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April 28, 2011

Britspeak for Yanks

Though my enthusiasm for the impending royal wedding is a match for my enthusiasm for colonic irrigation—as someone observed, the music, likely the best part of the spectacle, will be overrun by commentary in the full range from vapid to imbecilic—I am still enough an Anglophile to encourage interest in the Mother Country.

Peter Sokolowski has provided just the right method, with a set of ten British words which are yet included in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries. (Some you will have encountered on these premises.) I’ll give you the ten—lovely, just lovely, all of them—but you’ll need to go to the link for definitions and examples.

Top 10 Favorite British Words











Make them your own.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:41 PM | | Comments (35)

Less or fewer

I regret having to take issue with @PreciseEdit, but I’m pretty sure that this piece of advice on Twtter today is misguided:

Wrong: We have LESS than 3 gallons remaining. Right: We have FEWER than 3 gallons remaining.

You can see the logic: We use less for a mass noun, fewer for a count noun, and we are enumerating gallons here.

But that distinction between mass noun and count noun can be a little fluid. I think that when we talk in this context, we are not talking about three gallons as three units, but three gallons as a quantity, that is, a mass. So we’d say that there is less than three gallons remaining in the tank, just as we would say in the kitchen that we have less than three pounds of flour for this recipe.

If @PreciseEdit had used carrots or pieces of your mother’s stemware instead of gallons, all would have been well.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:32 PM | | Comments (14)

April 27, 2011

Two cranks don't make a right

Not long after my post on the persistence of birtherism became available today, a couple of predictable comments surfaced.

One, a comment on the post itself, said:

John, you already had the argument already won on its merits; why play the shopworn race card? It's getting old to say that anyone who questions anything about Obama is a racist . Even when you're talking about truthers.

Besides, given the large plurality of Democrats with a psychotic belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories, may I suggest that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones?

Another, on Twitter, said:

As have 9/11 truthers and Trig Palin truthers.

I’m going to suggest a little something about proportion.

I had never heard the crank theory that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks until people started saying, “Well, all right about the birthers, but what about the rumor-mongering on the left?” Maybe I had let my lefty-Bolshie newsletter subscription lapse, but I never saw that that stuff got any particular currency.

Similarly, I was aware of only faint and scattered mentions of the canard that Sarah Palin was not really the mother of Trig. And when I did come across it, I thought it was reprehensible. Surely there is enough about Sarah Palin to criticize without dragging an inoffensive child into manufactured scandals.

The same with the second President Bush. It’s hardly necessary to go out of the way to find fault.

The thing is, the Bush 9/11 and Trig Palin rumors are like the other fringe conspiracy theories. They are out there, but they get no traction because sane, intelligent people pay no attention to them. The birther snake oil has gone mainstream. Prominent people—and I don’t mean that mountebank Donald Trump—have given it public credence.

So I’ll tell you what: When you can demonstrate that, say, half of the Democrats in America believe that George Bush was behind the September 11 attacks, or that Trig Palin is not Sarah Palin’s son, or that major figures in the Democratic Party have gone out of their way to give voice to the nonsense, then I will concede that I’ve gone overboard about the birthers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:40 PM | | Comments (18)

The show will go on

It has been a matter of hours since President Obama made available the birth certificate from Hawaii that establishes, to no surprise, that he is a native-born citizen of the United States.

I haven’t trolled the Net yet, but I am confident that there are already multiple postings “exposing” the birth certificate as a clumsy forgery—or perhaps, giving the president some credit, a clever forgery.

There are two classes of people who will continue with the birther nonsense: the dim and the mendacious. The dim, because they think what they prefer to think and are impervious to rational argument. (After all, as someone commented on Twitter, he’s still black.*) The mendacious, because manipulating the dim is easy, amusing, and profitable.

And the reason that these two classes will likely continue to keep this non-issue alive is that American politics shies away from anything serious. The election of 1840, in which the Whigs landed the aging and ill-fated William Henry Harrison in the White House for a month with the nonsensical log cabin and hard cider campaign, typified what has come since. Two words: Donald Trump.

We, as a people, prefer the sideshow. Resistance to the phenomenon tends not to accomplish anything, so I join with H.L. Mencken in recommending sardonic amusement instead.


*If you try to insist that there is no racism behind birtherism, please remember that I am less credulous than birthers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (21)

Editor, stat!

“You made copy-editing seem like such an important and elevated pursuit,” wrote Peter Sibley, a colleague at the Arizona Daily Star, regretting my absence from this year’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

Well, it is.

It is a service to the writer. Writers have in their heads what they mean to say, and it doesn’t always arrive intact in text. Competent editing draws out what is essential and clarifies it. Beyond that, all of us who write are fallible, prone to minor and embarrassing errors of fact, orthography, grammar, and usage, and all of us benefit when a practiced eye runs over the page. And there is finally this hard truth: We are not necessarily the best judges of the quality of our work. We need someone of sound judgment to advise us what works and what doesn’t.

It is a service to the reader. The reader, who is not present, is the party most likely to be overlooked in these operations, but without the reader there is no point in the writing. Editors are the reader’s vicar, there to give voice to the reader’s interests and preferences, which may well be at odds with the writer’s. If the writing is cloudy and opaque, then the reader will likely give up the chase for the information contained in it. If the approach does not meet the reader’s needs, then it doesn’t matter how elegant the prose; no one will proceed to the end of it.

It is a service to the publication. Some publications have forgotten this. Editing, to them, is a cost center, a frill, a layer or “touch” separating the reader from a direct encounter with the writer.* These days, the word editor appears in job descriptions about as often as scrivener. This is misguided. As you have already seen, the editor protects the writer from himself and works to ensure that the reader will keep reading the product. But wait—there’s more. Editing protects the publication from embarrassing errors of fact and English usage, which informed readers—the ones you most want—notice and scorn. Editing, when permitted, can protect the publication from plagiarism, fabrication, and libel, which are not only embarrassing but expensive.

Editors are quality folks. I know. I was present at the creation of ACES, and I have met and worked with editors by the hundreds. They are content to work anonymously, in the interest of clarity and precision, for their writers and publications. And, because recognition and reward are scanty in this enterprise, they take their reward in the satisfaction of doing good work. I can tell you this as well, from more than thirty years’ experience: The best writers, almost without exception, are the most appreciative of editing. You should be too.


*Do you really want that? Does the writer?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 AM | | Comments (7)

April 26, 2011

How the dead lie

A reader who has seen news articles about the late William Donald Schaefer “lying in repose” and “lying in state” wonders what the distinction is, and which is the more proper.

An article by Daniel Engber a few years back in explained that you lie in state if your coffin is displayed in the rotunda of U.S. Capitol and you are given a state funeral. A deceased president honored in the East Room of the White House or a senator in the Senate chamber would be said to lie in repose. That is a strict view—although Mr. Engber points out that outside Washington, the terms are often used interchangeably.

A somewhat more nuanced distinction was provided by David Gura at Mr. Gura consulted Donald A. Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office: “According to him, when a member of government dies, if his casket is on display in a government building — including the Capitol — he lies in state. If his casket is in any other building, he lies in repose. If the person is not a member of government, he lies in honor.”

Regrettably, our website had Mr. Schaefer “laying in repose,” prompting an email from a former editor that fairly shrieked. (We fixed it.) We might just be able to sort out state and repose, but I am very much afraid that we are destined never to have much luck with lie and lay.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:21 PM | | Comments (6)

April 25, 2011

Something for Monday

Your word of the week—watch out!—is jacquerie. Your joke of the week is “Martini Man”:
Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 AM | | Comments (3)

April 24, 2011

Julep time

Thanks to the spring rains, mint is coming along well in the back yard, a reminder that it’s time to lay in supplies for Derby Day. (Or rather for you to lay in supplies, because I will be producing night content at the paragraph factory that day two weeks hence.) To assist you, I once again offer advice about making mint juleps.

First, make sure you have some decent bourbon. The cheap stuff is too raw, and you probably don’t want to use your $60 Booker’s for this. Maker’s Mark should answer, or Woodford Reserve if you’re feeling flush. On no account use any of that ersatz bourbon from Tennessee.

Traditionalists to the manner born use silver cups. Among us plebs, a good squat glass with a solid bottom will do nicely.

Harvest your mint, rinse it, and pat it dry with paper towels. Put about a teaspoon of sugar in a glass and mix it with just enough water to dissolve it. Then add a few mint leaves and muddle them thoroughly. If your equipment lacks a muddler, the handle of a crab mallet will do the job.

The ice is important. It should be cracked ice. Crushed ice will melt too quickly and produce a weak and watery julep. Ice cubes will not produce the correct balance. Take some ice cubes, put them in a plastic bag and wrap it in a kitchen towel, and whale away at it with a rolling pin.

Fill the glass with cracked ice and pour bourbon over it until the ice is covered. Garnish with a mint leaf. Sip. Reflect that life is good and give thanks to the Baptist clergy for their two great achievements: the separation of church and state, and bourbon whiskey.

One last thing: When the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home,” shut your mouth and stand respectfully.

Then you can do as you like.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:31 AM | | Comments (11)

April 23, 2011

In case you were curious about the Great Vigil ...

it was splendid. I smoked up the joint proper, and Low Church types who amble in tomorrow morning are going to realize that something happened there.

Yes, this is another Anglican post, and those of you who are non-Anglican, unchurched, or unbelieving can take a pass until the next post. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

I also read the Creation story tonight, as I have at nearly every Vigil service I’ve attended for the past thirty years*—this time joined by a young woman from the confirmation class who alternated days with me.

There is, I realized afresh tonight, a lot of death in the stories we tell at the Vigil: nearly every living being extinguished in the catastrophe of the Flood, the corpses of the entire Egyptian army washed up on the shore in the Exodus story, and of course the overarching story we have focused on for the past week of a man executed by the state in a particularly brutal and repulsive manner.

The reality of the death and brutality that make up so much of human history are part of the reason these stories were originally told to the catechists awaiting baptism at this Vigil; to know the reality of liberation and freedom from the fear of death, you have to grasp the realities of bondage and dying. Then when the lights come on, we are reminded afresh that freedom and liberation and life are realities too.

The Vigil service as we do it at Memorial Episcopal Church, whether we do it in the evening, as we did this year, or at sunrise, as we will next year, remains an intimate service for four of five dozen people. It’s a long service and at an odd time, hard to get people to attend but deeply meaningful to the handful who show up.

I, however, long for a Great Vigil broader and bigger, something that initiates the newcomers and draws a crowd, that becomes the Easter service, that has all the chanting and choral music and organ and brass and incense and ceremony that we can assemble. And that afterward has a party with food and drink and music and dancing.**

Ah well, but what we did accomplish was good too.

When I got in the car to return home and turned on the radio, there was Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the Bach E major violin concerto. Much of Bach’s music sounds like mathematics to me: complex but orderly, intellectual and demanding close attention. But the E major violin concerto is as lyrical as anything he ever wrote. Johann Sebastian Bach, dead and meat for worms two hundred and sixty years ago, and yet his music is alive and full of joy and immortal.


*I feel sorry for people who feel compelled to read the Creation story as if it were a textbook on geology and biology, as I feel sorry for all people who miss the point.

**Scandalizing the Baptists, always a plus.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 PM | | Comments (8)

April 22, 2011

We have a diagnosis

Thank you, Fred Vultee, for giving us a term we badly needed.

At Headsup: The Blog, a post describes Pastor Terry Jones’s campaign of alarm about creeping Sharia in Dearborn, Michigan, as sharianoia.

Rough economic times have always seen Americans go a little batty.

In the nineteenth century, the influx of Irish immigrants, bringing their filthy folkways and alien religion with them, had true Americans fearful that their liberties would be swept away and that that sinister figure in Rome would call the shots.

The anti-Catholic paranoia was still there, though much enfeebled, fifty years ago when John Kennedy won the presidency.

And of course we periodically see flare-ups about that other group of sinister Semites with their filthy folkways and their alien Mosaic code whenever someone of shaky wits rediscovers that czarist forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Someone needs to keep saying that imposition of Sharia in the United States as civil law is as unlikely as imposition of the Deuteronomic Code or Roman Catholic canon law.

Though it needs to be said, I doubt that it will have much effect, because people who are fearful are also gullible.

This morning, even Ron Smith, whose forthright conservative views are so bracing on The Sun’s op-ed page, is muttering darkly that Barack Obama’s “original birth certificate, medical records, school records and legislative papers while a state senator in Illinois have all either been sealed or have simply disappeared. There has been an incredibly successful obliteration of the man's past. Which raises the inevitable question: Why?”*

The spread of the birther nonsense must surely be linked to sharianoia, both representing a generalized fear of Islam combined with the planted suspicion that the president of the United States is a sleeper agent of the caliphate.

That supposedly rational adults can assert such absurdities, and that a significant portion of the population can believe them, speaks well for neither the national intelligence nor the national mental health.


*This in the context of an article on how the menacing monolithic Media will never allow Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy succeed. Downtrodden Donald Trump! Donald Trump, who has had a free ride in the media for more than thirty years!



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:40 AM | | Comments (11)

April 21, 2011

More light, more light

This Saturday evening, as the darkness gathers, I will ignite a small chunk of charcoal, place in it a brass pot attached to a chain, and spoon grains of Somalian frankincense on top.

The fragrant smoke rising from that thurible will be one of the indications that the Great Vigil of Easter has begun. The function of incense, Marion Hatchett wrote, is “honorific, fumigatory, and festive,” and in due course the paschal candle, the Gospel book, the baptismal font, the altar, the altar party, and the congregation will all be censed.*

The twice-a-year people who show up Sunday morning will get the full choir and the brass ensemble, but those who brave the night will get the mystery: the single candle burning in the darkness, the smell of incense, the retelling of the stories of salvation history (storytelling in the dark, like our remote ancestors), the Gospel of the Resurrection, the breaking out of light, the sound of bells, the first Eucharist of Easter.

I impose these ecclesiastical paragraphs on you, readers, including those of you who are not believers, so that I can talk a little about ceremony.

Ceremony, after all, is why a substantial number of Americans will be awake at six o’clock in the morning a week from tomorrow to watch the royal wedding. We took some trouble to extricate ourselves from the Crown, you may remember, and there is not much about the Windsors to inspire affection.** But Britain still knows how to do ceremonial, and Americans gape at the show.

In America, where grown men dress like pubescent boys and Casual Friday is universally observed, people chatter in churches as if they were in hotel lobbies. American weddings, when not conducted in the small hours at chapels in Las Vegas, are usually do-it-yourself improvisations in which the amateurishness of the ceremony is matched only by the vulgarity of the display of money. We elect to high office people unable to string together two coherent English sentences in sequence—we want our leaders to be just folks, just like us.

I think that we sense our national impoverishment—why else all the breathless William-and-Kate coverage?—and long for a dignity that we have forgotten how to achieve.

So, at the hazard of looking comical, I will be at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill this Saturday, vested, taking part in a ritual that has persisted since the second century of the common era.

It is worth attempting because, as William Carlos Williams wrote in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

Medieval pageantry

              is human and we enjoy

                             the rumor of it


as in our world we enjoy

              the reading of Chaucer,



a priest’s raiment

               (or that of a savage chieftain).

                             It is all


a celebration of the light.



*I am aware, and need not be reminded, thank you, that many people do not like incense. Some find it physically irritating, and some find it theologically irritating because of its Romish associations. Though the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is not quite as obsessively Low Church as it was when my wife and I arrived here twenty-five years ago, its clergy are still largely drawn from Virginia Theological Seminary, where incense and ceremonial are looked on as favorably as baptism by total immersion and predispensational millennarianism.

**There hasn’t been an English monarch since Richard III. (Some, I suppose, would say Harold II.) The Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts were Scottish, and the current house changed its name to Windsor during the Great War to obscure its dreary German lineage.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (26)

April 20, 2011

Rounding out the day

I have some catching up to do.

Item: I must admit that my post on genuine apologies—you know, admitting wrong—lacked imagination. Fortunately, Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, has some suggestions for you that you should find far more useful.

Item: If you will let him, Stan Carey will patiently take you through the whole different from, different to, different than thing and show you why, when you grow crimson around the wattles about different than, you’re probably making a bit of an ass of yourself.

Item: Jojo Malig, writing for about the hazards of navigating between British and American English, quoted me on the hostility of Americans to the occasional piece of Britspeak like whinge (which I still like, for purely aesthetic reasons). He makes the useful point about the whole world language thing that editing becomes even more complicated for publications in English outside the traditional homelands of the language. Worth a look. He also mentions Lynne Murphy’s excellent blog on British-American differences, Separated by a Common Language.

So enjoy. I’m at the paragraph factory, where the computer system appears to have been eating jimson weed again or something and some memo will whinge [see?] again tomorrow about out filthy page flow. But I did get to use coxcomb in an earlier post, always a plus; and tomorrow the weather will turn chilly and gray again, so that being inside at the keyboard, I won’t miss spring. Write if you get work.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:19 PM | | Comments (1)

I fear that the gentleman is a coxcomb

The April number of The Vocabula Review publishes an article by one Clark Elder Morrow that opens thus:

The once mighty Oxford English Dictionary continues its slide into stark irrelevancy, I see: the OED just released its addendum of words for the March 2011OED Online, and some of these entries are not even words. Old James Murray's labor of love deems it advisable to continue adding acronyms to its once-fabled wordhoard, and -- not content with that (and feeling a little old-fogeyish about limiting its collection to mere words and initialisms) -- pops in symbols as well. That's right: the once-august and once-respected tsar of all dictionaries has opted to include in its pages the heart symbol as one definition under the entry for love. The OED mandarins of modernity boast that this may very well be the first time an entry has derived its origin from "t-shirts and bumper-stickers." They must be very proud. What do they care if they've just helped precipitate the Apocalypse of St John?

So it is now undeniable that there is no phrase, no adjectival compound, no tattoo symbol, no random smudge on a page or a pair of pants anywhere in the world, that the editors of the OED will not enshrine in its pages -- electronic and otherwise. ...

The rest is available only by subscription, but I can save you the cost; this is tosh. Tosh, you can find in the OED, means “Bosh, trash; nonsense, rubbish, twaddle.” Its high-water mark appears to have been about a century ago.  

Mr. Morrow’s article is tosh for a couple of reasons. The first one is that it brandishes an error. The OED has not, in fact, included the heart symbol. That information was included in an erroneous newspaper report, the falsity of which has been widely demonstrated to anyone paying attention.

The second is that he does not understand what the OED is or what it is for. Yes, it is a tremendous wordhoard, but it is not a shrine to language, and it is not its business to police the respectability of English. It is to record what English is, according to the way people speak and write it.

I suggest in the headline that Mr. Morrow is a coxcomb. The word, originally meaning a fool’s hat shaped like a cock’s comb, came to be extended to mean “A fool, simpleton (obs.); now, a foolish, conceited, showy person, vain of his accomplishments, appearance, or dress; a fop; ‘a superficial pretender to knowledge or accomplishments’—that last, the “superficial pretender,” taken directly from Samuel Johnson. The OED also records coxcombic, coxcombical, coxcombing, coxcombly, and coxcombry.

So apparently it is just fine with Mr. Morrow to preserve obsolete slang from the eighteenth century in the shrine that is the OED, but he balks at the inclusion of twenty-first-century slang. Hmmm.

He can leave Sir James Murray out of it. Though Murray may have been restrained by some Victorian conventions—the major obscenities were let in later—he was a scholar and an exhaustively inclusive one. Were he at work today, I have no doubt that he would have pounced on the terms that trouble Mr. Morrow and his audience, and added them to his store.

What Mr. Morrow appears to have forgotten is what dictionaries are for. We turn to them to look up the meanings of words and expressions that we do not know, and where they came from.

I regret having to say something so elementary. I can recommend to Mr. Morrow an excellent book by Elizabeth Knowles, How to Read a Word (Oxford University Press, 191 pages, $18.95). She can explain to him lucidly how an historical dictionary like the OED works and how it differs from general-use dictionaries. She can explain to him how lexicographers operate. More to the point, she can explain to him, at least for a start, how the English language has changed and how it continues to change. $18.95 would be a wise investment for him.

Or perhaps—I shrink from saying so—Mr. Morrow is not interested in learning but merely at inveighing against, you know, the Young People who use expressions he dislikes, thereby establishing his unassailable cultural superiority in the face of the impending eschaton. Thus he takes his stand, pike in hand, among the peevers; they whine, they whinge, they fume, they carp, all to little purpose.

I myself have developed a highly favorable view of lexicographers and linguists like Ben Zimmer, Wendalyn Nichols, Grant Barrett, Jesse Sheidlower, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky. They write well, and they are fascinated by the richness and variety of our evolving language, which they attempt to describe. They are not blind men straining to bring down the pillars of the temple.

I’ll take my stand with those who have chosen not to make a vain and misguided attempt to limit the language.


Disclosure: I have had some involvement with The Vocabula Review, which published a short article I wrote about the term arabber, for Baltimore street vendors.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:12 AM | | Comments (17)

April 19, 2011

Busk it, daddy, eight to the bar

There was some discussion among the editors last night about a word in one of the articles commemorating the late William Donald Schaefer, a passage describing Harborplace that included the passage “brick promenades that get jammed with buskers and balloon-animal artists.”

Buskers, it was argued, was too obscure a word for our readership, too British, and indeed it had only been used once previously in The Sun, back in 2003. But the lack of a more common word to describe musicians who perform in the streets and subways for voluntary donations was persuasive in allowing the passage to stand. Troubadors and minstrels seemed even less apt. Street performers is dully literal-minded.

Busk, the verb for performing thus, comes to us from the French brusquer, the Italian buscare, and the Spanish buscar, “to seek.” The word originally had a nautical sense, “to cruise about,” which evolved into the sense of “to go around selling” and thus performing. We are, of course, aware that some people take encountering an unfamiliar word as a personal affront, but sometimes we like to take a little risk.


One more: While I was off yesterday, at least until Mr. Schaefer joined the choir invisible, I neglected to post that your word of the week is up on the site. It is egregious.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:28 PM | | Comments (18)

April 18, 2011

Say you're sorry

As a veteran of many mistakes in judgment leading to foolish, embarrassing, and self-destructive actions, I can offer some advice to public figures about the form and content of apologies.

What doesn’t work. This is an age of the non-apologizing apology, which typically begins, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone ...” Let’s be clear about this, Bunky. You would not be standing in public with your family gathered around you to issue an apology unless someone had been offended, big time.

Why it doesn’t work. That “if I offended anyone” suggests something on the lines of “I regret that hypersensitive people overreacted.” People are on to this dodge. It no longer works. Give up on trying to weasel out of what you said/did.

Take responsibility. The more you try to explain the context and present an explanation of why you did it, the more you will sound like someone trying to justify what you did or said. So just admit that it’s your fault.

Say you’re sorry. Don’t squirm. Don’t wallow. You offended, and you regret it. Tell all the relevant parties that you regret it. Don’t go on about how much you’re disappointed in yourself for failing to live up to your own high standards. Nobody cares about that. Focus on the people you injured.

Move on. You’ve got some rehabilitation to do. The first thing: Whatever you did wrong, don’t do it again. To accomplish that, you may need to talk through with specialized help how you are an insensitive nimrod and how to behave better. You might be able to reconcile with the person or persons you offended, but that’s up to them, not you. You’re going to have to show the collateral parties—family, friends, colleagues, the public—that you can behave more responsibly, and that is going to require time to rebuild trust and your reputation.

You screwed up because you’re human and therefore inherently prone to error. (Editors understand this more clearly than anyone but theologians and defense attorneys.) Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, but they won’t happen unless you first take responsibility for yourself.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:20 AM | | Comments (12)

April 15, 2011

The great unknown middle

Between the East Coast and West Coast of the United States there lies an expanse of territory sometimes dismissed by residents of those coasts as “flyover country,” their inhabitants at once exotic and prosaic, material for a middling anthropological study. They live in what H.L. Mencken called “the cow states” or “the steppes.”

Christopher Harper, who comes from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and graduated from high school in 1969, thinks that the people of that expanse deserve to be known, particularly as the baby boom generation does the decent thing and begins to shuffle off into history. He writes about those people, and himself, in Flyover Country: Baby Boomers and Their Stories (Hamilton Books, 147 pages, $25).*

Chris Harper has had a distinguished career as a journalist, working for the Associated Press, Newsweek, and ABC News—he was one of the first journalists on the scene in Guyana after the Jonestown suicides. He now teaches journalism at Temple University. But he continues to identify with his roots in the Midwest, and as the fortieth anniversary of his high school graduation approached, he sought out his former classmates to see what their stories could show about their region and their generation.

Some, of course, faltered in the struggle of life, sinking into alcoholism or drug abuse or misfortune. Some stayed close to Sioux Falls while others, like Chris, moved into careers in the wider world—a law professor, a theologian. But all of them continue to identify closely with their origins and the values they learned growing up.

For those who fall into the easy stereotype of the baby boomers as selfish, self-indulgent, and narcissistic, this book present evidence to the contrary. The Class of 1969 at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, despite the turmoil of the Cold War and Vietnam, and all that has happened since, exemplifies those characteristics we think of as Midwestern American. They are hospitable, straightforward, unpretentious, unassuming. They are serious about their work and their responsibilities. Though they can hold differing political and social views, they are not rabid about them. They are, overwhelmingly, for lack of a more technical term, good people.

As Chris sums up, “[T]he virtues—and some of the vices—welded into our early years in Sioux Falls helped us through the past forty years and would continue to do so: the acceptance of hard work, the desire to help our neighbors and those we didn’t know, and the stoicism to accept our fate when necessary.”

Their stories are worth being told.


*Disclosure: I met Chris Harper while teaching in a summer program in Italy in 2006, we have been friends since, and I gave his manuscript a preliminary edit. I feel an affinity for him as a fellow member of the Class of ’69, as someone who grew up in flyover country (though in a backwater border state rather than the Midwest proper), as a journalist and teacher, and as someone who performed in adolescence in a band (You may be as startled as my children to think of me at the keyboard as the band swings into “Twist and Shout,” but it happened, and there are witnesses yet living).



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (3)

April 14, 2011

What's said is said

You never know what is going to engage people’s attention. The other day, I put this question up on Twitter and Facebook: “Who the hell is teaching young writers to use ‘stated’ instead of ‘said?’ ” That provoked quite a response from my long-suffering colleagues in the paragraph trade,* which makes me think that it’s worth the trouble to summarize and codify some of the responses.

The starting point: In attribution, certainly in journalism and probably in fiction as well, said is a neutral word and acceptable and even preferable in nearly all instances. The impulse to use synonyms for it is misguided, leading to what H.W. Fowler disparaged as “elegant variation.” Said suffices.

Now let’s look at the less-attractive options.

Stated: Probably the ear of the corruptible young writer has been influenced by police and court jargon. Stated implies formality and official proceedings, and you are not likely to have much use of it unless you become a cop or a court recorder.

Noted: Are there notes when you speak? If so, are they footnotes or end notes? When you note, do you raise a finger to indicate a superscript?

Added: Added comes in when the writer breaks a chunk of discourse into more digestible parts. That’s fine, but what a speaker says is usually continuous. If she finishes talking, leaves the room, turns and comes back through the door to say something further, then you can write added. Same with continued.

Claimed: Claimed indicates that the speaker has made an assertion that you are not prepared to endorse. If you don’t want to suggest skepticism, don’t use it. Admitted suggests consciousness of guilt.

Explained: Only if a subsequent statement attempts to make clear something obscure in a previous one. And even then, said suffices. Most people can recognize an explanation when they see one.

Declared: Like stated, it suggests a formality that may or may not be relevant in context. Or necessary.

Revealed: Like divulged and disclosed, revealed suggests that something hidden and surprising has been brought to light. Usually there is little or no drama, but a perfectly prosaic utterance for which—you guessed it—said is better.

Exclaimed: Instead use one of the three exclamation points you are permitted in your entire career. Same for blurted.

Related: Suggests that the speaker is a windbag.

Drawled: Damn Yankee.

Averred, avowed, declaimed, declared, opined retorted, sniveled: Now you’re just being silly, or reading Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys books as a child has had an unhealthy influence on you.

Barked, burbled, chirped, chortled, gasped, screeched, snapped, spluttered, wheezed, whined: Put down the thesaurus and nobody gets hurt.


*One correspondent said he met in 1972 a stringer who “showed me her list of 120 synonyms for ‘said’ that her Arizona community college j-teacher wanted her to memorize.” At this late date, that teacher is presumably beyond the reach of a malpractice suit but has instead faced divine judgment.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (35)

April 13, 2011

Spritzing the bonobos

In a post late last night I complained about those vile fragrance dispensers in men’s rooms, saying, “It’s rather as if someone went to the zoo and spritzed the bonobos with Dollar Store perfume.” Not too long afterward, the estimable John Cowan, one of my most regular readers and commenters, remarked, “I hope that ‘spritzing the bonobos’ will become a new expression for futility. I certainly intend to use it at the next opportunity.”

I would be honored to contribute a phrase to the language, the more so since the originators of many expressions that gained currency are unknown to lexicographers, and you are more than welcome to make use of this phrase as you see fit.

But I recall that in the early years of the Letterman show, David Letterman once tried to plant catch phrases in the language—as a copy editor, I was much taken with “They’re pelting us with rocks and garbage.” None of them took off, though Letterman enjoyed viewers in the millions.

We have also seen the dismal failure of publicity campaigns to persuade the Oxford English Dictionary to include words that have not gained a place on their own momentum, and there is a rich history of failed attempts to manufacture an epicene pronoun in English to avoid the use of they in the singular. No need even to mention the simplified-spelling people.

So I am afraid, readers, dearly as I love you, all and severally, that you probably do not have the muscle to plant “spritzing the bonobos” in the language. But if you want to have some fun with it, no one can stop you.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:18 PM | | Comments (16)

Somebody asked

The previous post, “Up the nose,” said that if I were sufficiently provoked, I would examine the risible arguments in a letter to The Sun claiming that the Civil War wasn’t primarily about slavery.

It doesn’t take much to provoke me. One comment from Mike Pope sufficed.

Before the demolition, let me point out a couple of things. William W. Freehling’s two volumes of The Road to Disunion are quite conclusive about the central role of slavery and the South’s determination to protect it that led to secession. Apologists, see whether you can confute him. In addition, a number of websites have posted the secession ordinances of the Confederate states, which do not dwell on the tariff, or an agrarian culture versus an industrial one; they say quite determinedly and explicitly that they secede to protect the institution of slavery.*

So we have some arguments by one C. Lyon of Clarksville. The main batch is easy to dispense with: Why was West Virginia admitted to the Union as a slave state? Why didn’t slavery end when the war did?** Why not until the 13th Amendment was ratified months later? Why didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation free all the slaves?

The answer is that slavery was protected by the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln said so while running for the presidency; it was not his original intent to end slavery, and it did not become so until he saw that it was a measure of military necessity. The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the rebelling states as a military measure. The lawyerly Lincoln saw that he could do that but not end slavery elsewhere except by a constitutional amendment that he did not live to see ratified.

Why did Robert E. Lee, no enthusiast for slavery, fight for the South? He explained so himself; it was out of loyalty to his native state, Virginia. In the mid-19th century, many people felt more of a bond to their individual states than to the nation.

Why did men who owned no slaves fight for the rights of slaveholders? Same reason, loyalty to their native states, with, of course, our congenital susceptibility to demagogy.

What caused the Draft Riots in New York City? Reluctance to fight in a war that claimed more than 600,000 lives by its end might be one reason. Racism (See the stipulations below) might be another.

These points are not arcana; they can be found in scores of standard historical works.

The Confederate apologists shy away from slavery, and it’s hard to blame them for that. I have not yet seen anyone argue that the Confederacy should have prevailed, to become a backward section with an ineffective government, tied to a form of labor that the rest of the civilized world was abandoning or had already abandoned.

If we are going to celebrate our past, and we should, let’s acknowledge all of it. We sacrificed the lives of more than half a million young men, maimed tens of thousands others, and devastated an entire region because we could not resolve our political and economic differences peacefully and allowed hotheads to call the tune.


*We will also stipulate that the North was commercially involved with the products of the slave economy, that the North in its own way was quite as much racist as the South, and that, Julia Ward Howe notwithstanding, claims of moral superiority are difficult to sustain.

**The letter writer says that Maryland “did not become free until the passing of the 13th Amendment.” Actually, Maryland abolished slavery in its Constitution of 1864.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (33)

April 12, 2011

Up the nose

I have been wondering who thought it was a good idea to install in men’s rooms those little devices that periodically emit a little jet of cheap scent.

It does nothing to cancel out the underlying smell of the premises, merely adding one offensive aroma atop another. It’s rather as if someone went to the zoo and spritzed the bonobos with Dollar Store perfume.

While I am mentioning unpleasant smells, the arrival of the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War has put the Confederate apologists into acceleration.* The ugly fact is that while, yes, there were political, cultural, and economic differences between the North and the South, slavery was, by the secessionists’ own statements, the main state’s right that they cared about. If you want to commemorate the Confederacy, you cannot evade that stench, and you have to come to terms that the South had many brave and good men who fought heroically in a bad cause.


*I won’t go into the risible apologetics of a letter writer to The Sun in today’s editions unless you provoke me.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:57 PM | | Comments (6)

April 11, 2011

It might well be spring

The temperature is climbing to eighty degrees, and the sun has made its appearance today. This promises to be, if the thunderstorms forecast for later delay their development, a halcyon day for Baltimore.

That’s a broad hint, readers, about the word of the week.

The joke of the week running at is the lawyer joke from last week, but it’s still one of the better traditional lawyer jokes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:25 PM | | Comments (5)

A head for figures

How big a nerd am I? Judge for yourself. (Hypophora) When I opened the package from Godine to discover Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (David R. Godine, 254 pages, $26.95), I was thrilled, I was giddy, I was delighted. (Anaphora)

Though surely there has been rhetoric as long as there has been language with speakers who recognized and employed its patterns, it was the Greeks who named it and exploited it and provided the technical terms for it. (Polysyndeton)

Adept speakers and writers understand that patterns—patterns of repetition, patterns of parallel structure—enable their audience to grasp meaning more readily. Rhetorical patterns crop up everywhere—in advertising, “Choosy mothers choose Jif” (Polyptoton); in the catchphrases and slogans of politicians, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “But just because you’re born in the slum doesn’t mean that the slum is born in you.” (Chiasmus)

As Ward Farnsworth points out, figures of speech “can show a worthy sentiment to great advantage. But they are merely grating when used to inflate the sound of words that are trite or trivial in substance, a regrettably common use of figures that has helped to give a bad name to rhetoric in general.”

Mr. Farnsworth, who despite being a professor of law writes clearly and trenchantly, wastes no time here with the trite and the trivial. This book of categories of figures of speech abounds with impressive examples: Abraham Lincoln, Pitt and Churchill addressing the House of Commons, Dickens gleefully exploiting combinations of language like Bach improvising at the organ, Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible establishing expressions for the centuries.

This wealth of examples, if you will only look into them, will stimulate your interest, gratify your curiosity, and amplify your own writing. (Isocolon)


Hypophora: Speaker or writer asks a question and answers it.

Anaphora: Repetition of the same words at the start of successive phrases or clauses.

Polysyndeton: Repeated use of conjunctions.

Polyptoton: Repetition of the root of a word with a different ending.

Chiasmus: Repetition of words with the order reversed.

Isocolon: Use of successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (2)

April 9, 2011

The Scum Paper

The title of this post is taken from Facebook exchanges among some people who proudly refuse to subscribe to The Baltimore Sun (historically known as “The Sunpaper”) because we’re all so damned lefty here at the paragraph factory.

Pity. That means that they will miss in tomorrow’s editions Fred Rasmussen’s recollections of the “tomato feud” between Earl Weaver of the Orioles and the groundskeeper who grew tomatoes in left field at Memorial Stadium.

And Michael Sragow’s account of how Baltimore native Jaimy Gordon struggled for years to write and find a publisher for Lord of Misrule, the novel about horse racing that won her the National Book Award.

And Richard Gorelick’s appreciation of the variations on Louisiana cuisine that can be eaten while listening to live music at Chef Mac’s on Harford Road.

And Childs Walker’s account of how Towson University aspires to energize its floundering athletic program.

And Mary Gail Hare’s story about the elementary school students at St. Casimir’s School who present the Stations of the Cross as tableaux vivants every Lent.

Still, I suppose people have to be careful if they want to keep all this Bolshie stuff out of the house.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:53 PM | | Comments (12)

When we misspeak

People who hold to the theory of the Freudian slip believe that when we make mistakes in speech, we are saying WHAT WE REALLY MEAN. No doubt that is sometimes true, but I think that slips in speech are more like typos, mere mechanical errors or crossed wires.

Mark Liberman appears to hold just such a view. Here’s a passage he quotes from one of his introductory lectures on linguistics:

[T]alking is a hard thing to do! In fact, fluent speech articulation has been called our most complex motor skill. Language is a complex and hierarchical system.

Language use is creative, so that new utterance is put together on the spot out of the piece-parts made available by the language being spoken. A speaker is under time pressure, typically choosing about three words per second out of a vocabulary of 40,000 or more, while at the same time producing perhaps five syllables and a dozen phonemes per second, using more than 100 finely-coordinated muscles, each of which has a maximum gestural repetition rate of about three cycles per second or less. Word choices are being made, and sentences constructed, at the same time that earlier parts of the same phrase are being spoken.

Given the complexities of speaking, it's not surprising that about one slip of the tongue on average occurs per thousand words said. In fact, it's surprising that more of us are not like Mrs. Malaprop or Dr. Spooner.

And here the link to the post in which he was moved to cite these lecture notes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:25 PM | | Comments (0)

April 7, 2011

A shot of wry

In b, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication for people much younger than me, today’s article on the unpleasantness between Jen Royle and Nestor Aparicio,* this quotation appears:

“I thought she did a very good job acclimating herself to Baltimore from New York,” says former Orioles catcher turned broadcaster, Rick Dempsey. “She’s a brutally honest reporter with a rye sense of humor, which is very refreshing. She takes her job very seriously. She puts her time in and she does her homework."

You can make bread with rye, and you can make whiskey with rye, but you cannot make humor with a cereal grain. The homonym wry, meaning dry or mocking, comes to us not from the fruited plain but from the Old English wrigan, “tend,” “incline,” which gained the sense of “contort” in Middle English. In a wry expression, the face is twisted.

Not that I am micturating from a great height on b; The Sun’s features section once published a remark about the “rye humor” of the comic Ziggy, earning a newsbreak in The New Yorker.


*Who make me think of that thing I say about baseball.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (25)

April 6, 2011

That bogus BBC book list

A friend on Facebook invited her acquaintances to take the “BBC Booklist Challenge,” which claims that most people will have read no more than half a dozen of the hundred books on the list.

I, of course, would have none of it. English majors, of which herd I was long a part, never do anything as vulgar as identify specific books that they have read. Their vast understanding extends to all literature that counts and is not to be pinned down to specific texts. We all bluff, you know. Do the Stephen Potter gamesmanship thing, you know. “Oh, you think Trollope is significant, do you?” “Fanny Burney, you say? Well, she’s no Aphra Behn.”

Besides, the “BBC Booklist Challenge” is bogus on its face. Run your eye down the list and it won’t take long for dubious items to crop up. The Da Vinci Code? Really? Mitch Albom. Mitch Albom! You want to give Harold Bloom an apoplexy?

That meme has been bouncing around the Internet for months, and someone went to the trouble of exposing its questionable origins. No gold star for you if you’ve read all one hundred.

Many years ago Esquire published a list of the ten or however many books you should have read if you have any pretension to being a civilized, educated adult. That was a list with some meat on it. I don’t recall the entire list, but I remember that it included The Canterbury Tales. In Middle English. And Boswell’s Life of Johnson (BOO-YAH!).

So come back to me when you’ve met your quota of dead white guys.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (30)

April 5, 2011

The midnight hour

A mildly agitated editor comes to me to ask about the precise use of midnight, and I open to The Associated Press Stylebook, which I cite when it suits me, and point out that midnight belongs to the day that is ending, not the day that is beginning. “I believe that that is not so,” he says. I shrug. AP has spoken.

If I had wanted to pile on, I could have pointed out that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says the same thing. Or that even Wikipedia—we can treat the Devil as Scripture for our purposes—says that while midnight registers on digital clocks as “a.m.,” the exact “00:00” moment does not in fact belong to the new day.

When you think about the origin of the word, it makes sense. If midnight is the middle of the night, nightfall came on the old day, not the new one.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:24 PM | | Comments (20)

April 4, 2011

Who's your boss?

Your word for the week is satrap.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:32 AM | | Comments (5)

Yeah, it's a lawyer joke

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (2)

April 3, 2011

Burrs under the saddle

The big troubles tend to bring out people’s strength—that “keep calm and carry on” spirit of the Blitz in London. It’s the little irritations that accumulate and wear away one’s patience and equanimity. Like these.

You would think that people who work for a classical music station would take the trouble to learn how to pronounce names properly. But no, you regularly hear the disyllable Dvorak mangled as “DUH-vor-zhak.”

Mind you, I’m calmer now that I work evenings instead of listening on the early-evening drive home the relentless cycle of the Dvorak Slavonic dance, the Strauss waltz, the Brahms Hungarian, and the von Suppe overture that some sadist programs day after day.

Apparently Comcast’s On Demand has dropped Law and Order UK, the bastards. Never mind that it was basically the plot lines from the American version with wigs and Received Pronunciation. What am I supposed to watch now, that sappy remake of Hawaii Five-O?

I’ve had my fill of commercials for automobiles in which trick drivers zoom along stretches of empty road. Everyone knows perfectly well that we will either creep along a beltway at fifteen miles an hour or be menaced by some cowboy who mistakes Hillen Road and Perring Parkway for the Bonneville salt flats.

It makes no sense that nearly every liquor store carries that ersatz bourbon they distill in Tennessee while Old Forester is hard to find.

Mentioning Tennessee brings to mind that they have another moronic legislator attempting to smuggle creationism into the science curriculum under the guise of “teaching the controversy.” You’d think that after the Scopes trial the state would be a little more jealous of the tattered remnants of its reputation. But if they think “teaching the controversy” is such a fine idea, let them dictate that Marxism and Facism be taught alongside capitalism and democracy.

I am still waiting for word that Paula Deen is to be tried for crimes against humanity.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 PM | | Comments (17)

April 2, 2011

Murn day

My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, would have been ninety-four years old today. A year ago on her birthday I posted “The last of the Earlys.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:19 PM | | Comments (2)

April 1, 2011

AP? Nah. FakeAP's better

The Associated Press Stylebook is so episodic that if you were to read it for plot, as Dr. Johnson said of Richardson’s novels, you would hang yourself. Characterization is pretty sketchy, too, though a starchy authorial voice can be discerned in its imperatives.

Write More Good (Three Rivers Press, 253 pages, $13) by the authors of @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter, is not much on plot and characterization either, but at least it’s funny. (The AP Stylebook is only unintentionally laughable.)

Gag writing, like mine clearing, leaves little room for miscalculation. And while the wags behind @FakeAPStylebook are well above the level of open-mike night in the comedy club at the mall, there are misses among the hits.

Many of the entries feature a cheerful adolescent irreverence:

fiscal year Like a dog year, but for money

Founding Fathers Always capitalize out of respect for the wise men of two hundred years ago whose opinions on Internet porn and the right to own a bazooka guide us today.

objectivity Hey, it’s not our place to say if the earth is flat or not

Scientology Our legal department informs us that Scientology is just swell.

Occasionally entries rise to an actual wittiness:

Schrödinger’s cat Always simultaneously capitalized and not capitalized

The book is more, however, than an anthology of tweets. The authors have expanded the scope of Twitterature with longer entries, which, like the short ones, serve to indicate what journalists really think about the subjects they cover.*

In reviewing theater: “[J]ust write that it’s a deeply resonant examination of the fractured American family. (Someone may write in to correct you that Henrik Ibsen was Norwegian, but you can either respond that his themes are timeless and not fettered by geography or just throw the letter away.) If there’s a TV or movie star in the play, his or her performance was surprisingly nuanced.”

And about other journalists: “In reviews of hip-hop albums, be sure to use words such as ‘tight,’ ‘flow,’ and ‘thumpin’ so that readers will know that you, a college-educated suburbanite who wears Buddy Holly glasses, are down with the streets.”

Mark Hale and Ken Lowery are happily pessimistic about the newspaper industry that gave rise to the AP Stylebook and theirs. Their advice on headline writing: “Use small words, go for the cheap laugh, and don’t be afraid to utterly contradict the story. After all, Rupert Murdoch might be reading, and you’ll be needing a job when this rag goes belly up in eighteen months, tops.”

The writing is, yes, uneven. On the Web, their tweets are like psychics’ predictions; you read them one at a time and only remember the good ones. In a book it’s all preserved for examination. I wish I liked the whole production better than I do, but there’s still a good deal of pleasure in its gleeful subversion.


*Well, in the short ones, too:

folo Slang for “follow-up story,” i.e., the same story you ran yesterday with two paragraphs of new information.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (5)
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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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