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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)


My favorite use of the word "shimmy" is in the Jeeves and Wooster stories, where Bertie regularly employs it to describe the uncanny talent Jeeves has for appearing in the room without any sound or other warning of arrival. Come to think of it, I also have a favorite user of the word "shimmy": P.G. Wodehouse himself.


P.S. For those who feel the urge to question my use of the reflexive pronoun in that last sentence, I disdain such urges myself but there may still be hope for you.

P.P.S. For those who disdain P.G. Wodehouse, there is no hope.

The emphatic use of reflexive pronouns ("For he himself has said it / And it's greatly to his credit") is entirely standard.

John, don't forget us loyal Canuck readers. Our primary definition of "shinny" refers to a casual or friendly hockey match, usually impromptu. I doubt there is much "shimmying" going on while on the ice, though I don't have any definite knowledge about what happens in the locker rooms after a game of shinny..

JC has neatly explained why others, too, should disdain criticism of my use of the reflexive pronoun. I just didn't think it needed explaining. So I disdained doing so.


P.S. Looks like I'm on pace to win that bet as to how many times I can use the word disdain (or its variations) in a sentence today.

Eh Kate!

My fellow Canuck, you beat me to the punch on the Canada-centric definition of "shinny" as basically a casual pick-up hockey game. I have a suspicion it may have it's linguistic origins over-the-Pond, perhaps Ireland.

(On a parenthetical note, my Mum back in Ontario, informed me that the Canada Post just released a new stamp w/ the NHL's Montreal Canadiens---Les Habitants--- jersey logo displayed prominently on it. Fantastique!

Of course, there's that goofy ancient Irish team sport of "hurling"-- kind of a cross between British field hockey and our native lacrosse. I seem to recall that as a kid growing up back in the sixties, ABC Wide World of Sports, w/ their amiable and astute anchor Jim McKay, would carry the national Irish Hurling Championships every year.

Clearly, this arcane and physically-demanding sport never caught on here in North America. Maybe the Native American Six Nations Confederacy w/ their roots in lacrosse lobbied against those daft irishmen bringing their very similarly- structured game to our home shores. Just sayin'.

Now "hurling" is also defined as a slang term for projectile vomiting----a common non-sanctioned NCAA 'sport' at college campus frat houses, especially during pledge week.

As re/ to the verb "shimmy", I seem to remember a lyric from some old swing-era chestnut that referred to "shimmy(ing) like my sister Kate", and then the raucous Roaring Twenties had those fetching flappers who shimmied w/ reckless abandon to the then-popular Charleston.

John Mc., I guess any pole dancer worth her dollar-bills-stuffed-in-her-G-string would be required to both "shimmy" and "shinny" while performing her dexterous stage routine? Do pole dancers get 'shinny splints'? (Groan)

On that sad note, I think i'll just sashay out of here.


This morning's Sun Online had this headline:

Official: Fire on The Block 'set by human hands'; arson suspected

Is this the way around "deliberately set"?

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