Monday, August 31, 2009

Fashion Misstatement

"Say it loud. Say it proud. Say it right." 

That's the slogan for Jam Donaldson Designs, a line of T-shirts that seeks to set the record straight on misused phrases. To wit: 
"Conversate" is not a word.

It isn't "ironical"

I, myself "isn't necessary"

My favorite, though, is the one pictured: "Irregardless," its wrong. 

Um, yep, it's wrong. I'll give the designer an "A" for effort, but you won't see me wearing that incorrectly apostrophized phrase on a T-shirt. 

(Purchase the T-shirt pictured above here.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Word of the Week: Cupcakery

Neologisms are usually hit or miss. (For a major miss, see my post on "phrasedick.") 

Cupcakery is a sure hit. Combining the beloved "cupcake" with "bakery" is a clever conceit. 

Bakeries specializing in cupcakes have proliferated lately, and a number of them tie their names to "cupcakery," but today is the first time I've seen the term used in a newspaper headline: "Cupcakeries emerge as Washington's Sweet Spot in a Downturn," read the headline on 

The article reports that at least half a dozen cupcakeries have opened in the D.C. area over the past 20 months. So it looks like this tasty neologism will likely stick.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jibe vs. Gibe vs. Jive

"Clinton Trades Jibes With North Korea" read a recent New York Times headline. 

It should have been gibe

According to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, "gibe means jeer or taunt. Jibe, colloquially, means conform; in sailing, it means shift."

So Clinton can trade gibes with North Korea, but North Korean actions don't jibe much to U.S. demands. 

As for jive, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb jive as to tease or cajole. It seems the difference between gibe and jive is a matter of degree: gibing is more of a mocking, while jiving is more of a teasing. 

Oh, and also dancing or playing music, as in the Jedi jiving on the T-shirt pictured. 

("Jedi Jive" T-shirt available at

No Problem

Used to be that when you thanked someone for their help, they would say, "You're welcome." Now you're likely to get a "No problem." 

That's what the checker at Whole Foods replied when I thanked her for her help last night--even though I bagged all the items myself in my reusable grocery bag.  

I've become so used to the "no problem" response that I barely notice it anymore. But my dear friend Ms. Z brought up the topic the other day. Now I hear it all the time. On NPR, for example, guests rarely say "You're welcome" when hosts thank them at the end of interviews. 

NPR commentator David Greenberger noted a while back that "no problem" is a poor substitute for "you're welcome." He argued that it emphasizes the negative and gives the following impression: "This kindness I showed you could have resulted in discomfort to me, but lucky for you, it didn't." 

I agree. Got a problem with that? Sound off in the comments. 

("No Problem" T-shirt available at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Got Qat

It looks like qat is here to stay.

In the comments for my post "Khat vs. Qat," I mentioned the style committee at my work that meets every month to discuss word usage. 

We met this morning, and I raised the question of spelling qat versus khat. I got shot down. The feeling among the dozen or so committee members is that they prefer the qat spelling, saying it adds flavor. (No, none of them were chewing cuds of qat.)

That we went through tortuous contortions to explain the odd "qat" spelling, along with pronunciation (rhymes with pot), in an upcoming article didn't bother the other committee members. 

But to humor me, the committee decided I should look into how other publications spell the word. (I usually do that before bringing up a style change but neglected to do that this time, figuring khat would prevail.) It's hard to argue against "flavor," though, whatever that is. 

Chew on that for a while. 

(Photo of man in Yemen chewing qat, courtesy

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When the Cheese Falls Off Your Cracker

Where I work, we get lots of letters from folks around the world. Many readers write in to praise articles; many more write in to criticize.

One reader recently sent an email (we still have a "Letters" column, but we rarely receive actual letters; prison inmates are the exception to the email deluge) chiding an author for proposing a seemingly outlandish idea and remarking that the author's "cheese fell off his cracker," that is, the author had obviously lost his wits.

I can't find the origin of this lovely phrase. If you know the origin, let me know in the comments section.

("Cheese and Crackers" T-shirt pictured above is available at

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Travails in Siberia

"Officially, there is no such place as Siberia," Ian Frazier begins his tale of a 2001 rendezvous across the region, published in two installments in The New Yorker (August 3, and 10 & 17, 2009 issues).

But just as in fashionable restaurants in New York and Los Angeles ("Siberia is the section of less desirable tables given to customers whom the maitre d' does not especially like," Frazier helpfully tells us), Siberia exists in publishing: the doldrums of August. And it's apparent that Frazier's long tale of van breakdowns, camping, and insect invasions gets the Siberian treatment by The New Yorker editors.

Sure, the article merited the cover art for the August 3 issue (above), but it wasn't the most inspired cover.

The nail in the Siberian coffin came at the very end of the second portion of the long and meandering article--why Frazier took his journey in 2001 (shortly after President Bush took office) and his account wasn't published until 2009 (into Obama's presidency) is never explained--when, 20 pages after the second portion began, the editors note that "This is the second part of a two-part article."

Well, duh, maybe that would have been pertinent at the beginning of the second portion of the article?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Alpenhorn Blast

Working in the word business, I find it's easy to get mired in the depressing news of a failing industry. Newspapers and magazines are closing; copydesks are being decimated. Print is dead; the end is near.

Then I read a wonderful article or spot a well-turned phrase, and I'm reminded why I fell in love with words, writing, and journalism.

Writing about the Kindle 2, Nicholson Baker paints a rich image:
Everybody was saying that the new Kindle was terribly important--that it was an alpenhorn blast of post-Gutenbergian revalorization. ("A New Page," The New Yorker, 8/3/09)
It's over-the-top writing, and that's what makes it work in this context.

Hooray for alpenhorns--and for terrific writers.

(Image courtesy Daveybot at Flikr)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mendacity vs. Mendicancy

Don't die. That's good advice, generally. But if you are going to die, I suggest you try to outlive your friends. That way you get the last word.

In the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Garry Wills gets the last word on deceased conservative William F. Buckley. In "Daredevil," Wills writes a seemingly sweet profile of his dear, then lost, friend. "Hour by hour, day bay day, Bill Buckley was just an exciting person to be around..." Wills begins his homage to Buckley. Soon thereafter, the knives come out and old wounds bleed anew.

And by the end, Wills calls Buckley out on fouling the English language. On Buckley's propensity to use "big words," Wills writes that Buckley
used the big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning. One of his most famous usages poisoned the general currency, especially among young conservatives trying to imitate him. They took oxymoron in the sense he gave it, though that was the opposite of its true meaning. He thought it was a fancier word for "contradiction," so young imitators would say that "an intelligent liberal" was an oxymoron. But the Greek word means "something that is surprisingly true, a paradox," as in a shrewd dumbness.
How very shrewd of Wills for exposing Buckley's dumbness. Call it fiendish friendliness.

Wills goes on to highlight his own shrewdness in word play by trotting out his invention of the word subumbrous, meaning "cloaked in darkness," Wills tells us, "from the Latin sub umbra." While Wills is a literary genius, Buckley was, in the end, a word bumbler: Buckley's
lunge toward risky words was like his other ventures into risk. He could write, for instance, that National Review's "mendacity" prevented the magazine from running free advertisements, when he meant "mendicancy [given to begging]."
Wills's homage seems to lack mendacity, i.e. untruthfulness, but it certainly lacks graciousness.

(Image of "The Patron Saint of Mendacity," by Anthony Mangicapra, courtesy

Monday, August 3, 2009

Khat vs. Qat

Khat is a plant used as a stimulant in eastern Africa. Leaves from the plant are typically chewed like tobacco. The leaves contain chemicals regulated under the Controlled Substances Act, and since I've never been to Africa, I've never tried it--though I have chewed coca leaves in the Peruvian Andes. (The Partnership for a Drug-Free America provides more information on khat than you can shake a leaf at on their website.) 

The word comes from the Arabic qat, and like many transliterated Arabic words, there are numerous ways to spell it in English: cat, kat, khat, qat. Our house style guide prefers "qat," though our guide is decades old, and the propensity to stick with the uncorrupted spelling of the word in Arabic doesn't seem to have much cachet these days. Today we usually follow Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, preferred spellings, in this case, "khat." 

When I don't see a clear reason for going with tradition (i.e., the house preferred style), I try to bend the style. So in this case I would opt for "khat."

This may not be the most stimulating post, but sometimes it's the small things we tend to sweat. What would you do: Stay with the old, or opt for Merriam's?

(Drawing courtesy