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December 30, 2010

I will do better in 2011

While I suggested yesterday that a resolve to wear a bow tie in 2011 would be a fully acceptable and sufficient new year’s resolution—as it is—this is basically a language blog, and perhaps some of you were wondering when I might once again write about language.

Let me help you out with the composition of your own new year’s resolutions with a few about language. Pick and choose, mix and match, as it suits your capacities.

I will not whinge* about the way the Young People talk and write. Tiresome older people have always done so, and yet the language has not degenerated into word salad. Remember that the Young People are adopting that lingo to shut you out of the conversation. If you really want them to stop, try to use it yourself, and they will drop it faster than they will block you on Facebook.

I will not talk about the decline of English, the encroachments of barbarism on the language, &c., &c. English is still doing very nicely for itself, thank you very much, and does not require your assistance or protection. It started out by discarding much of the grammar it got from Anglo-Saxon and then sluttishly appropriating great quantities of French—and anything else it brushed against over the past millennium. It goes its own way.

I will not assume that everything Miss Thistlebottom or Sister Scholastica told me about grammar and usage when I was a mere tot is permanently and universally valid. Stop parroting nonsense. Superstitions, shibboleths and zombie rules abound in classrooms (and newsrooms), and people have an uncanny capacity to forget valid information while holding the bogus in a tight grip. It wouldn’t kill you to check things out in Garner’s Modern American Usage or Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, or—I blush to suggest—this blog.

I will not make or contribute to lists of pet peeves. Is there something about peevish people that you perversely admire? Do you want to be numbered among them? Besides, indulging in many of the common peeves will violate the previous three resolutions. Stop it. Stop it now.

There could well be more, but I don’t want to lay a heavier burden on you than you can bear. The current year is just about gone, and the next one has not yet been spoiled. Lift a brimming glass at midnight and drink to the hope that in the coming months we will all speak and write with more accuracy, clarity, force, and grace.

 

*Also, I will not feel aggrieved at Americans who like the sound and sense of British words like whinge. It’s still a common language. Read some Wodehouse, for Fowler’s sake, and everything will be tickety-boo.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:15 PM | | Comments (8)
        

December 29, 2010

The beau bow

One in my wide network of informants sends word that Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle is pondering a new year’s resolution to begin wearing a bow tie.

This is, of course, a highly praiseworthy ambition, one worthy of anyone who aspires to be a gentleman. Here is some help.

Mr. Carroll does quote the condescendingly disparaging remarks on the bow by Warren St. John of The New York Times: “To its devotees the bow tie suggests iconoclasm of an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view. The bow tie hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and sometimes suggests technical acumen, perhaps because it is so hard to tie. Bow ties are worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors and by people hoping to look like the above. But perhaps most of all, wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think.”

I can endorse that “aggressive lack of concern for what other people think.” Look at the way most men dress. Are you going to apply to them for fashion advice? D’you remember the 1980s, when men were all clones of John T. Molloy, dressed in blue suits and those peculiar yellow neckties?

The bow tie has the weight of tradition behind it. Wearing it demonstrates a level of dexterity. And some find it practical; when I worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer, the paper ran an article on bow ties quoting a gynecologist who said that bow ties were favored in his specialty because “they do not swing forward into the materials.”

And when you have occasion to dress formally, are you really going to put on a dinner jacket along with machine-tied neckwear? Have you no shame?

Step up, gentlemen. Mr. Carroll has set an agenda for you for 2011. And it’s one that you might actually be able to bring off.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:42 PM | | Comments (6)
        

We can turn it off

Carol Fisher Saller has a typically pointed and elegant post at The Subversive Copy Editor about reading the work of friends. We can, she says, turn off the copy-editing function at will:

And what a luxury, to sail past inconsistent spellings, iffy punctuation, and inattention to Chicago style. Unlike many copyeditors, I can take off that hat and it pretty much stays off. (You won’t hear me brag that I can’t read past a typo. I’m more likely to be flummoxed when a friend writes me to correct her previous e-mail, not having noticed the typo in the first place.)

Indeed. I remember reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code; one merely goes very fast, for plot alone. You can get it all down, like that stuff they make you swallow the day before the colonoscopy.*

I can also—even though the adepts at Myers-Briggs would say, “He’s such a J”—suspend the critical function when reading correspondence from friends. I don’t edit conversations or correct pronunciations, though I may sometimes take off my glasses.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a professional editor. I edit for money, unless I am persuaded to edit pro bono. So don’t be shy. You can comment here without fearing that you ought to kowtow as you approach the Seat of Judgment. And while people can—and do—say any manner of rude things about me, I take a dim view of attacks on other readers of the blog. (Indoor voices, remember?)

There are, after all, different levels of reading. I enjoy murder mysteries. After a long day of working with professional journalists, who wouldn’t like to read about disagreeable people meeting violent death? And I think that everyone should cultivate some such low taste, so as not to become unduly refined.

But a copy editor reading something more ambitious and accomplished can appreciate at a level that many civilian readers do not. Civilians can tell that they are enjoying a text, but we can see why we are enjoying it: the apt selection of words, the cadence of sentences, the overall structure and the intricacy of organization within that structure. Editing is a craft, and one craftsman recognizes another.

 

*I confess, though, that Angels and Demons was so vile that I ground to a halt and abandoned it after a couple of chapters—if that much.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (6)
        

December 28, 2010

Throw out the trash

One way to prepare for a new year is to discard useless items that have been accumulating and encumbering us. By way of assisting you, I offer some examples that might help you to clean house. 

1. Barack Obama is a native-born citizen of the United States and thus qualified for the presidency. This fact is amply supported. If you still entertain a contrary opinion, then you have been gulled by cranks or misled by dishonest persons.

2. Basic evolutionary theory, with some quibbling over details, has widespread acceptance in the scientific community. So do the theory of relativity, the theory of gravitation, and the theory of the heliocentric solar system. If you have your children taught otherwise, you are curtailing their ability to operate in the world as informed adults.

3. Same with global warming. On this one, you have potential to do even more serious harm to your children.

4. The Civil War, whose 150th anniversary is approaching, was fought over the slavery issue. Apologists for the Confederacy continue to insist that the war was fought over states’ rights. In fact, slavery was the only states’ right that mattered to the secessionists.* All you have to do is read what the secessionists themselves said. By all means find noble and honorable elements in antebellum Southern culture, but don’t deny the ugly fact.

5. Gay people and illegal immigrants will not be magically made to go away. It’s time you accepted the former as fellow human beings with the same civil rights as everyone else. It’s time to recognize the latter as inextricably bound up in our economy and find a way to regularize their status in this country.

This should give any number of people an opportunity to unclutter their minds as 2011 approaches, but I am open to other suggestions as well.

 

*Well, that and the fear that an increase in the number of free states would eliminate the disproportionate representation slave states exercised in Congress through the odious three-fifths clause.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:01 PM | | Comments (26)
        

December 27, 2010

Last joke of the year

Did you enjoy the holidays? I spent them at the paragraph factory on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (Don’t weep for me; I have a job.)

To get a start on the last week of the year, here is the word of the week, rodomontade.

And also the joke of the week, “The Dumbest Kid in Town.”

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:52 AM | | Comments (3)
        

Give me but ten who are stout-hearted men

Offered for your consideration as word of the year is a phrase that has become increasingly commonplace: man up.

It is not easy to pinpoint when men stopped acting like men. My own minor epiphany occurred some years ago while I was waiting for my wife at the airport. I noticed a man of approximately my age—late forties or early fifties—wearing a T-shirt stretched tight by a paunch that was not the work of a day, shorts, and spindly shanks ending in a pair of athletic shoes that looked as large as luggage.

A grown man dressed like a child.

It was those huge shoes, I think, that suggested adolescence, like a puppy that has not yet grown into its paws. The dissonant note was supplied by that straining gut.

This trend in adolescent dressing strikes me as an emblem of a flight from adulthood, which means a flight from responsibility. I see it elsewhere in the weasely non-apology—“I’m sorry if what I said/did offended anyone”—that public figures recite when they have been caught at something reprehensible.

I wonder whether the flight from responsibility can also be a partly explain why more women than men are pursuing academic degrees while the boys continue to concentrate on sports* and video games.

Let me head off any comments to the effect that it is women who are responsible for this, emasculating men by invading and conquering what was formerly male territory. Let me instead suggest that if your manhood was so fragile that a girl could take it away from you, it must not have amounted to much in the first place.

Whatever the origin of the phenomenon, the prevalence of man up suggests that the culture is recognizing that it is time to remedy the situation. So, gentlemen, I present my three-point program for manning up.

1. Stop whining. If an occasion calls for wearing a suit and tie, do so without complaining.** Pay your taxes. Learning new skills is hard. Marriage isn’t easy, and raising children is fraught with difficulty. Suck it up and stop complaining.

2. Take responsibility. For God’s sake, pick up after yourself. Mere possession of a Y chromosome does not entitle you to valet service. Get a degree in something other than weekend boozing. Get a job, and do the work instead of expecting someone else to do it for you. Pay your own way. When you screw up, and you will, often, apologize and take the consequences.

3. Act the part. Adulthood and responsibility do not come naturally or inevitably. You become an adult by trying to act like one, and over time the role comes to fit. Look for models worth imitating, and imitate them. Other men have done it before you. You can too.

 

*As good a time as any to repeat Gore Vidal’s sardonic remark from decades past: "A peculiarity of American sexual mores is that those men who like to think of themselves as exclusively and triumphantly heterosexual are convinced that the most masculine of all activities is not tending to the sexual needs of women but watching other men play games."

**A tip: If your necktie seems to be strangling you, it may be time to buy shirts of a larger collar size. Chances are excellent that your neck is a good deal fatter than when you were nineteen.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:34 AM | | Comments (32)
        

December 24, 2010

Five years

Preoccupied with a series of freelance editing projects, final examinations and projects in the copy editing class, and the heavy responsibilities of night content production at the paragraph factory, I let an anniversary slip by unremarked this week.

It was on December 20, 2005, that the first post of this blog appeared, and now there have been more than 1,300 of them (including video jokes and other frivolities), here and in the separate You Don’t Say site that I operated during the [cough] hiatus [cough].

Some of you have been readers from the beginning, some of you late adopters, and I marvel that you find things of interest here. Keep coming back. I intend to keep at it as long as I have anything to say.*

I know from the comments that nothing will inhibit you from speaking your minds.

And now, good people, however you are spending this holiday, at work, with family, with friends, or alone, please accept my best wishes. You have been pleasant company.

 

*There will, however, be a slight interruption of service during the first two weeks of January, when Kathleen and I will be in England with a tour group from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, a vacation we shrewdly planned to coincide with the worst winter weather in Europe in years. Assuming that (a) we can get to Heathrow and (b) get back from Heathrow, I will resume posting in mid-January.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:39 PM | | Comments (6)
        

December 21, 2010

The joke is back

The video joke of the week returns with “The Picture of Health”: The word of the week is otiose. View the past words of the week on the gallery.
Posted by John McIntyre at 1:18 PM | | Comments (3)
        

December 19, 2010

Try the pancakes

Just back from lunch at Cafe Hon. All the tables were full, despite the protest outside, so I sat at the counter and had two mugs of Zeke’s coffee and blueberry pancakes. The pancakes were excellent.

People in the restaurant were talking animatedly and tucking into their food with evident relish. I couldn’t help but notice that the two dozen or so protesters across the street appeared rather sullen.

As I walked to my car, I overheard a Hampdenite explain to his son, “None of those people actually live here. Why don’t they demonstrate for something?”

To round things out, I commend to you Mobtown Shank’s extensive commentary on the “hontroversy.” Sample sentence: “You can't boycott a place you never really went to in the first place.” The Shank’s analysis is thorough and reasonable, worth your attention.

For my part, the cascade of abuse to which Denise Whiting has been subjected, whatever the merits of the trademark issue, does not put our fair city in a flattering light.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:28 PM | | Comments (35)
        

December 18, 2010

I am not holly jolly, nor am meant to be

I was proofreading the horoscope for the Sunday editions* and took particular note of my own:

Practice the spirit of the holiday season in the week to come by being friendly toward everyone.

At the moment, that leaves me less than an hour to discharge a large reservoir of spleen. And it is NOT HELPFUL that two people who are much nicer than I am have taken it upon themselves to suggest that my strictures against holiday cliches are too severe.

The eminent Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, while conceding that some of the forbidden phrases land with a thud, suggests that “veteran editors can also become too cliche-aware. After years of exposure to journalistic prose, they’re bound to be tired of some phrases; it’s satisfying to put them on a blacklist and declare them dead and gone.” And that “an editor who imagines that readers despise “ ’tis the season” is an editor who needs to get out more.”

Of course, the reason that readers don’t despise the cliches more is that at least some of the more reprehensible efforts are gently suffocated on copy desks. I can—and am willing to make good on the threat—to go down the stairs to the crypt in this cold, damp, unsalubrious weather to fetch up some of the ghastly examples I use to frighten the children in my editing class to make them good. Trust me, you don’t want to see them.

Also today, at the Frederick News-Post Terence Walsh writes, “I'm all for a fresh take on the familiar rituals of the holiday season. If you can write a Christmas story that has truly never been done before, bring it on. But what would such a story even look like? While lists of don'ts provide valuable guidance, it is easier to say what not to do than to write an effective story that avoids these hazards. To put it another way, the line between cliché and tradition can sometimes get blurry.”

And further: “I do not defend tired, lazy or trite writing. But I humbly suggest that every Christmas-related news story may not be the place to, to use another cliché, reinvent the wheel.”

And yet, hmm, he could not resist quoting strictures against some of the riper excesses. And he does call You Don’t Say “an excellent blog,” which—oh God, is that seasonal friendliness seeping in?—suggests that his life should be spared.

What it comes down to is this: There is much more bad writing than good. As I commiserated with a colleague recently, our task as editors is often to take the execrable and render it merely mediocre. Someone who writes a “’Tis the season” lead for a publication that has already used it, more than once. and probably displays the phrase in at least a dozen advertisements throughout the publication, is a hack who imagines himself to be clever and original. Spare me.

Spare you.

 

*Here’s another useful British word, dogsbody, a person doing menial work, a drudge.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 PM | | Comments (7)
        

My own year in words

The energetic Grant Barrett and Sam Sifton have an article in The New York Times on the words of 2010. It is an excellent compilation, and whether you click on the link may depend on how much you care to be reminding of the year that is approaching its end.

My enterprise in the past year has had less to do with neologisms than with existing words that merit being lifted from relative obscurity. Since the limn crisis in September,* I have been posting each week at baltimoresun.com a word, with etymology and illustration, that may be unfamiliar to readers. They have all been excellent words, meriting a place in the sun:

Gnomic

Lachrymose

Louche

Chthonic

Nonage

Rebarbative

Irenic

Borborygmus

Milquetoast

Quidnunc

Demirep

Eleemosynary

And—a sneak peek at the next one—Otiose.

They’re collected in a gallery.

On the blog I’ve indulged in a weakness for British words not commonly uttered on these shores, such as kerfuffle and codswallop, despite a mild apprehension that I might be dragged before the House Committee on Un-American Language** and ordered to name names.

No doubt, dear ones, you have your own favorites. Would you like to share?

 

*No, God no, I am not going back there. You will have to look it up yourselves.

**If there isn’t one now, there probably will be in the next Congress.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 PM | | Comments (13)
        

December 15, 2010

Monoglot America just gets monoglotter

The traditional British belief that foreigners can understand English if you simply speak loudly enough to them has been seamlessly grafted onto American exceptionalism. We speak American, and that should be good enough for anybody.

I recall a comment on this blog objecting to the use of whinge. Now to my mind, whinge (rhymes with hinge) is a splendid word, taking mere whining to a higher pitch of irritating peevishness. It has more juice in it than whine. But the commenter objected to it because it is primarily British.

And now it strikes me: The good people of this country not only refuse to learn a little useful Spanish, not only allow foreign languages to drop from the school curriculum, but are also resistant to other variants of English.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 PM | | Comments (22)
        

Set upon

The tweets started flying this morning that last week’s fire on The Block* was, sources tell The Sun, “deliberately set.”

I doubt that eliminating the adverb would lead any reader to think that the fire was accidentally or unintentionally set. In the Oxford English Dictionary, which devotes more than twenty pages (!) to this most versatile of English words, many if not most of the senses of the verb involve putting, placing, or causing—deliberate action. You set your heart on something; you set some money aside; you set someone up to take the fall.

To set a fire is to kindle or ignite one, and that could be the result of an accident—Timmy set the house on fire while playing with matches, but Lassie started barking. But anyone told that the fire on The Block was set is going to assume arson immediately. So while deliberately set is not necessarily redundant, it is more than is necessary.

 

*The Block, non-Baltimoreans, is a seedy collection of strip clubs downtown where once, in its glory days, Blaze Starr shimmied at the 2 O’Clock Club.

While we’re talking about verbs today, I should mention that there is a common blurring of shimmy, to produce that alluring, swaying vibration so much prized before the craft was taken over by pole dancers, and shinny, to climb rapidly up or down, gripping with the arms and legs. It is a useful distinction to maintain.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (6)
        

December 13, 2010

Correction

The interview on Maryland Morning mentioned in today’s previous post will actually air Wednesday morning, not Tuesday.

You Don’t Say regrets the error.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:26 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Ending on a somber note

Because of an oversight at the paragraph factory, no video joke of the week has been posted. But there are several in the can, and I will announce when they resume.

You do have a word of the week, and it is seasonal: eleemosynary.

Earlier today I recorded an interview with Sheilah Kast of Maryland Morning at WYPR-FM, 88.1. You can tune in tomorrow morning between 9:00 and 10:00 to listen, or you can check the Maryland Morning website for a recording tomorrow afternoon.

One last thing, a somber one. The Winston-Salem Journal is losing its copy desk—all eighteen people—to a consolidation of resources in Media General. It is a tremendous blow to the paper: the loss of institutional knowledge, the loss of local knowledge, the loss of resources to ensure accuracy and clarity. The War on Editing has claimed another cluster of casualties.

There is a tribute to them on YouTube—thank you, Diego Sorbara, for flagging it—that is worth a few minutes of your time and attention. In fact, I insist. Attention must be paid.

Those of us still in the struggle salute our comrades. Ave atque vale.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:41 PM | | Comments (4)
        

December 12, 2010

My sweet old myopia

Every year at Christmastime my younger sister and I would pile into the car with our parents to drive over to Flemingsburg to see the Christmas displays on the houses. (It was an innocent time.) The standing joke in the family was that every year my parents would describe some particularly gaudy display on the rooftop of the local Chevrolet dealer’s house, which was set back from the street, and I would say, “I don’t see anything.”

By the time I was ten, and my teacher, Frances Dorsey, suggested that it would be a good thing to have my eyes examined, it dawned on my parents that I had not been playing some child’s game with them. I was, and am, severely nearsighted.

How severely? If you are more than ten feet away from me, I might recognize you but would have trouble distinguishing your features. If I read without my glasses, I have to hold the page so close that I can’t focus on the text with both eyes at the same time.

But myopia has its compensations. Mine is correctible with glasses, and so since the age of ten I have been readily identifiable as a four-eyed bookworm, which enables people to form their perceptions without my having to go to any effort to establish an identity.

At nighttime, the lights from buildings and vehicles become stars and pinwheels—not when I’m driving, mind you—and it is like being inside a kaleidoscope, investing the most banal surroundings with an exotic air.

Most of all, nearsightedness permits a retreat from the world. When I take off my glasses, the external world just fades away and I am in my own place.* You may surmise, if you see me remove my glasses during a sermon or lecture or meeting, that my eyes hurt and require a little relief; but it is just as possible that I have decided that my private reflections are more profitable than whatever I have just tuned out.

People who can see have no idea how handy this is.

 

*There are other means, of course. Though I cannot recall how it came about, at some point in childhood I was given dispensation to read at the family dinner table. This had two advantages: It enabled me to withdraw into the world of print, which has always been my most reliable refuge, and it distanced me from the squabbles and criticisms and recriminations that were the family recreation at table.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:42 PM | | Comments (18)
        

December 11, 2010

GRRRRRRRRRRR

Let me caution you, good people, before you pick up your Sunday edition of The Baltimore Sun, of what lies awaiting you on Page 2 of the Business & Jobs section.

It is, I write to the accompaniment of grinding molars and muttered imprecations (You try to grind and mutter at the same time), a graphic illustrating the price tag of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In my paper. My public fulminations notwithstanding

In a properly run state, the originator of this article would have been hanged, cut down alive, disemboweled and his bowels displayed to him, his body cut into four pieces, and his head detached and displayed on a pike in a public place as a reminder to others not to do likewise.

I fear that nothing short of the fear of being drawn and quartered can halt the annual infliction of this asinine claptrap on a public already dazed by cliche-ridden holiday twaddle. We’re just going to have to tough this one out.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:57 PM | | Comments (13)
        

A modest defense of Denise Whiting

The Baltimore Sun article on Denise Whiting’s trademarking the word hon for her business, Cafe Hon and its enterprises, has provoked a great outpouring of outrage.

Cafe Hon, we are informed, serves lousy, overpriced food. The annual Honfest insults Baltimore and its working-class heritage. Ms. Whiting is a greedy self-promoter who shamelessly exploits Hampden and reduces it to a tawdry stereotype. And then the comments get intemperate.

I hold no brief for Ms. Whiting. I have eaten at her restaurant a few times, finding the food and drink agreeable, and my daughter enjoys attending Honfest. But I am an auslander in Baltimore, and my daughter doesn’t count as a native either, because she was already two years old when we moved here. But I do think that I can detect something simmering beneath the unfavorable comments: envy.

Ms. Whiting is a shrewd businesswoman who has made a success of her enterprises. Her restaurant continues to have customers, and Honfest draws hundreds of people to Hampden every year. Successful entrepreneurs do not tend to have charming personalities, and if people find Ms. Whiting pushy, well, that is part of the package.

A while back, John Waters denounced Honfest as cheap and inauthentic, and that is part of the chorus of denunciations of Ms. Whiting as exploitative. But really, though Mr. Waters has portrayed Baltimore’s working-class personalities lovingly, isn’t there a degree of exploitation in his displaying those personalities for personal fame? And cash. Ms. Whiting is doing for business what writers and filmmakers do for art.

Joan Didion warned us forty years ago that writers are always selling someone out. Newspaper columnists, it appears, could not meet deadline without writing about their spouses and offspring, Novelists shamelessly work aspects of family, friends, and acquaintances into characters. Philip Roth has cannibalized himself to the point that it is difficult to tell where the characters leave off and the author begins (not that I care much for either, but the issue will no doubt breed tenure-and-promotion manuscripts in English departments for many years to come).

For that matter, who among us has not scrupled to make use of a family member or friend to get a job, a recommendation, or some other benefit?

Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it. The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right? And no one compels you to be a customer. Granted, hers is a vulgar enterprise, but given idiotic merchandising like the “Baltimore, get in on it!” campaign or the popularity of reality television shows or the omnipresent Kardashian girls, it seems arbitrary to single out Ms. Whiting for abuse.

If you have a backlog of spleen that you wish to vent, let me suggest Congress.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:29 PM | | Comments (42)
        

December 10, 2010

The 'hon' kerfuffle

Denise Whiting, proprietress of Cafe Hon in Hampden, has turned into a polarizing figure, as will become apparent to anyone who reads the comments on today’s Baltimore Sun article on her trademarks on the word hon.

But first, some background for our outlying audience. Many in Our Fair City operate under the assumption that hon as an amiable form of casual address is distinctively Baltimorean. It is not. As evidenced by widespread waitress-speak—“What’ll you have, hon?”—it is broadly American. My wife, who grew up in Ohio, was calling me “Hon” in the 1980s.

But Baltimore, thanks to the films in which John Waters has celebrated the city’s working-class culture and oddities, has clasped hon to its bosom. Ms. Whiting, a shrewd entrepreneur, opened up Cafe Hon in Hampden, a signature white, working-class neighborhood, and has ridden the stereotype hard. She has established the annual Honfest, in which beehive hairdos, housecoats, and approximations of the local accent are widely displayed.

If you read the comments on the article—a very few will serve—you will see abuse heaped on Ms. Whiting for perpetuating a white trash stereotype, cheapening the city’s image, exploiting the local characteristics that John Waters celebrated for crass financial gain, and serving bad food. (There’s also probably some spillover animus for her support of the building of a Wal-Mart in neighboring Remington. We won’t touch that one today.)

But if you were to go to a parallel post on dining@large, where Richard Gorelick has made an effort to foster reasonableness and civility in the comments, you will discover—it takes one’s breath away—reasonableness and civility.

Ms. Whiting, some commenters there point out, is not out to charge a royalty every time someone utters the word hon. She is, as other holders of trademarks do, trying to protect a brand. She does not want someone else to sell “hon” merchandise like hers or set up a rival Honfest. The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular.

But that question is a legal one, and no one apart from lawyers and linguists is apt to find it to be stimulating. What leads to the raised voices is the question of ownership of language. And with that question come all the overtones of social class, local history and culture, and personal likes and dislikes that crowd in on discussions of language and ensure that such discussions will never be neutral or unemotional.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:10 AM | | Comments (10)
        

December 9, 2010

Where to put the quotation marks

A week from today I will be leading an audio conference for Copyediting newsletter on dealing with quoted matter, the mechanics, the craft, and the ethics of it.

If you would like to sign up for “All About Quoting,” operators are standing by.

If you are taking part in the audio conference and would like for me to cover some particular point, file a comment or send me a message; I’ll see whether I can incorporate it into the harangue.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:20 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Brenda writes -30-

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, who has written the Brenda Star, Reporter comic strip for the past twenty-five years, has announced that the strip will come to an end after more than seventy years, publishing its last strip on January 2.

I haven’t seen the strip regularly in years, but I have in my office a framed copy of a panel from years past that I offer as a valediction.

In the panel, a man is depositing an exotic, unconscious woman on a sofa, and the think bubble rising from his head has this sentiment:

I’VE GOT TO GET INTO SOMETHING SAFE LIKE EDITING

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:09 AM | | Comments (10)
        

December 8, 2010

Fairy tales can't come true; it won't happen to you

Shambling into the living room this morning, where my wife was watching the news, I heard—even before my first coffee—a woman use the word fairytale three times in ninety seconds while gushing about the pending royal wedding in Britain.

No one should have to endure that in the early morning. Or at any time of day.

Trying to stamp out the “’Tis the season” cliche in articles is a lonely struggle against titanic forces, and the inane accounting of the price tag of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has apparently drunk an immortality potion. So it is with little or no confidence that I suggest eighty-sixing the “fairytale wedding” cant. (D’you remember how the last one turned out?)

The combination of the Cinderella fantasy and the latent Anglophilia on these shores—the latter spreading even beyond PBS watchers—is a potent cocktail, and writers should be wary of the hazards of intoxication. Try to stay sober.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (10)
        

December 7, 2010

I'd like to thank the Academy ...

One of my tipsters passed word that I am number 8 on the City Paper’s list of the top 10 entertaining Baltimore tweeps for 2010—this despite the deplorable figure I cut in both swimsuit and evening gown.

In case you would like to see the other contestants, one of whom is the amiable Richard Gorelick, the custodian as well of the dining@large blog:

1 @owlmeatgravy

2 @BMOREBROTOPIA

3 @tharealryerye

4 @PHYSIICAL

5 @skarrakbar

6 @gorelickingood

7 @chipsnkaty

8 @johnemcintyre

9 @ThBaltimoreChop

10 @ChefBoyarKie

Even if they did misspell my name.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:46 PM | | Comments (2)
        

December 6, 2010

A little late today

I was down in Alexandria for a workshop at HR Magazine (they tolerated me pretty well), and what with the MARC and Metro travel, I didn’t have time to advise you this morning about the weekly word and the weekly joke video.

The word of the week is demirep; perhaps you know one.

The joke of the week is "The Hunter."

And in completely unrelated news, as I left Penn Station this afternoon, I thought that “Male/Female” looked to be in fine fettle. “Male/Female” is on Twitter now as @manwomanstatue, if you’d care to become a follower.

Over at Meta Talk, there is considerable lack of enthusiasm for strictures against holiday cliches. The lack of originality in the playground invective there—you might observe the regular recurrence of “Grinch” and “Scrooge”—reinforces the impression that people with impaired imagination resort to them.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:44 PM | | Comments (2)
        

December 4, 2010

My old Kentucky home

It has been eighty-five years since the State of Tennessee prosecuted John T. Scopes for the crime of teaching evolution in a public school, and it was only days ago that the Commonwealth of Kentucky, my native state, demonstrated how little we have advanced.

Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park, is scheduled to open in a couple of years in Grant County. It is a joint venture of Ark Encounters and Answers in Genesis—the latter being the nonprofit organization that operates the ludicrous Creation Museum in Boone County.* This enterprise has the blessing of the Hon. Steve Beshear, governor of the commonwealth, because it will create jobs. And the project is apt to be doubly blessed with tax incentives.

One Dr. Robert Bevins of Georgetown College in Kentucky wrote to the governor protesting state support for “an ethically bankrupt amusement park.” His letter is quoted in full, with comments, on a Facebook page operated by one Ken Ham, and you might find it instructive to read the comments and gauge the tone that Christian supporters of the enterprise bring to the discussion. (Hint: Doesn’t sound particularly Christian.)

I, for one, back the First Amendment and unequivocally support anyone’s right to take the opening chapters of Genesis literally as a scientific and historical document. And if believers should inculcate such an understanding in the madrassas they operate for their children, that, too, is constitutionally protected, however much it may leave the little ones ill-fitted to live in the current century.

But, as a Kentuckian born and bred, I wince.

 

*Treated at some length in Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:17 PM | | Comments (3)
        

December 2, 2010

A point of honor

All conversation in the newsroom stilled as John McIntyre strode purposefully to Sam Sessa’s desk.

Sessa, absorbed in his work, did not immediately take in the looming figure at his side, but the sudden quiet must have registered. He looked up. “Yes?” he said.

“I am given to understand,” said McIntyre, that you have transmitted to the copy desk a cover article bearing a ‘’Tis the season’ headline.”

“Yes, I have,” said Sessa, “and what of it?”

“It is an intolerable affront, and I must demand satisfaction.”

Sessa stood and, drawing himself to his full height, said, “Indeed. My second will wait on your second for particulars.”

“As you wish,” said McIntyre, turning on his heel and walking away.

Conversation, though muted, resumed throughout the newsroom.

 

The next morning two small boats made their way through the fog to a low-lying island in the Chesapeake Bay.

Disembarking, McIntyre and Sessa, pale and white-lipped, stood some distance apart as their seconds conferred with the referee.

Beckoning them forward, the referee asked, “Before this matter proceeds further, is it not possible for you two gentlemen to resolve your differences?”

“It is an affront that cannot be excused,” said McIntyre, and Sessa simply shook his head.

“Very well, then,” said the referee. "I believe that, through your seconds, you have determined to exchange two volleys of insults each. Is that so?”

McIntyre and Sessa nodded.

“If you please, then, take ten paces each in opposite directions, turn, and proceed when I drop this handkerchief.”

The combatants took their places, and the referee allowed his white handkerchief to float slowly to the ground.

McIntyre fired first: “Miscreant!” But Sessa was almost as quick: “Pedant!”

The seconds gasped in unison.

McIntyre: “Blackguard!”

Sessa: “Dogmatist!”

Stepping smartly between the two, the referee raised his hands and said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, can we consider, before there is any further effusion of blood, that the demands of honor have been satisfied?”

McIntyre nodded, reluctantly, and Sessa stepped forward. The two bowed slightly to each other, and then Sessa extended his hand, which McIntyre accepted. The seconds also exchanged handshakes, and the referee shook hands all around.

Honor had been restored.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:22 PM | | Comments (15)
        

They're testing me

Last night, as I was concluding my shift at the paragraph factory, one of the page designers, perhaps entertaining an expectation that my head would explode, mentioned that an editor had sent over an article for Friday’s editions with a suggested “’Tis the season” headline.

So either a colleague at The Sun is attempting, successfully, to goad me, or, like the cat, they’re not paying attention to anything I say.

Must check with the publisher to see if there is money in the capital budget for erecting a pillory on Calvert Street.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (6)
        

December 1, 2010

Equivalence of "that" and "who"

With regret, I must differ with Professor Anatoly Liberman, who, writing on language at the OUPblog, perpetuates the myth that the pronoun that must never be used in reference to human beings, for whom who is the only appropriate pronoun. At least he presents this as merely his own opinion, but it’s still an ill-advised preference.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how frequently I have swatted that particular fly. And if you attend those annual holiday performances of Handel’s Messiah and do not flinch at “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” then you should have a sense of just how long that has been an acceptable alternative to who.

Professor Liberman teases at something interesting when he remarks that “according to some dictum, that should be differentiated from which.”* He’s not quite on target there, but I suspect that someone keen to regulate usage, aware that which refers to inanimate objects and non-human beings, concluded that that must logically function in the same way. And thus a superstition was born. You need pay no attention to it.

As Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and every fool will follow it.”

 

Follow-up: A couple of days ago I expressed my chagrin that someone had allowed a “’Tis the season” headline into The Sun. (No, no miscreant was identified, to be lashed to the mast and flogged round the fleet, but only because I’m too soft-hearted for my own good.)

That same day, the inane annual AP story on the price tag of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” popped up at baltimoresun.com. Fortunately, it was scotched before making it into the print edition.

I’ve often wondered how badly an AP reporter has to cheese off an editor to be assigned the “Twelve Days of Christmas” price tag story. “We’re going to give you a choice: waterboarding or the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ story.” Waterboarding would be less humiliating.

 

*No, we’re not going to plunge into the restrictive/nonrestrictive swamp just now.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (17)
        

Sharpening the quills

Some weeks ago, here at the paragraph factory, we got around to consolidating the staff in the main part of the newsroom. That meant that we wound up with a surplus of office equipment and supplies left over from the series of staff reductions over the past few years.

There was a certain amount of salvage. I collected three cartons of surplus dictionaries, some of them several years old but still serviceable, to donate to Glennor Shirley, the Maryland prison librarian, who says that inmates find them particularly useful.

But not everything was salvageable. I noticed a group of Rolodexes left forlornly on a counter for weeks. No one claimed them. No one wanted them. Many people in the newsroom keep telephone numbers and addresses in electronic files, which are easier to update and share.

So when an article arrived on the copy desk with a reference to a public figure who was going to have an opportunity to add to his “Rolodex of donors,” I wondered: Does he also give his staff mimeographed lists of donors? Do his secretaries type up stencils to run the fundraising letters through the Addressograph?

It is not just that adding donor names to the Rolodex is a cliche—though it certainly is that—but that it is a cliche that has come to look so dated.

I wonder what you see that conveys that sense that a writer has gone on automatic pilot and lost track of the era. If you see similar references to outdated vocabulary, please share.

And if you want to say, “Hey! I still use a Rolodex, and I don’t appreciate your smartass attitude,” well, the comments are open to you, too.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 AM | | Comments (36)
        
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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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