Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hitchens Hath Hatred, Part Two

You may recall my post on Christopher Hitchens's hatred for copy editors. Hitch has redeemed himself, at least in this copy editor's eyes, with his latest diatribe, on Richard Nixon. In yesterday's column on Slate.com, "Caught on Tape," he admits that 
the thought of the Nixon gang in the White House still infuses me with a pure and undiluted hatred and makes me consider throwing up things that I don't even remember having eaten.
Such a way with words, and so much hatred to share. 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Be a Dick: Phrasedick

I hereby interrupt my regular "Don't Be a Dick" series to bring you a new entry: William Safire, of New York Times fame and coiner of the word phrasedick.

Phrasedick? I'm afraid so. Since putting the word in print first in his March 27, 1983, Times Magazine column, "The Phrasedick Brigade," Safire has continued to repeatedly flog his coinage. Yesterday's column, "Location, Location, Location," marked the fourth time this year he's used the term, and roughly the 37th time it's appeared in his columns. 

Not surprisingly, the word hasn't caught on. I mean, really, Bill, who wants to be a dick? Of course Safire's term harks back to dicks of yore, i.e., detectives. But that hasn't made it any more popular. (For an analysis of the meaning of the term, see "OED--Dick Edition.")

As Gawker noted in 2007, phrasedick is "most likely the speechwriter's and pundit's least successful coinage in a remarkable career of coinaging." 

It's no wonder. 

(Photo of William Safire on NBC courtesy of Gawker)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Loath vs. Loathe

It's Sunday morning and time not for church, but for laundry. I loathe doing laundry, but I'm not loath to do it.

What's the difference? Loathe, with an e, is the verb, meaning to feel intense dislike or even digust for. It's often used as an antonym for love: "Loathe him or love him, there's no escaping him." (Fill in for "him" your choice of celebrity/politician/ex lover, etc.)

Loath is the adjective, meaning unwilling to do something, or reluctant. "American publishers these days are loath to publish collections and micellanies except by 'brand-name' authors." (New Yorker, June 22, 2009, page 87.) It's not the same as to hate doing something, one is just reluctant.

By the way, loathing is the noun, meaning extreme disgust or detestation. Hunter S. Thompson made the word famous with his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

(The above T-shirt isn't available, but you can get the logo here.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

i.e. vs. e.g.

I was never fully exposed to Latin. I didn't study it in school, and although I was raised Roman Catholic, I arrived on the scene after the reforms of Vatican II, which led to the decline of the Latin Mass. 

Latin still has a hold on the English language, though. Case in point is the use of i.e. and e.g.--and the apparent confusion between the two.  

I.e. is short for the Latin id est, meaning that is. It's used to specify something or to make something more clear and can stand in for "in other words," "it is," or "that is." 

E.g. is the abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, roughly meaning for example. It's used to give an example or in place of "including" when not giving an entire list. 

Both Latin terms are used to clarify a broad point, but i.e. is used before a restatement, while e.g. is used before a specific example. Confused? I'd craft a few examples, but this usage doesn't come naturally to me, i.e., I don't use them frequently enough in my writing. More deft writers, e.g. John McIntyre at You Don't Say, would have more luck giving examples. 

Here's one tip to distinguish between the two. When you give an example, which begins with an e, use e.g. 

(T-shirt pictured above--for industrial engineers--is available here.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Blame Game

There's an interesting debate at the Toronto Star about attributing errors in articles.

In "Who takes the fall for errors?" public editor Kathy English discusses whether errors inserted during the editing process should be attributed, as in "Due to an editing error..." This is common at many newspapers and takes the blame off the bylined author. The Star doesn't go that way, though, and follows the philosophy of collective errors:
the Star has a long-standing policy that says published corrections do not "ascribe blame" because "publishing the Star is a team effort." That means, unlike some newspapers, the Star does not indicate in corrections when a mistake is "due to an editing error."

Nor do we tell readers that mistakes are due to an error by a reporter, a photographer, a researcher, an artist or anyone else in the newsroom. The guiding logic here is the newsroom's collective responsibility for all of its errors.
The article discusses a case where an error was inserted by the copy editor. It's heartening to know that the end product is correctly seen as a team effort. Every day copy editors correct mistakes of reporters, none of which are pointed out in the article. But when a copy editor goofs, the reporter typically is outraged. (As a former reporter, I can understand the outrage, especially since the article is under the reporter's name. But many people work on the article, none of whom get credit.) As English says:
Having worked as a copy editor, I also believe in the philosophy of collective responsibility. I agree with those editors who make the case that even "editing errors" can be a shared responsibility in cases where a reporter's copy was unclear. I also know how many times great copy editors have "saved" me by catching the errors I've missed before they make the paper.
Then she points out the bottom line: "But the real question in this debate is what best serves readers?" After discussions with the publisher and senior editors, the Star decided to stick with its policy of collective responsibility.

Our consensus was that Star readers quite likely hold this news organization responsible overall for its errors. The research we've seen generally indicates readers don't particularly care whether an error was the fault of a reporter or an editor. They want wrongs righted, accuracy valued and steps taken to prevent errors.

Do you agree with the newspaper's policy?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Swathe Me Now

A friend wrote a great article on facials for Father's Day: "Man, I Feel Like a Facial: Guy-friendly, Relaxing Treatments for Father's Day."

When the proud father of the article showed it to me, I couldn't help but point out the copyediting error in the sentence, "Steaming towels swath the face."

According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, swath is the noun meaning a long, broad strip or belt, or a space devastated as if by a scythe. Swathe is the noun (a band used in swathing) or verb (to bind, wrap, or swaddle with a bandage, or to envelop) and the correct spelling of the word in the article.

The small error won't lessen anyone's enjoyment of the article, or the Father's Day gift of a relaxing facial.

(Attention new daddies, the Newborn Egg Swathe, pictured above, is featured on Etsy.com. Photo by Patti VanHuizen)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Word of the Week: Bootleg

I caught a snippet of a bootleg version of a film on YouTube over the weekend. First I wondered why people bother with bootleg videos, since the quality is so bad. Then I got to wondering how poor-quality videos on the Internet ever came to be called "bootlegged." Did the word really come from the leg of a boot?

The short answer is yes. YourDictionary.com says, bootleg "originated from the habit of men, when they wore high boots in centuries past, of smuggling objects across borders by hiding them in the legs of their boots."

According to the online Oxford English Dictionary, the word stems from "boot-legger, one who carries liquor in his boot-legs; hence, an illicit trader in liquor." The OED traces the usage from alcohol to "gramophone records and tapes prepared and distributed without authorization," though the master dictionary hasn't caught up to DVDs and online videos.

From contraband stowed in boots to contraband on the Internet. I can imagine that copyright owners of original material would prefer to kick some butt with those boots.

(Image of "The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live, 1964" album cover)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Auger vs. Augur

We know that farmers, among others, use augers in their work. And we often hear about how the latest economic indicators don't augur a quick recovery. 

So when the Washington Post ran a recent story saying that construction crews "have dug 30-foot-deep trenches and augured 250-foot conduit sleeves beneath roads," a keen-eyed reader wrote in pointing out the grammatical error. 

For the record: an auger is a noun, defined in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "any of various tools or devices having a helical shaft or member that are used for boring holes (as in wood, soil, or ice) or moving loose material (as snow)." Augur is both a noun ("1 : an official diviner of ancient Rome 2 : one held to foretell events by omens") and, more commonly used today, a verb: 
1 : to foretell especially from omens
2 : to give promise of  : PRESAGE  *higher pay augurs a better future*
intransitive verb   : to predict the future especially from omens
As Donald R. Juran, from Rockville, Maryland, noted in his letter to the Post, "This does not augur well." 

(Photo: Gratuitous image of model Nick Auger found on the Internet but unable to provide source credit)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Word of the Week: Smorgasbord

In describing the melange of offerings available on a website, I used the word "smorgasbord": "The website has a smorgasbord of offerings to whet your appetite." 

When I read the sentence out loud, I loved the sumptuous, rich sound of smorgasbord; I could almost sink my teeth into it. From whence did this wonderful word wend its way to the English language?

From the Swedes--not the typical luscious-language providers of the world. The online Oxford English Dictionary lists the etymology as: 
({sm}sm{revc}{schwa}g{schwa}s{smm}b{revc}{schwa}d)  [a. Sw., f. smörgås (slice of) bread and butter (f. smör butter, cogn. w. SMEAR n. + gås goose, lump of butter) + bord BOARD n., table: cf. SMORREBROD.] 
And from the OED's first definition ("1. The Swedish hors d'{oe}uvres, typically comprising a cold table of open sandwiches served with an assortment of delicacies; also provided as a separate meal or buffet") we've progressed to the meaning I used in my sentence: "2. fig. A medley, miscellany; a rich variety or selection."

English is great that way, borrowing words from other languages and adapting them for other uses. The English language offers a rich smorgasbord indeed. 

(You can purchase the above T-shirt a Zazzle.com.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Emigrate vs. Immigrate

I posted recently on the incorrect use of "immigrant" for Puerto Ricans. The same goes for "emigrant," since Puerto Ricans are citizens.

What's the difference between "emigrate" and "immigrate." It has to do with coming or going: emigrate refers to leaving a homeland; immigrate refers to arriving in a new country. The usual distinction is that one emigrates from while one immigrates to. My friend Riccardo emigrated from Italy. Sofia immigrated to the U.S. from Chile.

But as The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage explains,
Either word can be followed by from or to, depending on the context: when focusing on life or conditions in the old country, write, She emigrated from Sweden or She emigrated to Canada. When focusing on life or conditions in the new country, write, She immigrated from Sweden or She immigrated to Canada.
When President Bush was in the White House, a lot of my friends considered emigrating to Canada. Now we're content staying in our homeland.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Insure vs. Ensure

Ah, the subtleties of the English language. (Or, Where one letter makes a small difference.) 

Editing a manuscript yesterday, I found the author using "insure" and "ensure." Most style guides make the distinction between the two words. For example, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says,
Insure means buy or issue insurance: She insured her camera against theft. 
Ensure means guarantee or make safe: The hit ensured a Yankee victory.
Knowing this distinction, I was going to change "insure" to "ensure" in the following sentence: "If you [a flower] produce a scent that attracts only the males of one particular species of bee, you can insure that your pollen will end up precisely where you want it." It's not as though the flower is taking out an insurance policy on its pollen. 

Then, two paragraphs below, the author used "ensure": "Yet their small numbers ensure their survival." The author clearly was making a distinction between the two words. Did he know something I didn't? 

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines ensure as "to make sure, certain, or safe"; and insure as "1: to provide or obtain insurance on or for; 2: to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions." For usage, it says: 
ensure and insure are interchangeable in many contexts where they indicate the making certain or inevitable of an outcome, but ensure may imply a virtual guarantee <ensured the safety of the refugees>, while insure sometimes stresses the taking of necessary measures beforehand <insure the success of the party>
The author seemed to be following the usage in Webster's, and not the NYT guide. I decided to keep his original language, even though I prefer to make the insure-as-insurance distinction. It blurs the line, but then there are so few clear lines in word usage. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

"The" Earth

I often wonder what drives people to write letters to publications. I suppose it's the need to be heard, and perhaps the desire to see their name in print.

I've never been a letter-to-the-editor writer, but since I work for a national magazine with a huge subscription base, I receive a fair number of those letters--and I'm not even the editor in chief.

Today I received a letter from a concerned reader about the use of the article in "the Earth."

The wha? Apparently it's this reader's pet peeve to see "the Earth" used when "Earth" by itself is understandable and unambiguous. His concern was heartfelt, genuine, tactful, and so I politely answered him and agreed that perhaps the article isn't necessary, though it's not incorrect. It is idiomatic, and so why not leave it in if a writer submits it that way?

To be honest, I hadn't really thought about it before. Now I will consider his suggestion to drop the article in the future. Isn't it great that people care enough to voice their concern and send in a suggestion, even on the smallest usage matters?

On the other hand, what about the 40-page article on world hunger, or recent articles on vanishing species and climate change? What about things that really matter in our world? Yes, grammar and good writing are important, but a letter on the article "the"?

(Photo courtesy F. Hasler, et al, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA)