The leaves of Citrus hystrix are used in many South and Southeast Asian cuisines; they’re sometimes called by their Thai name, makrut, but in many English-speaking countries they’ve long been called kaffir lime.That’s changing thanks to a protest “against the racial and religious slur of ‘kaffir’,” writes Tiffany Do in SF Weekly(“Citrus-Based Racism Leads Market to Change Product Names”). “Kaffir,” which comes from an Arabic word meaning “unbeliever,” was appropriated by English colonizers in South Africa, where it was used as a slur and a term of abuse against blacks. “What’s most surprising in this whole controversy is that the issue hasn't been addressed – and remedied – before now,” writes SF Weekly’s Do. Most markets are switching to the neutral “lime leaves.”
Who decides what makes a word “real”? Anne Curzan, a language historian and member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, explains why she finds language change “not worrisome but fun and fascinating.” (TEDxUofM talk; video and transcript.)
We say: meet (not ‘meet with’),consult (not ‘consult with’), talk to (not ‘talk with’), protest against a decision (not ‘protest a decision’), appeal against a verdict (not ‘appeal a verdict’).
And, n.b., the BBC does not punctuate the abbreviations i.e. or e.g.
In the early to mid-1960s, Mad magazine carried on a “glorious” and “fearless” anti-smoking campaign through parody ads that “closely resembled the real ones that ran on television and in magazines,” writes David Margolick in the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. The ads attacked tobacco companies, ad agencies, and smokers with equal-opportunity opprobrium. Mad has always been ad-free, and—unusual for the 1960s—its offices were “largely smoke free” as well: the magazine’s publisher, William Gaines, “was fanatically opposed to the habit,” writes Margolick.
It’s not every day that a name developer has the chance to name a radically new technology. Anthony Shore had such a chance when the makers of a “cinematic virtual reality” device hired him. Read about how Jaunt got its name.
“Machines don't need names, but we feel the need to name them,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic (“Why People Give Human Names to Machines”). The urge has long been with us, or at least some of us: a siege engine was named “Domina Gunilda” (“Lady Gunild”) in an Anglo-Norman document of 1330-1.
(My favorite submission comes from Erica Friedman, who once worked for an ad agency whose conference rooms were named Ideation, Creation, Dream, Coopetition [sic], and Resonate. “It was horrible and miserable and it still makes me shudder,” she writes. Erica and I are not related, but we are definitely soulmates.)
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.)
Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun who (which would refer to a person) or that (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)? Essentially, does a zombie cease to become a “person” in the grammatical sense?
A. Let’s assume this is a serious question, in which case you, as the writer, get to decide just how much humanity (if any) and grammatical sense you wish to invest in said zombie. That will guide your choice of who or that.
Inspired by Christopher Johnson’s new book Microstyle, which I reviewed yesterday, I’m devoting a few blog posts to good examples of micro-messages. Here’s some of the short, well-executed copy I’ve noticed lately.
Stella & Dot, a direct-sales jewelry company, invites website readers to join its sales force with this clever enticement:
Become a Stylist
No Glass Cases or Ceilings
“No glass cases” evokes a picture of museum-like department-store displays, which say “Look but don’t touch”—unlike Stella & Dot’s warm, friendly approach. The glass ceiling, of course, is the barrier to professional advancement that frustrates many women. And “stylist” may be just a fancy word for “saleswoman,” but it makes the job sound chic, creative, and powerful.
In just eight words, a vivid image that’s a model of brand consistency.
Let’s bury the not-a-word myth, writes Mark Peters in GOOD magazine. “These not-a-word claims are silly, illogical, and can mostly be summed up like so: ‘I hate this word, therefore it is not a word. So there.’ This makes as much sense as a deranged birdwatcher who, for some reason, decided warblers were the devil’s work and therefore lacked bird-ness.”
The problem with student writing isn’t slang or texting abbreviations, writes Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education: it’s literalness, ornateness, excessive length, and “train-wreck” punctuation. Read “The Elements of Clunk.” (Via Ron Charles.)
And just for fun: What were the best-selling books on your birth date? If you were born on January 14, 1965, works by Saul Bellow, Louis Auchincloss, Gore Vidal, General Douglas MacArthur, and Jean-Paul Sartre occupied top positions on that week’s best-seller list. Last week’s equivalents on the New York Timesnonfiction and fiction lists? Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Justin (Shit My Dad Says) Halpern, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. Draw your own conclusions. Oh, and happy birthday.
Writers, editors, and publishers have two definitions for style. It can mean a set of rules that a publication follows ("house style") or a distinctive authorial voice. (For more, read my a 2007 post, "Style vs. Style.") There are many "house styles," known primarily by their acronyms: AP, CMoS, APA. Now Mary Beth Protomastro, who edits founding editor* of the Copyediting newsletter, has created Online Stylebooks "to help copy editors (including herself) quickly consult a variety of
style guides." This is useful news for anyone plying a scribely trade, but it was received with something less than enthusiasm over at Language Log, which belongs to the "let a thousand usages bloom" school of descriptivist editing. "I'm not saying that having a house style is a bad thing, or arguing
against it," shrugged Language Logger Mark Liberman, "I'm just sightly puzzled about why people care that all the
articles in notable publication X should hyphenate and abbreviate
according to one set of rules, while all the articles in esteemed
publication Y consistently do it a different way." Your own opinions are welcome in Comments here.
In "Untimely," her essay in the April 19 New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the decades-long spat between the founders of Time and The New Yorker, Henry Luce and Harold Ross. Luce and his Yale classmate Briton Hadden started Time in 1923, but not before dithering about the magazine's name:
Luce and Hadden thought about calling their magazine Destiny, which hints at the size of their dream. They also tried out What’s What, and for a long time they called it Facts. What Time became is lavishly celebrated in “Time: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Influential Magazine” (Rizzoli; $50), by Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva. Luce came up with the name after a late-night subway ride, during which he found himself staring at an advertisement that read “Time for a Change.” “That’s it,” Hadden said. “Time”was perfect, since the magazine’s strategywas twofold: it would be a history of our time, chronicling the events of the day, and it would save readers time.
(In 1930, Luce launched Fortune. He had wanted to call it Modern Business, but after the 1929 stock-market crash, Lepore writes, he changed the name "to something that allowed for twists of fate.")
Hadden was Time's first editor; Luce ran the business side:
The idea was that they'd rotate. They agreed, though, that the magazine had to have a language of its own: Timestyle. “You’re writing for straphangers,” a former professor of theirs advised them. “You’ve got to write staccato.” Hadden marked up a translation of the Iliad, underscoring compound phrases, like “wine-dark sea.” (A “sea as dark as wine” dragged.) No longer did events take place “in the nick of time” but “in time’s nick.” Everything was epic. Homer is why Time’s story about the Scopes trial began this way: “The pens and tongues of contumely were arrested. Mocking mouths were shut. Even righteous protestation hushed its clamor, as when, having striven manfully in single combat, a high-helmed champion is stricken by Jove’s bolt and the two snarling armies stand at sudden gaze, astonished and bereft a moment of their rancor.”. . .
Hadden liked to coin words, compounds like “news-magazine.” He imported “tycoon,” “pundit,” and “kudos” into English. He filled a notebook with lists. Famed Phrases: “flabby-chinned.” Forbidden Phrases: “erstwhile” (use “onetime” instead). Unpardonable Offenses: failing to print someone’s nickname. He was fond of middle names, of inverted subject and predicate phrases, of occupations as titles: “famed poet William Shakespeare” and “Demagog Hitler.” (What next? one reader wanted to know. “Onetime evangelist Jesus Christ?”) Hadden was uncompromising and, not infrequently, explosive. His Timestyle manual listed his cardinal rules: “Be specific. Be impersonal. Appear to be fair. Be not redundant. Reduce to lowest terms. You cannot be too obvious.” Scowl-faced was Editor Hadden, forgotten mag-man, called by the boys “the Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang.”
Meanwhile, at The New Yorker—whose mission was to be "interpretive, not stenographic"—reporter Wolcott Gibbs published a parody of Timestyle. "Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind," Gibbs wrote. The article concluded: "Where it will all end, knows God!"
I wish Dzine Blog would have chosen a better word than "kick-ass" to describe this portfolio of 54 beautifully executed logos, and it would have been nice to see a few words about what each logo depicts, but I can't complain about the aesthetic judgment. Take a look at this elegant example:
According to the site of designer Maggie Macnab, SwanSongs is "a non-profit that fulfills musical wishes at the end of life." Perfect name. (Hat tip: Karen at Verbatim).
I saw one of these Nvidia commercials
("Busterfump") in a movie theater a couple of weeks ago and actually
scribbled a note to myself to check it out online. How often does that happen? Really, they're that good.
Two tributes to Messrs. Strunk and White, whose Elements of Style is the most disparaged essential handbook on a writer's bookshelf: The Elements of Spam (a parody, from McSweeney's) and Strunk & Twite (a helpful style guide for Twitter users, from Grammar Girl).
Since 2005, Nicholas Felton has published an account of his yearly activities in the form of a personal annual report from "Feltron." Here's the 2008 edition. And here's an excerpt: "Sick days: Four. Proper house cleanings: Seven. Least kosher meal: Momofuku Ssam (whole pork butt with oysters)." (Update: I neglected to credit Davos Newbies for this.)
Did you miss yesterday's Obama inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial? It was breathtaking, and you can enjoy it all over again on a special HBO site. Highlights for me included the glorious Renée Fleming's "You'll Never Walk Alone," Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi's stirring "Change Gonna Come," and, at the end, a beaming 89-year-old Pete Seeger singing Woody Guthrie's anthem, "This Land Is Your Land," with his grandson and Bruce Springsteen. All the verses, including the controversial radical ones.
When we talk about writing style, we mean one of two things: a set of rules and conventions regarding words and punctuation (sometimes known as the "house style" of a given publication); or a distinctive, identifiable way of assembling words and punctuation (sometimes known as "tone" or "voice"). The first kind of style is all about standards: it's why newspaper writers spell out all numerals under ten and why New Yorker editors--alone of all their tribe--spell vendor as vender. The second kind of style is about deviations from the standard. It's what makes us recognize a passage of prose as indisputably Ernest Hemingway's or Joan Didion's or David Foster Wallace's or Maureen Dowd's.
I recently read two books that gave me fresh perspectives on both kinds of style. The Elephants of Style, by Washington Post copy chief for national news Bill Walsh, offers "A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English." (The title is a puckish jab at the biggest elephant in the room, the excessively revered Elements of Style by Strunk and White, now in its gazillionth printing.) Walsh, who also writes the edifying Blogslot blog, is both opinionated and entertaining, which makes Elephants a reference book you'll actually want to read (and perhaps even take to heart). On "lies your English teacher told you"--never split an infinitive, never end a sentence with a preposition, never begin a sentence with a conjunction, etc.--Walsh writes: "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." On spelling: "If you're looking for all-purpose guidelines on spelling beyond 'look it up,' keep in mind that we're dealing with English here." On jargon: "We all know that radio ad salespeople are the coolest people in the world, but do we have to talk like them? Market is not an all-purpose synonym for metropolitan area."
Walsh devotes an entire chapter to commas and hyphens and titles it "The Adventures of Curly and Stitch." Little Curly is a troublemaker: for proof, observe the epidemic of comma splices (joining two sentences with a mere comma when a period or semicolon is called for). There are rules, and Walsh generously shares them, but there are also gray areas. Consider, for example, the difference in effect between "Of course, you will be allowed to use the restroom" (which Walsh says has a "by the way" quality) and "Of course I need to use the restroom!" (more emphatic, and not only because of the exclamation mark).
It's those gray areas that interest Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, an irresistible hybrid of advice, inspiration, and surprise. (Yagoda is also the author of a book on the parts of speech, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.) Like Walsh, Yagoda is interested in commas, but for different reasons. "Generally speaking," he writes, "commas are the best punctuational style gauge because a good deal of the time, even within the rules of standard English, they are optional."
Not surprisingly [Yagoda continues], the house style of the New Yorker magazine mandates the serial comma. This is the publication where, as [New Yorker contributor and Elements of Style co-author] E.B. White once said, "commas ... fall with precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim."
English writers, Yagoda adds, "tend to use fewer discretionary commas than do Americans, with their weakness for literalness and their ambiguity complex." But British writers at all levels of professionalism seem awfully fond of comma splices. I've been reading the excellent novels of British writer Kate Atkinson, who is profligate with comma splices. (I don't think she uses a semicolon anywhere in her prose.) I can't tell whether comma splices are considered kosher in Scotland, where Atkinson lives, or whether this is one of Atkinson's stylistic idiosyncrasies. As Atkinson might write: I was annoyed at first, I've gotten used to it.
Elsewhere in The Sound on the Page you'll learn the Greek and Roman approaches to style ("To Demosthenes, the three most important things in oratory were locution, locution, and locution") and also what Dave Barry has to say on the subject ("Humor is two things: the joke and the timing. I'm fanatical about whether to use but or although because of the timing. Or should I change a number like 853 to a number like 2,040? Which is funnier? Which one is big enough to be really stupid, without being too big? I spend a lot of time thinking about things like that").
And you'll also learn the Big Secret of acquiring a writing style: imitation. This is hardly a recent trend: Benjamin Franklin taught himself to become what he called "a tolerable English writer," Yagoda tells us, "by attempting to reproduce, from memory, articles he had read in the Spectator; sometimes he would render them in verse, and then turn them back to prose." Yagoda endorses not only imitation but copying as a writing exercise: "[B]ecause it forces you to slow down, simply copying a passage is a great way--much better than mere reading--of internalizing an author's sensibility and cadences." He's a fan of memorization, too (as am I):
Give this a try with authors to whom you're drawn. It will attune you to the literary-speech ratio in their style; it will help you feel their rhythms; it might clue you in to their characteristic clinkers. At the very least, it will help pass the time when you're waiting for a plane to lift off.
Imitation: good. Plagiarism: not so good. Except when it is. I'll have more to say on this subject in a future post.