Hoist the bare aluminum pole, my friends: today is Festivus, which means it’s time once again for my favorite holiday tradition, The Airing of Grievances.
For this year’s A of G—the sixth in a series—I’ve gathered some of the worst offenders from the world of marketing: the gaffes, goofs, and boneheaded blunders that we’ll recall for as long as schadenfreude remains in season.
Leave it to the inventive and enterprising Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, to turn language peeves (“literally,” “could care less,” “very unique,” et al.) into a card game in which the object is “to annoy your opponent to death.” She’s raising money for Peeve Wars through Fund Anything; contribute now to claim your own card set or another nifty reward.
Some people peeve about new, “unnecessary” words. But language blogger Stan Carey defends them: “Avoiding new and ‘needless’ words in formal contexts is all well and good, but what’s wrong with a grand superfluity elsewhere? Will the language look untidy if words float around not filling vital gaps? Will they gum up the works?”
“We think first / Of vague words that are synonyms for progress / And pair them with footage of a high-speed train.” This Is a Generic Brand Video, from McSweeney’s, of course.
Orenitram, a drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension, is an ananym: The name was created by reverse-spelling the first eight letters of the name of the drug company’s CEO, Martine Rothblatt. But that’s just the beginning of a truly remarkable name story, reported by Catchword.
The new BuzzFeed style guide answers the really tough spelling and usage questions: Is bitchface one word or two? (One.) Is there an E in chocolaty? (No.) What’s the proper abbreviation of douchebag? (d-bag.) What’s the difference between wack and whack? (Look it up; it’s in there.) And, FYI, the word is spelled whoa. Don’t make us repeat ourselves.
“Writing and editing are linked but distinct enterprises, and distinct temperaments are involved. Very few people can move smoothly from the one enterprise to the other.” – John McIntyre, one of the few.
Who names the color of the year? Professional namers, that’s who. The Boston Globe interviewed Bay Area name developer Anthony Shore for his insights into color naming; the article is headlined—care to guess?—“What’s in a Name?” (I tackled the subject of color names myself for a 2011 Visual Thesaurus column.)
There are no bears in Trance. The word that’s wanted here is grisly.
Finally, a really big goof, as in several inches high:
The great Chicago writer and radio man spelled his last name Terkel (it’s correct in the text beneath the headline). The erroneous spelling appears in an exhibit on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower that’s been up for “about 14 years,” according to a Chicago Tribune story; no one mentioned the misspelling until this week, when media blogger Jim Romenesko published an item about it.
Stoker, the first English-language film from Korean director Park Chan-wook. A nod to Hitchcock – two shower scenes, an Uncle Charlie, a whistled motif – minus the wit and plus a lot of arty gore.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by the Chicago Manual of Style—the indispensable resource for editors and publishers—for the monthly Shop Talk feature. I rambled on about the name-development process, mental workouts, and favorite books; the expert CMoS editors made me sound focused. Go take a look. And if you have editing or proofreading questions of your own, check out the CMoS Q&A while you’re there.
Said-bookism: A verb used in place of “said” – almost always a needless distraction. From “said book,” a pamphlet of synonyms for “said.” Said-bookism is a subspecies of “the elegant variation,” the term coined by H.W. Fowler (1858–1933) to describe a substitution of one word for another for the sake of variety.1
Although I was trained early in my editing career to purge manuscripts of fancy synonyms for “said,” I learned only recently that there was a name for the writing sin I’d been correcting. Stephen Dodson, in his Language Hat blog, educated me:
I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as a “said book” listing innumerable substitutes for the simple and useful verb “said,” but that concept is the basis of the term “said-bookism,” known to most professional writers as something to avoid as a sure sign of amateurism.
Said-bookism comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a collection of terms used in discussing science-fiction writing. The lexicon was developed by the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, a workshop for professional science-fiction writers founded in Texas in 1973. The full lexicon – which includes wonderful entries like Phildickian, nowism, and ficelle character – has been published on the Science Fiction Writers of America website; it’s useful for writers of other genres (and nonfiction).
“Because,” explicated Bob, “it was the fashion at one point. There were even ‘said books’ you could get mail order with lists of the words that can be used instead of said as saying said was discredited during that time. That's where the name of the trope comes from,” he further proclaimed.
Some Tom Swifties rely on said-bookisms for their humor – “‘I used to be a paratrooper,’ Tom explained” – although most use adverbs to drive home the pun. (“‘We have no oranges,’ Tom said fruitlessly.”) The Twilight books are flagrant perpetrators of self-bookisms, as the Reasoning with Vampires Tumblr makes painfully evident.
The very thing that editors love about the word ‘said’ is the thing that makes some writers shun it. ‘Said’ is unremarkable, unadorned, invisible. It blends into the background, allowing the dialogue to dominate the sentence and the reader’s eye to skip along unimpeded by the writer’s clever turn of phrase.
Remember that the writer’s job isn’t to wow the reader with beautiful prose and punchy word choice. The writer’s job is to tell a story so real that the reader lives it. The action, dialogue and internal dialogue are the stars of the show. The adverbs, adjectives and said bookisms are the special effects – too much and the reader either becomes jaded or pays more attention to them than to the story.
I haven’t been able to enlarge the mascot sufficiently to tell whether it’s a smirking tomato or a sneering pepper.
Hat tip to Jessica Stone Levy, who blogged recently about another brand from Crosby Lake Spirits: Kinky Liqueur. (“To enter this site you must be of legal drinking age. And irresistibly fabulous.”)
No cutesy mascot or winking copy for Mr.Beer (spacing sic). No About Us or FAQ, either. Just kits and gear for the home-brewing aficionado, who – if the community forum is an accurate guide – is likely to answer to “mister” himself.
Mr.Beer was acquired last April by 150-year-old Coopers Brewery, Australia’s largest brewery and the world’s largest maker of home-brew beer.
If you like your upcycled products with a Scandinavian aesthetic and a dash of cuuuute, you’ll love mr Tedi. If you care about writing and editing ... not so much.
Charming design. Lovely photography. But those words are spelled “whether” and “lovable” (or “re-lovable”) …
mr Tedi (capitalization and punctuation sic) is made by a company called mrs [sic] Jermyn. The company’s founder, Annika, is from Finland but now lives in Brooklyn; perhaps she wrote her own copy and isn’t 100 percent fluent in English, but that doesn’t explain the failure to hire a proofreader. (Penny wise, Euro foolish.) And it definitely doesn’t excuse the biggest error of all: misspelling your own company’s name:
Here’s my standard rant: Polishing your copy is not optional. Language is every bit as much a part of your brand identity as your name, your logo, your website, and your product design. Carelessly written, unedited copy tells me you’re not serious about your professional image.
If you said “the comma of direct address” – also known as “the Donner Party comma” – give yourself a standing ovation, sir or madam.
The P’Zolo headline needs a comma after “YA” to make it clear that the word is slang for “you” and not the librarian’s abbreviation for “young adult.” The Crest headline needs a comma after “hike” to avoid suggesting that the reader deserves a wall-mountable award for going the distance on the Appalachian Trail. (Better layout would help, too: the idiomatic “take a hike” shouldn’t be broken up over two lines.)
Who’s at fault? Maybe the copywriter; maybe the proofreader, if there was one. Most likely, a comma-averse art director decreed that an extra punctuation mark would disturb the Platonic perfection of his design. I speak from experience: I’ve had many frustrating conversations with designers and art directors who arbitrarily removed correct and necessary punctuation “because it looked funny.” To which I say: Stick to pictures, bub.
Arithmetic: The science of numbers; the art of computation by figures. From Latin arithmetica, originally Greek arithmetike (“the counting art”). In English since early the 14th century, originally as “arsmetrike” because of the false Latin etymology ars metrica, “the art of measuring.” Standardized to arithmetic by mid-17th century. Arithmetic replaced Middle English tælcræft, literally“tell-craft,” in which “tell” meant “to reckon” or “to calculate,” a sense we retain today in “bank teller” and “to tell time.”
Arithmetic was in the news last week after former President Bill Clinton used the word six times in his fact-filled and rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Here’s the first usage (from the transcript of the speech as delivered):
Now, people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic. (Sustained cheers, applause.)
Arithmetic suited Clinton’s rhetorical purposes because—in contrast to, say, math—it suggests “elementary” and “basic.” Arithmetic is what we learn in grade school: it’s times tables, not quadratic equations; long division, not differential calculus. Clinton drove home that point in a later line about his differences with Republican opponents over the national debt:
It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four. (Laughter, applause.) It’s arithmetic.
If you missed the speech. here’s video with annotation from New York Times reporters.
Also of interest:
Clinton made so many changes to his written text—ad-libs and deliberate revisions—that the speech ran almost twice as long as scheduled. To see exactly how he altered the text, take a look at The Atlantic’s marked-up version. BuzzFeed offers a slightly different version, which contains a couple of changes sure to please print editors: Clinton’s correct lower-casing of “president” when it doesn’t precede a proper name (“the next president of the United States”) and of “bless” (“God bless America”).
In its intensity, in the palpable love between performer and audience, in its passion, in its earnestness, in its straightforwardness—in its politics, even!—this was the rhetorical equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen concert.
James Fallows at The Atlantic on why Clinton’s speeches succeed: “Because he treats listeners as if they are smart.” That’s a lesson for every speaker and speechwriter.
This call to “listen” to what’s “important” is the chief emendation Clinton makes to a text that might otherwise, rhetorically, echo what not only the First Lady but also the other pundits had been saying from the platform. Even more brilliant is the addition of the “some brass” line, which will haunt our impressions of Paul Ryan henceforward.
The same image and headline appear in a two-page ad in the September issue of Vogue (pages 190-191). Lavish styling, pricey photography, expensive ad buy. Too bad a few dollars weren’t left over to pay a proofreader.
Here’s the thing: The idiom is “Keeping up with the Joneses.”** Joneses is the plural of Jones, and it follows the rule about regular plural formation: If a word ends in a pronounced S—as opposed to the silent S of some French names like “Dumas”—add -es.
Not an apostrophe.
So maybe this apostrophized name is a possessive? According to some usage guides (notably the Associated Press Stylebook), words that end an S become possessives with the addition of an apostrophe. According to others (notably the Chicago Manual of Style), they need an apostrophe and an S: Kansas’s, Dickens’s, Morris’s.
But whichever guide you follow, a possessive noun has to possess something. We might say, for example, that we’re keeping up with the Joneses' circus skills. In the ad, however, nothing is being possessed.
Enough? Enough. After all, I still have 770 pages of the Vogue September issue to plow through. Who knows how many usage goofs lie ahead?
* The dress is $399, comes in sizes 2, 4, and 6 only, and won’t ship until September 14—and then it’s a final sale (no refunds or exchanges).