a “’Tis the season” headline. Grrrrr. You take a day off and leave them to their own devices ...

In other news, the word of the week is quidnunc.

This week’s video joke is “The Three Subjects.”

Enjoy. Grrrrr.


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:57 AM | | Comments (2)
        

November 27, 2010

The TSA can't control how you talk

Perhaps you have reflected while passing through airports, as I have many times over the past several years: Here are federal employees with wages and benefits whose job is to move a plastic dishpan from one end of a table to the other.

It is all part of the rich absurdity of contemporary air travel. First, you are fleeced by the airlines, which cannot apparently make a go of their business without nickel-and-diming the customers. Pay for a seat that has about as much space as you would have had in the hold of a ship on the Middle Passage, unless you pay more for some room. Pay for your bag. Pay more for an extra bag. Ryanair considered installing pay toilets on its planes, an idea whose time is surely coming.

Then, at the airport, submit yourself to petty indignities in the name of security. Take off your hat. Take off your coat. Take off your watch. Empty your pockets. Take off your shoes. Shuffle through the line, holding up your papers for inspection. Ah, you fit some not-publicly-defined profile.* Step aside for additional examination.

Now, of course, they have the authority for a procedure that stops just shy of a body cavity search. And if you want to get on a plane, there is no challenging them. Their authority is arbitrary and absolute. You will have read accounts of people’s experience of invaded personal privacy and humiliation, of questionable behavior by TSA personnel, of outrage and defiance.**

But heed: You are not without recourse. No, not from your elected officials, who are all intimidated by the Need for Security in the War on Terror. Your recourse is humor.

I realized this while reading Erin McKean’s current essay on language in The Boston Globe, “Frisky.” She starts by examining the TSA’s lingo: “The aggressively bland language used by the TSA to describe these new policies — enhanced screening procedures, advanced imaging machines, enhanced pat-down — are classic bureaucratese, in which descriptions are seemingly engineered to minimize the meaning conveyed while maximizing the number of words used.”

The response has come from the publlic: “the stressed, disoriented, and embarrassed passengers” who are beginning “to fill in the gaps with new vocabulary — sometimes with vocabulary much blunter than the TSA might wish for.”

Thus security theater, the term for procedures that serve more to convey a bogus sense of security than detect any actual threat. (Take off those shoes.) The “enhanced pat-downs”? Gate rape, freedom pats, freedom fondles and freedom frisks, grope-a-palooza, peel and feel.

Recall the citizens of the old Soviet Union, whose response to an inept, deadening, and unresponsive bureaucracy was mordant humor—“we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”—and let them be an example and an encouragement to you. As Ms. McKean says, “We may not control our belongings or our dignity, but we can certainly reclaim the way we talk about them.”

 

 *At some point my name apparently got on some kind of watch list, and I could not check in for a boarding pass at one of the helpful little machines but had to go to the ticket counter to prove who I am. I inquired about this and appealed, and after some months got a vaguely worded letter that indicates that I challenged the listing and might be all right, though I haven’t had occasion to fly since.

God knows what they will subject me to after I publish this post.

**You may also have read scolding that All Is Permitted for Security in the War on Terror, so shut up about strip searches, pantywaists. And, while you are shutting up, shut about any questions about whether these techniques actually accomplish anything.

You do not, I think, have to be a tea partier to recognize that arbitrary authority will always find apologists.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:08 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Don't disparage the adjective

Little maxims about writing litter the Internet, and, like much advice about writing, they are apt to lead you astray if you take them too seriously. I’m thinking in particular about “Write with nouns and verbs instead of adjectives” and “When you meet an adverb, kill it.”

Yes, if you do encumber your sentences with a profusion of adjectives and adverbs, your texts may come to sound like the Tom Swift stories. You know: “Tom handed over the rolls he had grabbed up when they ran from the shop, just before the explosion took place, and, while his companion spread them out on his knee, as he sat on an upturned barrel, the lad walked toward the rear of the large yard. It was enclosed by a high board fence, with a locked gate, but Tom, undoing the fastenings, stepped out into the broad, green meadow at the rear of his father’s property.” Feh.

But let me also point out an example from a master that I have cited before, Vladimir Nabokov’s deadly one-paragraph portrait of an enduring type, the academic charlatan, in Pnin:

Two interesting characteristics distinguished Leonard Blorenge, Chairman of French Literature and Language; he disliked Literature and he had no French. This did not prevent him from traveling tremendous distances to attend Modern Language conventions, at which he would flaunt his ineptitude as if it were some majestic whim, and parry with great thrusts of healthy lodge humor any attempt to inveigle him into the subtleties of the parley-voo. A highly esteemed money-getter, he had recently induced a rich old man, whom three great universities had courted in vain, to promote with a fantastic endowment a riot of research conducted by graduates under the direction of Dr. Slavski, a Canadian, toward the erection on a hill near Waindell, of a “French Village,” two streets and a square, to be copied from those of the ancient little burg of Vandel in the Dordogne. Despite the grandiose element always present in his administrative illuminations, Blorenge was personally a man of ascetic tastes. He had happened to go to school with Sam Poore, Waindell’s President, and for many years, regularly, even after the latter had lost his sight, the two would go fishing together on a bleak, wind-raked lake, at the end of a gravel lane lined with fireweed, seventy miles north of Waindell, in the kind of dreary brush country—scrub oak and nursery pine—that, in terms of nature, is the counterpart of a slum. His wife, a sweet woman of simple antecedents, referred to him at her club as “Professor Blorenge.” He gave a course entitled “Great Frenchmen,” which he had had his secretary copy out from a set of The Hastings Historical and Philosophical Magazine for 1882-94, discovered by him in an attic and not represented in the College Library.

Interesting is not an adjective one is well advised to use, but Nabokov uses it strategically. Interesting usually telegraphs little more than a mild flicker, but the understatement is turned upside down with the immediate discovery that the chairman of the French department lacks so much as a shred of the language.

Blorenge treats his deficiency as if it were a majestic whim and fends off Francophones with great thrusts of healthy lodge humor. Imagine the flatness of that sentence without the adjectives.

He and the college president go fishing on a bleak, wind-raked lake in dreary brush country—the adjectives ramming home the poverty of their amusement.

And there is Mrs. Blorenge, a sweet woman of simple antecedents, a loving character assassination in six words. That she refers to her husband as “Professor Blorenge” at her club is the ganache on the gateau.

Shunning adjectives and writing with any old nouns and verbs, even if you eschew the passive voice, is not going to result in mastery. What matters is not the parts of speech but rather how much each word contributes to the overall effect.

Maxims can only carry you a little way forward. What you need to do is study why low-grade prose (easily found if you subscribe to a daily newspaper or have access to the Internet) never gets aloft, and why first-rate prose soars. That is when you will begin to get somewhere yourself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (7)
        

November 24, 2010

Be careful what you're thankful for

I’ve been seeing some Thanksgiving expressions of gratitude to what “our God” has done for us, and I have to say that “our God” talk leaves me a little queasy. You know, that “Our God is a mighty God” stuff and things like it.

It may not be the intention of such writers to suggest that “your God” isn’t much, after the manner of Elijah contending with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. But there is something about the possessive that sounds a little smug, as if to say that God is ours and we’ve got him in our pocket.

Any honest theologian is going to be straight with you that divinity is not to be contained and circumscribed, and that all the tomes of theology are limited and incomplete—that is, failed—attempts to describe the indescribable. So a little more humility would be in order.

It is not as if we particularly merited good fortune. I myself had the unearned benefit of being born male, white, and American; if I have done better than some, I had a head start in this world. So if I am going to express gratitude, it’s not going to be a God-is-on-my-side whoop.

Rather, I think I should be grateful for parents and grandparents who were indulgent of the peculiar child they were saddled with, and did not warp him too much; for teachers who were encouraging to unpromising material; for wife and children who contrive to endure an irritable, cranky personality on the premises; and, perhaps most of all, for luck in having survived for so long stupid and self-destructive actions.

So it’s off to the paragraph factory to prepare the stories you’ll read tomorrow, if you’re not too drunk and logy. And tomorrow, at table with family, I will lift a glass in awareness that the world has many good things for us to enjoy, gifts that we did not earn of our own merit.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:46 PM | | Comments (13)
        

November 22, 2010

Say no to the infamous green bean casserole

With Thanksgiving only a couple of days away, there is still time for those of you who will be in the kitchen to spare holiday diners a culinary atrocity. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SERVE THAT GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE.

I concede the genius in marketing that has made the vile desecration of a fine vegetable with Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s french-fried onions a holiday tradition and malformed the palates of generations. But you do not have to be a party to this.

You could get hold of some mushrooms and some stock and let your families taste what actual mushroom soup is like. You could cook your green beans all morning with some bacon or ham, as my mother did.* Or you could steam them until they are tender and combine them with sweet butter and lemon juice. Have your families ever experienced what green beans taste like?

Yes, you will have to contend with resistance from people at the table who think they like this bland slop and consider it an indispensable component of festivity. Be strong. If you do not educate them in the taste of real food, who will? Stand your ground. Ecrasez l’infame!

 

*High on the list of things you will never hear a Southerner say: “I believe you cooked those green beans too long.”

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:02 AM | | Comments (29)
        

Word and deed

It appears, long-suffering readers, that I am now presenting the joke of the week every week instead of every other week. You have been warned.

This week’s offering is an Ole and Lena joke, “The big snow”:

Also for your delight and instruction on Mondays, the word of the week. Featured in today’s “In a Word”: milquetoast. It joins the previous words of the week in the gallery.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:29 AM | | Comments (3)
        

November 21, 2010

Gentlemen, roll your crusts

When he is not taking dictation from the Comintern, Andy Green, the editorial page editor of that notorious lefty socialist Obamination The Baltimore Sun, occasionally discourses on topics that do not dangerously increase the blood pressure of right-thinking Americans. Yesterday, it was piecrust.

Surprisingly, Mr. Green, for a dedicated stooge of the totalitarian conspiracy to undermine all traditional values, is a strict-constructionist traditionalist about pie. Store-bought crusts, no matter how convenient or highly recommended, will simply not do. Piecrust must be handmade, and handmade by traditional methods. Leave the food processor on the shelf. (Well, perhaps not entirely traditional; he can’t quite bring himself to endorse lard, though no fat makes better crusts.) And he presents those traditional methods in meticulous detail.

You will note, however, that he not only advises using vodka in crust, a technique my wife embraced during the past year, but also explains the chemistry of it. Perhaps there is something to progressivism after all.

Clip this editorial if you still have yesterday’s print edition, or retrieve it while it is still available online. The holidays are upon us, and you have little time left to begin your baking. Remember: Cake is good, and cheesecake is better. Pudding is satisfying. Trifles and syllabubs are festive. But to round out that holiday dinner, to remind us that the world is full of good things that a beneficent Providence meant for us to savor, nothing beats pie.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:53 PM | | Comments (6)
        

November 20, 2010

Another week that was

As we prepare to mark off the third week of November and brace ourselves for the holiday looming ahead, some unfinished business.

Here’s a dispatch from Barbara Phillips Long, one of my informants:

From an AP story about “Amazing Grace”: Handel's "Alleluia Chorus," a rival to "Amazing Grace" as a spiritual favorite, has been recorded about 500 times, far fewer than "Amazing Grace."

From (and other locations too numerous to mention):

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101110/ap_on_re/us_rel_religion_today

I can find plenty of Google references to the Hallelujah Chorus, but none to the Alleluia.

What I also noticed, trolling through this Yahoo post, is that they had a lot of links, possibly from automated software, but Handel’s putative chorus had no link. Of course, the link to “thou art” from the song title “How Great Thou Art,” was to a Romeo and Juliet reference. (I revise my stand -- definitely automated software.) Apparently the automated software doesn’t recognize the function of quotation marks, either. All the links except the one to Judy Collins are useless. The links at John Newton’s name lead the reader to information about Olivia Newton-John.

So much for the link economy creating value – in this case it created trash. Yet another reason to have a copy editor look at this piece after it was written AND after the links were put in.

 

My own response:

As we often say down here at the plant, you can’t spell crap without AP. I’m not sure what kinds of “research” [scare quotes are deliberate] went into this opus, but when I looked at Amazon.com, there appeared to be more than a thousand recordings of Messiah alone, not to mention that many recordings in which the “Hallelujah Chorus” appears as a separate element.

And no, no one appears to be editing this stuff.

 

Another purblind peever:

Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum has trained a full battery on one Simon Heffer, a drudge at The Daily Telegraph who has published a book, Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters, purporting to instruct us in the proper use of English. The barrage is here:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2780

You will note that Professor Pullum is not unrelievedly negative: “I know that a few tender souls will feel that there must be something good in everything, and that I really shouldn't be so negative. So I will say one favorable thing about the book. Holding it in my hands did not make my skin erupt in a horrible disfiguring disease. There. I'm done. Don't tell me I don't know how to be fair and balanced.”

Now we have a new standard by which to evaluate books on usage: whether they give us a rash.

There is a link at Language Log to a somewhat more restrained but still thorough demolition job by David Crystal, and a comment draws attention to a review by in the Guardian by Stephen Poole, who wickedly suggests that Mr. Heffer’s book is a satire on prescriptivism, exposing its folly by fatuous overstatements and glaring inconsistencies.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/16/steven-poole-nonfiction-choice-review

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:35 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Grammar like Mother used to make

Day in, day out, Newtonian physics works pretty well. If you are driving in rain or snow, particularly if you are in one of those SUVs the size of a minor suburb, you would do well to remember some things about mass, momentum, and inertia. But, as physicists have discovered over the past century and a half or so, Newton doesn’t always get the job done.

I was reminded of this by a couple of comments on a previous post, “Teach the children well,” explaining why “person, place, or thing” is no longer considered an adequate explanation of what a noun is. (I’ve reproduced the exchanges at the end of this post for your convenience.)

The schoolroom grammar that I learned, and which may constitute the bulk of your understanding of grammar and syntax, can get you through many ordinary circumstances in conversation and even writing, but it is not the most sophisticated understanding of how English works. There is a vast body of research and analysis in linguistics that goes far beyond it.

But what, you ask, are you supposed to do, if you cannot afford (159 pounds) or cart around (1,860 pages) Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language?

For you, if you understand its limits, there is the second edition of Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation by Anne Stilman (Writer’s Digest Books, 342 pages, $19.99).

Ms. Stilman is a proponent of the traditional grammar, and her explanation of the elements—the parts of speech, the verb tenses and moods—is lucid and well supplied with apt examples.

Her advice is conservative but informed: “Many people recall their English teachers issuing a straight dictum to always use the active voice, never the passive. This overly simplistic advice would be better put as, use the active voice as a general rule, and use the passive voice only if there is a specific reason to do so.” As you see, she does not shrink from splitting infinitives. Neither does she fail to note “the persistent myth that a preposition may never come at the end of a sentence.” With these constructions, as with the hopefully bugaboo, she advises that you might choose to honor the superstitions if violating them would upset your readers’ expectations of correct usage and distract them from what you are trying to say.

If the traditional grammar fits your needs, I know of no handbook superior to this one. Ms. Stilman’s book is clear, well organized, straightforward, and accessible. I like her tone, level and reasonable, rather than the dogmatic hectoring of the Lynne Truss school.

If you should decide you want to move from Newton to quantum mechanics, I’m sure that someone will comment to recommend more advanced texts on linguistics.

 

Extract of comments from “Teach the children well”

lynneguist: We spend the first two years of our degree un-teaching that 'a noun is a name of a person, place, or thing' and 'a verb is an action word'. No one knows what an adverb is, so in tests it's not uncommon to see 'adverb' next to anything that is not a person, place, thing, or action...

Patricia the Terse: And when did a noun not become the name of a person, place or thing?

John Cowan: Lots of nouns, like fist and attitude, have referents that are neither persons, places, nor things, unless you take the view that a thing is anything that a noun refers to, in which case the definition doesn't help.

Picky: Different disciplines, Patricia. I'd guess that Mr McIntyre would be close to overjoyed if his editing students could identify and define the parts of speech using the terms he and I (and you? though evidently not Janne) learned in school.

Ms Lynneguist on the other hand, although the author of an excellently accessible language blog, is a professional linguist who would want/expect her students to have some grasp of the results of modern linguistic scholarship.

In my everyday life I quite cheerfully go along with Newton, but I'm told physics students have to take account of some new kids called Einstein and Planck.

lynneguist: A noun that's not a thing (sometimes) is 'construction'. It can be a thing, as in 'the construction was flimsy', but in a context like 'the construction of the building took two years' it's an event. We can tell it's a noun because it takes 'the', but could paraphrase the phrase using a verb in its place w/out losing much of anything in meaning: 'it took two years to construct the building'. Gerunds are grammatically nouns, but typically refer to actions: 'Jumping is fun'.

A verb that's not an action? That's easy: 'belong', 'resemble', 'be' (e.g. 'I am tall' does not mean 'I act tall'), 'know'. You can tell they're not actions because they're weird in the progressive e.g. "I am knowing French" versus the action "I am learning French".

Which is all to say that the parts of speech are grammatical categories and grammar is in many ways independent of meaning (viz. Chomsky's famous sentence 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'. Impossible meaning, but perfectly grammatical sentence). While a prototypical noun refers to a thing, not all do. But every noun can do nouny things like be the object of a preposition or the subject of a sentence or be modified by an adjective; most can be preceded by a determiner (aka an article) and can be made possessive.

To teach grammatical categories on the basis of semantic descriptions is misleading. it's kind of like telling children that birds are the animals that fly, fish are the ones that swim, and mammals are the warm-blooded ones that walk on the ground. It works for many cases, but not all, and so it's not an honest way to teach!

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:49 AM | | Comments (9)
        

November 19, 2010

Even for a columnist

Even for a sports columnist:

Ashley Fox in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Michael Vick once fought and electrocuted dogs. Now, as the Eagles' starting quarterback, he is the most electric player in the National Football League.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Just issue a diploma already

The most depressing text of the week arrived in a link a commenter provided to the post, “Would you buy a used term paper from these people?” It was to an article, “The Shadow Scholar,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education by a man who makes $66,000 a year writing term papers and theses on order for university students. That’s his half of the take, split with the online service that engages him and steers the customers to him.

His clients can be classified in three main categories: absolutely hopeless students who are simply unqualified for university-level work, foreign students whose ESL classes have not made them sufficiently fluent in English, and the lazy rich who are accustomed to having other people do the heavy lifting for them.*

So at the start we have evidence of widespread acceptance of cheating to get undergraduate and graduate degrees—he finds that seminarians are particularly pleasant, though he is dubious about their ethical guidance.**

But there is more. He doesn’t go to the library to swot up subjects of which he has no knowledge. A page or two from a Google search gives him some quotes and jargon, and his ability to inflate sentences with meaningless words—he can turn four words into forty without breaking a sweat—carries him the rest of the way.

Let’s ponder the interconnected elements of the Higher Learning described in this article. We have (a) unqualified students willing to cheat to acquire (earn seems wrong here) degrees, (b) submitting superficial and largely vacuous texts, (c) which are approved by instructors who are unaware that they are being had or who are merely willing to process these cattle through the yards.

At the root, I think, is a culture that values credentials more than education. Anyone who does not have an undergraduate degree is automatically assumed to be ignorant and unqualified for serious work, while anyone who does possess the diploma, not matter how palpable a dolt, will get consideration.

My solution, admittedly a partial and imperfect one, is the traditional democratic remedy of Giving the People What They Want.

I propose that we issue every infant a bachelor’s degree along with the birth certificate.*** Then the colleges and universities could convert their athletic programs into commercial enterprises, the returns of which would underwrite scaled-down academic programs for that minority who actually want to be educated and who are, at a minimum, necessary to keep the nation operational. Gaudeamus igitur.

 

*Before we go on, let me forestall remarks about how much better things were in the old days when we had Standards. It has always been the case that even the prestige colleges and universities catered to the lazy rich—you may recall the phrases “gentleman’s C” and “legacy student”—as they learned how to hold their liquor and locate a spouse of the appropriate class. And if you like (but you won’t), I can quote at length from H.L. Mencken’s mordant remarks about the intelligence of professoriate of the past century.

**Speaking as someone in the pew for nearly five decades of sermons, I have to ask: If the reverend clergy are plagiarizing, why in the name of God are they not stealing higher-grade stuff?

***Not that I’m proposing some disgusting librul classless society. Ivy League bachelor’s degrees would be available for well-off parents to purchase as an upgrade.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:45 PM | | Comments (12)
        

November 17, 2010

Would you buy a used term paper from these people?

Text of a comment I deleted without checking the link:

Someday you will determine a trustworthy assistant such as cheap essay writing service, and you will be able to get that essays completing can be as complex as think. Real professionals can to cope with that easily.

As a meditative exercise, visualize the student who would pay money for this service.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (17)
        

OK by me

Nineteenth-century American humor relied heavily on misspelling. As literacy became widespread, it was inevitable that skill in reading and writing would become markers of social class and background. Bad spellers in journalism and literature, usually rustics, provided a somewhat-better-educated middle class with amusement and a confirmation of their own superior status.

It is to this tradition that we owe the most substantial American contribution to the English language, the English word most universally understood and used: OK.

In OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press, 210 pages, $18.95), Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, traces this universal word from its truly improbable beginnings to its current, equally improbable, status.

The origins of the word were documented half a century ago by the indefatigable Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. OK originated during a craze for abbreviations in Boston journalism, appearing for the first time ever in the March 23, 1839, edition of the Boston Morning Post as an abbreviation for all correct, understood as being spelled oll korrect.*

A couple of coincidences brought the fanciful abbreviation into common use. In the loony presidential campaign of 1840, Martin Van Buren’s partisans tried to counter William Henry Harrison’s popular appeal by referring to Van Buren as “Old Kinderhook,” from his family estate. Subsequently, Andrew Jackson’s political enemies, seeking to portray him as a backwoods illiterate, spread word that he initialed official documents with “O.K.,” for “oll korrect.”**

The word caught on, shedding over time its comic beginnings and becoming a widespread neutral affirmation.

So far, Professor Metcalf treads the ground pioneered by Professor Read, but he moves on to contemporary terrain, tracing its development in literature, business, and everyday speech. And its worldwide scope. OK—noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection—is understood by speakers of “Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, and Japanese, among many others ... with pronunciations adapted to their languages.”

It has become a useful, neutral term—indicating things that are not superior, not inferior, but just, you know, OK. Good enough. Serviceable.

It is, he suggests, a characteristically American term, representative of a pragmatic attitude toward life. And, extrapolating from the popularity of the transactional analysis catchphrase “I’m OK—you’re OK,” he argues that it represents a “two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference.” Bear with me; he has a point: “At the start of the 1960s in the United States, law and custom were quite different from what they are today. Discrimination against minorities and women was not only widely practiced but widely accepted. Today acceptance and even affirmation of differences have become pervasive, in law as well as in practice, and those values persist despite the encouragement to xenophobia caused by the threat of terrorism.” OK is “a mantra of tolerance and acceptance unprecedented in our history.”

I’m OK with that, and so should you be. Have a look at Professor Metcalf’s book yourself. It’s worth your time.

 

*There is a word, for which I am debt to Professor Metcalf, for bad spelling: cacography.

**There was not a shred of accuracy in the report, but it came to be widely believed, much as the “birther” nonsense has gained currency in our supposedly more sophisticated era.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:02 AM | | Comments (9)
        

The work of the Devil

On Twitter, @Fritinancy complains, “White type reversed on light-green background. Legibility #fail. http://bit.ly/acHCwj”

Ms. Friedman, as she customarily is, is quite right. I have never understood designers’ infatuation with reverse type, especially—and The Sun has often been guilty of this—white body type on a black background. In addition to getting ink all over your hands, you cannot read the text.

Actually, it’s not only reverse type that indicates a designer’s cavalier disregard for the interests of the reader. As a Christmas or birthday present for my wife, I presented her with a copy of the 2004 edition of the Gourmet magazine cookbook.* The titles of the recipes are all in yellow type on a white background. Yellow on white, God save the mark. The damn thing has been on the shelf for years.

In the pursuit of elegant and striking and novel design, it is too easy to lose sight of the poor schlub who merely wants to be able to read the text. Reverse type is the work of the Devil.

 

*Yes, I hoped to benefit from the gift personally, in a series of excellent meals. Don’t tell me that your motives in gift-giving have always been disinterested.**

**And don’t tell me that it’s news to you that disinterested originally meant impartial rather than uninterested, and for some people still does. Read a few books.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:37 AM | | Comments (9)
        

November 16, 2010

No such honor

Listening to NPR earlier today, I heard a reporter refer to the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” a common error. There is no such decoration, however frequently the term may crop up in casual use.

The decoration is the Medal of Honor, which is awarded “in the name of Congress.” It dates from 1862. There is, confusingly, a Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which received that name in a charter from Congress in 1958. But the society scrupulously refers to the medal as the Medal of Honor. So should NPR. And so should you.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:21 PM | | Comments (10)
        

November 15, 2010

The goyim wear hats too?

From September through May I wear a black fedora. (“That is a serious hat,” a young African-American gentleman called out to me on the street one day.) In the summer, a Panama or boater. I am bullish on hats. I cherish a faint hope that the popularity of Boardwalk Empire will give a boost to the homburg.

So, apparently, does Elizabeth Valleau, writing at Esquire’s Style Blog.

Unfortunately, she blunders in this sentence:

In the Twenties, your hat was a class signifier and a gentile accessory.

The confusion of genteel—refined—and gentile—non-Jewish— and sometimes gentle, crops up far more often than you might imagine, and in similarly embarrassing places.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:52 AM | | Comments (8)
        

They pay me to do this

The Joke of the Week, “The doctors and the lawyer,” is available at baltimoresun.com.

Also up this morning, your word of the week, borborygmus. As always, you’re invited to top the example sentence and to look at the gallery of past words of the week.

I’m indebted to the reader who sent me a pretty fair joke, which will go into the hopper for production when the next batch is produced. Your suggestions of favorite jokes and nominations for word of the week are always welcome.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:49 AM | | Comments (10)
        

November 13, 2010

Borg sports reporting

One of my spies sends word that there is now a source of sports articles entirely generated by robots.*

Once StatSheet sets up the algorithms for a particular team, articles are automatically generated as the stats are received.

Of course, so much of journalism is formulaic—not only stock story structures but also stock phrases—that it is not entirely a surprise that someone might manage this, particularly with the sort of sports story in which the text is merely a matrix in which the statistics are embedded.

But if I were a reporter writing about business, say, or politics, I might be looking over my shoulder.

 

*Must. Suppress. Smartass. Remark.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:28 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Headline goes here

Grant Barrett, lexicographer, radio personality, and one of the Voices of San Diego, posed a question for me on Twitter today:

Do you know of a comprehensive list of the tired-isms on the order of "spark debate," "stir controversy," etc.?

Brother, I’ve seen them all.

Stir debate, stir controversy, and their variants crop up when a lack of space—or imagination—prevents the copy editor from telling you what the casus belli is.

Making use of the dated slang that constitutes much of headlinese—nab, nix, lambaste, tout, heist, finger (v.), slay, blast and rap (for criticize), moniker—seems unlikely to capture many readers in the current century.

Pun headlines, particularly pun headlines that use non-standard spelling, are worse than tired. No headline writer with any self-respect or common decency should ever write a headline for a story about a cat using “purr-fect.” No one outside a sports section should ever pun on a person’s name.

Allusions are probably not as fresh and original as you think they are. Some common headline gimmicks that are staler than that chunk of wedding cake you took out of the freezer on your first anniversary:

If you build X, they will come

It’s official ...

The ___man cometh

Any headline that uses the archaic –eth suffix, which will almost always be grammatically incorrect as well as strained.

Still X after all these years

Show me the X

The X stops here

The X are alright

Making it all right makes it no better.

X is the new Y

But, unfortunately, I do not have a comprehensive list of the stock devices to which the lazy and dull-witted resort—nothing comparable to Tom Mangan’s Banned for Life compilation of cliches. I could use some help. Grant Barrett could use your help. I’ve given you a start. And there’s the set of holiday cliches posted previously. How much farther can you take us?

 

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:40 PM | | Comments (10)
        

November 12, 2010

Colonel McCormick would be pleased

There has been some inflamed Twittery among copy editors since @APStylebook posted yesterday, “We have some new Stylebook entries to announce. No.1: It’s drive-thru, as a noun or an adjective.”

Of course, a flame among copy editors is not that hard, gemlike thing that poets give off or the Fawkes-like bonfires of the peeving class, but rather a sputter that quickly gutters.

Thru for through has been a pet of spelling reformers, among them Col. Robert R. McCormick, who imposed his own collection of simplifications on the Chicago Tribune for many years. The spelling has long since caught on with the sorts of businesses that you see along the highway (some, of the “Kozy Kitchen” variety, also given to substituting k for c), and New York has its Thruway.

It will be interesting to see who pays attention to this latest diktat. There are copy editors who await the proclamations of a new edition of the stylebook as if it were a papal bull. And there are copy editors who view the stylebook’s strictures much as Duke Bernabo Visconti of Milan regarded the bull excommunicating him in 1371—he made the legates delivering the bull eat it, parchment, lead seals, and all.

My guess is that accepting or rejecting drive-thru will hinge on how downmarket you’re willing to look.

 

A note to my readers: I’m aware that we’ve been down to seeds and stems on the blog this week—very busy at the plant and campus, and with two separate freelance projects. I’m hoping to get back up to speed.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:56 PM | | Comments (7)
        

November 10, 2010

Just look it up

When an article assigned in my editing class contains an uncommon word, I ask my students what it means. The usual response is a row of blank stares. It appears that they just shrug when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. And then I explain to them that if you release an article that contains words you do not understand, you have not really edited it. But you will be held accountable for anything in it that is wrong.

An article on Newswise, “Study Shows Universities May be Failing to Sufficiently Teach Basic Research Skills,” suggests that many students don’t use the library and fail to take full advantage of electronic sources—in fact, don’t have a clear sense of how to begin research.

A salient paragraph: “To manage large amounts of information, the report says, ‘students in both large universities and small colleges use a risk-averse strategy based on efficiency and predictability.’ In other words, students avoid drowning by limiting the sources they turn to and the amount of information they take in.”

There is another side to this phenomenon, the willingness, displayed widely on the Internet, to make assertions or challenge other people’s work without troubling to check. What is a character flaw in civilians is a sin in copy editors, as Carol Fisher Saller explains today at The Subversive Copy Editor. (Check the link to the Jan Freeman column about the readers who snarkily miscorrected a reference to Goober Pyle by telling her she meant Gomer Pyle.*)

As Ms. Saller points out, if you have a decent dictionary and a search engine, the information you need—the correct information—is seconds away.** The only obstacles to your being correct are an apathetic reluctance to check things out, or a hair-trigger willingness to express what you mistakenly think you know.

 

*I probably shouldn’t start on cultural literacy—you know how I get. But I am regularly discouraged, semester after semester, to discover that vitually none of my students have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie. O tempora, O mores.

**Within arm’s reach at home, I have Garner 3, MWDEU, Original Fowler, Gower-Fowler, Burchfield-Fowler, Corbett on Rhetoric, Chicago Manual 16, AP (yes, for what it’s worth), and more. For dictionaries, American Heritage, Compact OED, Shorter OED, Oxford New American, and the excellent Merriam-Webster online. Not to mention two shelves of additional books on language and the set of bookmarked electronic references.

One more thing: If you are a copy editor, you should probably think about replacing that dictionary and edition of the AP Stylebook that you’ve had on your desk since the Ford administration. Things change.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (9)
        

November 9, 2010

Lines in the sand

Some time back I pointed out, in my irenic way, that the replacement of typewriters by electronic word-processing software has made it unnecessary, and even undesirable, to put two spaces after a period. Just today, a gentleman named Stephen, bless his heart, posted this comment on the “Just one space, please” post:

I'm 27 and started typing 18 years ago. I learned on a typewriter, and later on an old Apple IIe in school. I've always put two spaces between sentences, and plan to continue doing so.

It’s a free country, and he is free to keep on doing this without fear of hearing hobnailed boots on the stairs in the middle of the night. And happily, as Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, has pointed out, Microsoft Word and similar programs enable editors to delete those superfluous spaces quickly and simply.

But still, as a writer of a language blog, I marvel at the determination—some might call it stubbornness—with which people are adamant about adhering to practices that are unnecessary and misguided.

“Mrs. Cadwallader told me in the sixth grade that none is always singular, and nothing that you or any other editor or linguist can say will make me think that it’s right to use it as a plural.”

Or “You’ll get me to stop writing is comprised of when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

I suppose that in the vagaries of this transitory life, people develop a sense of stability by insisting on retaining long-held beliefs and practices, even in the face of sweetly reasonable explanations that those practices are obsolete or wrong-headed.

Add to that, of course, that no one much likes receiving instruction from a copy editor.

But the vehemence, equally distributed among things that do matter and things that don’t matter very much at all, continues to strike me as disproportionate, and the resistance to new information as sad. The number of points on which I have been in error over the years has left me much humbler than the arrogant popinjay I was in my twenties. I’m tempted to repeat once more Oliver Cromwell’s plea, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

And also: Irenic, which you noticed in the opening sentence, is the word of the week at baltimoresun.com. Feel free to comment on it there or here, and also look at the gallery of previous words of the week.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:36 PM | | Comments (38)
        

November 6, 2010

Filthy liberal rag

While the customer is always right, the reader may not be.

The Sun has published a letter from a subscriber, William Engle, about “the same old bias” displayed in its coverage of the general election this week. Specifically, the article on the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives was “buried on page 13.” The paper does not give substantial “coverage for any Republican victory, national or local, in a Democratic leaning state.”

I was, as you might imagine, at the news desk on election night, and the front page that we worked on contained these elements:

* A two-line banner headline at the top of the front page: O’Malley wins 2nd term; / GOP set to take House.

* A secondary headline underneath those: Harris unseats Kratovil in 1st Congressional District rematch, about the only race in the state in which a Republican challenger defeated a Democratic incumbent representative.

* In the election highlights summary on the left side of the page, a photograph of John Boehner, the prospective speaker of the House, and the tally of races that had been declared by that point, showing the Republican lead.

All of this was above the fold.

The material interred on page 13 was, as it happens, a full page of coverage of the House and Senate races, including colored charts showing the relative strength of the two parties. There were also on the facing page, 12, a full column of information about Republican victories in governorships and a half-page article on tea party influence in the elections.

I offer this information so that you can determine for your own satisfaction whether The Sun, out of bias or ineptitude, concealed from its readers that last Tuesday was a good day for the Republican Party.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:19 PM | | Comments (11)
        

November 5, 2010

Rejected copy editor comebacks

Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, writes in her characteristically restrained and civilized way about the way people should talk to copy editors at parties and other social events.

“Ask if she’d like another drink” is an excellent suggestion. “Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” is contraindicated.

Usually, it’s best not to disclose that you are a copy editor. People shrink away like a slug encountering salt. The ones who stay are the ones who are apprehensive that you’ll correct their wretched grammar or, worse, who want to exhibit their pet peeves to you. Better to say something like “I sell crack to schoolchildren” or something similarly innocuous.

Over the years I’ve toyed with a number of responses to “Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” and have managed to suppress them all. But this is a sharing blog. Here are some that I’ve swallowed, and you’re welcome to add yours.

The opening:

“Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!”

The responses:

“Yes, do.” [Turns on heel, makes for the bar.]

“Why start now?”

“Oh, I doubt you could afford my fees.”

“Actually, you should be more apprehensive about that tie/suit/dress/hairdo.”

 “It don’t make me no never mind.”

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 PM | | Comments (12)
        

November 2, 2010

Watch your majorities

It’s Election Day, and while we wait to discover whether the Board of Elections has finally learned how to count, here’s a little language point about the word majority.

A writer turned in an article with a reference to “the majority of land.” It seems more fitting to limit majority to association with count nouns, such as voters or votes. But land is a mass noun, and most of or the bulk of would go better with it.

While we’re at it, it would be good to remember in going over election copy that margin is the difference between the winner and loser. “A margin of 52 percent to 48 percent” is wrong; in such an outcome, “a margin of four percentage points” would be correct.

And humble thanks: Johnson, the language blog of The Economist, has taken favorable notice of my annual campaign against holiday cliches. Most kind.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:29 PM | | Comments (3)
        

November 1, 2010

Such is fame

A message from Steve Sullivan, The Sun's multimedia editor:

Your "Joke of the Week” has just moved into second place today, finally catching and passing “Boy punished for farting on bus.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:43 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Monday already?

The word of the week, rebarbative, is up at baltimoresun.com. You can find the previous words of the week on the site.

Also today, the joke of the week, “The Locomotive,” is up. Don’t be shocked to see that I’m wearing a long tie rather than a bow tie. The day I recorded the latest set of jokes was also the day I returned midterm exams in my editing class, so I was wearing a judgment suit.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:08 AM | | Comments (4)
        
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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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