Here's a sentence I never expected to write: I empathize with Joe the Plumber.
You've heard, no doubt, that Joe (né Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher), who swaggered into the limelight during the McCain-Palin presidential campaign, has landed himself a gig covering the Gaza conflict for the conservative media site Pajamas Media. Because, you know, journalism is too important to be left to journalists. And anyone can do it. Or whatever. My point is this: Before he departed these shores, Joe told Fox News that he was studying up, learning how to "pronounciate some of the names."
Pronounciate? Bill Brohaugh at Everything You Know About English Is Wrong gleefully ripped into Joe the Journo, calling him "Joe the Plumbinatiationizerist Enunskiationizingmeistererer." Over at the Daily Show, Jon Stewart observed that "often the first casualty of war is pronounciounciation." (Me, I wondered whether Joe had been taking elocution lessons from misunderestimated George W. Bush.)
Alas, poor Joe. Mastering the rules of English verbification is not as simple as, say, replacing a busted ballcock. Here in God Bless America, for example, we say to orient; our brethren in the U.K., however, say to orientate. Then there's conversate, which in African-American parlance means something slightly more, and slightly different, than converse. The Stuff Black People Like blog defines conversate as "to socialize and chat"; over at The Atlantic blogs, columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates and lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower conversate about whether conversate can be considered a word if it isn't in the OED. (Short answer: yes.)
Then there's citate, a back-formation from citation that Mighty Red Pen reports is being used by the chief of the MBTA (Boston transit) police in public announcements: "If you do not pay your fare, you may be citated by an MBTA police officer or official."
Yes, we love to -ate.
After all, we don't liquid our assets or intimid an opponent, do we? Do we commiser with a friend who's lost her job, hoping our sympathy will amelior the situation? Did Lincoln emancip the slaves? Does the pope pontific? Do you fumig your house, procrastin on a project, or hallucin when running a high fever? Vaccin a cat? Indoctrin a new acolyte? Particip in a debate—or deb a resolution?
Renaissance poets may have found ways to rhyme illumine, but nowadays we choose to illuminate. And, not to put too fine a point on it, we don't urin, defec, masturb, menstru, or fornic, even when we're in a hurry.
Yes, English is hard, and yes, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher is a couple beers short of a six-pack. Let's not deprecate or excoriate his unfortunate violations of the rules. Instead, let's look forward to watching him glare at the camera and intone, "Peace talks cessated yesterday, and shellification resumpted in the Gaza Strip..."
Jacob Weisberg on how George W. Bush changed American English:
Mr. Bush’s battle with English has enriched our political language. It is no longer possible to say a person or a factor has been underestimated. Thanks to him, that word is now misunderestimated. In trade negotiations, tariffs and barriers have become bariffs and terriers. Kosovo is the land of the Kosovians, Greece the ancient homeland of the Grecians, a Reagan-loving people with no gray hair. There is no strategy, only “strategery,” a term coined by the comedian Will Ferrell and adopted inside the administration.
Most politicians don’t care about language and abuse it through euphemism, vagueness and cliché. Mr. Bush is not so indifferent. When words won’t do what he wants, he tries to wrestle them into submission. His memorable coinages — Hispanically, arbo-treeist — express the frustration we all feel at those moments when language won’t go our way. In the face of defeat, Mr. Bush remains unbowed by grammar. You’ve got to admire that, kind of.
I knew I was right, but I wasn't sure why. So I did some research.
Commenter David used the word homogenous in his assertion that Berkeley and San Francisco lacked true demographic diversity. I responded that, regardless of whether the assertion is true, the correct word here is homogeneous. David apparently thought I was critiquing his spelling; he came back with a dictionary definition for homogenous and a boast that he was the Wisconsin State spelling bee runner-up.
Yes, homogenous is a dictionary word. David spelled it correctly. It just isn't the right word in this context.
Homogenous (emphasis on the second syllable) means "similar in makeup because similar in descent." The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) gives this example: "These animals are homogenous, as their similar physiology makes clear." Words @Random, from dictionary publisher Random House, explains that homogenous is a technical term in biology ("The forelimbs of mammals and fishes are homogenous").
Homogeneous (emphasis on the third syllable, with a long e vowel) means "of the same kind or structure; of like composition." CGSAE's example: "It was a homogeneous community, its members holding remarkably similar values." (Or: homogenized milk, in which the fat globules are thoroughly emulsified throughout the liquid. Note: In my original post, I had this example in the wrong place. See Regan's comment, below.) That's what David meant, and why his word choice should have been homogeneous.
Both homogenous and homogeneous are composed of Greek word parts that mean "of the same kind." But, notes Words @ Random, "Homogenous is properly limited only to this biological use, so if you're not writing about this, the word you want is homogeneous."
The opposite of homogeneous is heterogeneous. The opposite of homogenous, rarely seen outside scientific literature, is heterogenous.
Resolved: that life is short, humans are fallible, and the English language--as a minor character says in Plenty, if I'm remembering correctly--is a most demanding mistress. Therefore be it also resolved to overlook the spelling gaffes, forgive the malefactors, and, when all else fails, take a deep breath and simply turn the page. Unless someone's paying me to do otherwise.
Which is to say that I am trying to tread the path of Ultimate Serenity and accept the spelling errors I encounter every day on blog posts and (especially) in comments.
I have come to accept that some people--okay, most people--will never, ever grasp that guerrilla is spelled with two r's. (Strangely, they always remember the two l's, but they balk at doubling the r. The word means warrior; it comes from the Spanish guerra, meaning war. Two r's in warrior! Two r's in guerrilla!Now, trill 'em.)
I bestow a gracious pardon on those who have never learned that dominate is a verb, not an adjective. The adjective, for the record, is dominant. (This may be a function of pronunciation confusion--see how tolerant I am?)
I pledge that when a published article notes that "relationships are collegiateinstead of hierarchical," I will mentally substitute collegial--hey, the author got most of the letters right!--and will scrub the kitchen floor instead of writing a peeved letter to the editor.
Sometimes, though, I am stymied by a strange spelling that may not be a slip of the pen (or key) but rather a genuine eggcorn--a type of misspelling based on mis-hearing. For example, eggcorn instead of acorn, justified thus: "Well, it's egg-shaped, and it's a plant like corn..." (Another term for eggcorns, especially when applied to mis-heard song lyrics, is Mondegreen.)
Here are a few recent findings that caught me between amusement and bemusement:
"Midrift bearing." Let me preface this by saying that I am devoted to reading fashion blogs, many of which are thoughtful, insightful, and elegantly written. And, no doubt, carefully edited by their authors. The commenters, though, sometimes allow their enthusiasm for the subject to override their inner spellcheckers. (I'd assumed that most people learned the difference between heel and heal in, say, fourth grade, but such is apparently not the case.) When I encountered "midrift bearing" in a comment on Une Femme d'un Certain Age, I did a double take. Even a double-double take. Midrift (for midriff) is enshrined in the Eggcorn Database; a commenter in the forum notes that it deserves consideration "on two counts: mid-rift would suggest the fleshy gap or rift between upper and lower clothed areas; mid-drift, which suggests a surplus of flesh which it may have been wiser to have left discreetly covered." And 24,800 Google hits! As for bearing instead of boring old baring, I'm speculating the author was imagining a fleshy midsection borne (no! no! not "born"!) proudly aloft like a trophy.
"Servicing the dualing needs of business & pleasure." This one comes from an excellent design blog, Brand New; it's another case of mistaken homophonic identity (dual = double, twofold; duel = combat, fight) with a hidden agenda. I suspect the author has heard "dueling needs" more often than he's seen the phrase in print, and when it came time to write about two needs frequently in opposition to each other he opted for the two sense and spelling. Dual needs. In a duel. It kind of grows on you.
"With avengence." Oh, I love this one. I spotted it in a comment to a funny/alarming Daily Mail (UK) article on age-inappropriate fashion: Carol wrote that her husband "hates [her gypsy skirts] with avengence [sic]." Here we have "a vengeance" compressed into a package that folds in the concept of to avenge (to take vengeance on behalf of). Carol may also be under the lingering influence of The Avengers. Can you believe that Diana Rigg just turned 70? I'll bet she looks fab in gypsy skirts. (Hat tip to one of the aforementioned elegantly written fashion blogs, Passage des Perles.)
In honor of Quatorze Juillet--Bastille Day--here are a few thoughts about the French expression coup de grâce.
I had clicked over to Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks, one of the better food blogs out there, because Heidi's recipe for Salt-kissed Buttermilk Cake looked so tempting and her description, as always, was so persuasive. But I stopped short when I read this line in the recipe itself:
The coup de grace is a floppy dollop of sweet, freshly whipped cream on the side.
Now, I cooed over "floppy dollop," a charmingly evocative phrase. But "coup de grâce"? (Yes, it should have accent circonflexe.)
Here are several dictionary definitions of coup de grâce:
A death blow intended to end the suffering of a wounded creature
A French term used in English to mean a finishing sword cut.
The dagger stroke given to mercifully end the suffering of a wounded duelist (originally used to execute a defeated knight in heavy plate armor)
A finishing stroke
(By the way, the correct pronunication is coo duh grahss. Do not omit the s sound at the end of grâce.)
I left a comment noting that I felt coup de grâce was an odd choice in this context. One later commenter leapt to Heidi's defense, citing that "finishing stroke" definition.
I disagree, although I agree that my original on-the-fly suggestion for a substitution--pièce de résistance--is just as inapt.
The problem with coup de grâce is that grâce reminds us of the everyday meaning of English "grace": "elegance," "attractiveness," "charm." But "grace" and grâce also have theological meanings of "mercy" and "thanksgiving" (which English retains in expressions like "by the grace of God" and "the grace before meals"). A coup de grâce relies on the latter meaning: it's a merciful end to suffering.
I think "grace note"--a small, decorative, unessential part of a larger piece--is closer to what Heidi may have intended; what it lacks in Frenchy finery it makes up for in accuracy, and the link with musical terminology creates a pleasing cross-sensory association.
Now, English speakers have been ringing all sorts of changes on French since the Norman invasion, and I'm sure there are those will take the descriptivist position: "If Heidi wants coup de grâce to mean delicious adornment, then I'll defend to the death her right to do so!"
But I think we need to be careful with our borrowings and redefinings. As I heard someone say on NPR the other day, "We're living in a global world"--or at least an increasingly connected one. Supoose you had a native French speaker at your table and proudly announced that whipped cream was your cake's coup de grâce. Your guest would have reason to push his dessert plate away with a murmured "Non, merci."
Finding le mot juste--like finding the perfect fleur de sel--can take a little additional time, but it's definitely worth the trouble.
P.S. I made Salt-kissed Buttermilk Cake over the weekend with fresh raspberries. Four stars. And one caveat: if you use kosher salt for the topping, halve the amount in the recipe. For the sodium-sensitive, a whole teaspoonful of kosher salt could indeed be a finishing stroke--and not a merciful one.
P.P.S. Speaking of faux pas, right after I finished writing this post I came across this sentence in a fashion blog: "And viola!" Mais non, not unless you're introducing a member of a string quartet. The word is voilà--French for "hey, presto!", more or less. It's pronounced vwah-LAH.
I've been enjoying Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, the just-published first book by Mignon Fogarty. Like Fogarty's Grammar Girl podcasts, the book is breezy and reassuring, yet authoritative. Fogarty uses just enough popular-culture references to guarantee her readers' attention without sounding like she's trying too hard. And she charms us by sharing some of her own usage faux pas.
For example, on page 35 she confesses:
When I was in second grade, I lost a spelling bee because I misspelled the word its. I put an apostrophe in where I shouldn't have, and it was a very traumatic moment in my young life. I think this lesson is burned into my mind precisely because of my past misdeeds, and although I can't change my past, I believe the next best thing would be to save you all from similar apostrophe-induced horrors.
Well and good, except on page 177 she writes:
When you're tempted to use communicate, ask yourself if you really mean tell. Communicate has it's place...
An example follows, but I couldn't concentrate. I was too distracted by that apostrophe-induced horror.
It's bad enough when an error like this one slips into the daily newspaper or an annual report. But in a book purporting to tell us Right from Wrong, usage-wise ... oh, dear.
Linguists have a semi-jokey name for this particular nightmare: Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation. It specifies that "any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error." (For example, in that particular phrase in the article I just linked to, by Jed Hartman himself, "error" is misspelled "eror.") This rule is also known as McKean's Law, in honor of "dictionary evangelist" Erin McKean.
Here's my advice to Mignon Fogarty, who is currently on book tour: own up to the error and treat it with your characteristic good humor. Use it as an opportunity to talk about Hartman's Law, McKean's Law, famous mistakes-in-print, and Our National Proofreading Crisis.
And make sure it's corrected in the second edition.
It you were expecting this post to be about ice cream, I apologize. Read more about It's-It ice cream treats here.
Take out your blue pencil and delete that "a." Why? Read the sentence aloud: "It's got to cost a one hundred million." You wouldn't say it that way; you'd say, "It's got to cost one hundred million." Write it the way you'd say it.
(As a test, substitute another dollar figure. "It's got to cost a $200 million"? No.)
You would use "a" in two cases:
When the dollar figure is used as a modifier: "I bought a $100 trillion war, and all I got were these lousy poll numbers!"
When you're expressing the amount in words rather than numbers: "A hundred trillion? That's beginning to sound like real money!"
Mike left a comment on yesterday's post with a link toone of his own postsabout how -sicle, as in Popsicle, became a productive morpheme--in layman's terms, attached itself to other words to form combinations that mean "X on a stick." (Dreamsicle, Creamsicle, etc. Oh, and corpsicle: a body frozen in the hope of revivification.) This despite the fact that -sicle was originally shortened from icicle, and icicles in the wild do not necessarily contain sticks.
The title of Mike's post is "Erstwhile Trademarks¹," which started me thinking about how frequently "erstwhile" is misused.
Erstwhile means former (adjective) or formerly (adverb); it's a blend of erst, an Old English word meaning "once" or "long ago" that's familiar to crossword solvers; and while, meaning "during" or "at that time." But that's not how many people use it.
I used to have a very nice client who, while we were sitting in the same room, would refer to me admiringly as "our erstwhile copywriter." He did this more than once, apparently ignoring my stricken look. (Had I been fired?) Eventually I figured it out: he thought erstwhile meant esteemed.
And he's far from alone. A cursory (hasty, hurried, superficial) search revealed quite a few complaints about the misuse. Here's what the Australian linguist Ruth Wajnryb, who says she's often invited to settle usage disputes, has to say:
The latest contretemps is between a pair of elderly, well-educated gentlemen disputing the meaning of "erstwhile". I'll call them Elderly Gentleman 1 (EG1) and Elderly Gentleman 2 (EG2). EG1 is upset that EG2 insists on using erstwhile to mean "esteemed", "stalwart", "dependable", "worthy", even "wise". For EG2, it's a laudatory adjective: he'll comfortably refer to a staff member as "erstwhile", intending the word to be taken as public praise.
EG1 protests furiously. Erstwhile means "prior" or "former", and there's no shortage of authoritative sources to support him. As an adverb, erstwhile has been part of English since the 16th century, formed from two much older words. The adjective joined about 1900. EG1 argues, rightly, that referring to an employee as "erstwhile" would suggest that the employment is over.
EG2 dismisses EG1's evidence. He disputes EG1's notion that people produce and receive words according to an unstated consensus about meaning. EG1 is outraged: an individual cannot simply take it upon himself, crusade-style, to make a word mean what he wants it to mean. But EG2 argues that word meanings aren't fixed in concrete. "Terrific" and "naughty" didn't always mean what they mean today.
If EG2 sounds familiar, it might be the echoes of Humpty Dumpty's exchange with Alice in Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
Humpty is wrong, of course, as is EG2. You cannot make a word mean whatever you want it to mean - that is, if you wish to be understood. Usage does not determine correctness. If a person starts swapping labels ("cats" for "dogs" and vice versa), all that will happen in the short term is confusion. The reductio ad absurdum is chaotic unintelligibility.
I'm on Ms. Wajnryb's side. In the short term, and as long as there's a likelihood of confusion--as there was when my client called me "erstwhile"--I want to stick to traditional definitions. And suggest three little words to my (yes!) erstwhile client and others like him: use a dictionary.
Is it possible that erstwhile for esteemed results from a contextual misunderstanding? That was the case for Jed Hartman:
I assumed that "my erstwhile colleague" (the phrase I usually heard the word in) meant "my esteemed colleague," but it really means "my former colleague." I wasn't alone in this misunderstanding; many people misuse this word.
(One of Jed's commenters says that he she always thought erstwhile meant ersatz--a German loan word meaning fake. Again, a dictionary can be ever so helpful in sorting these things out. Try it yourself!)
Or maybe erstwhile just has that hifalutin tone that self-important people like to assume. Which brings me back to penultimate, one of the subjects of Monday's musings.
[I]t isn't the pinnacle of the ultimate; it's the next-to-last item, as in "she reached her pinnacle in the penultimate song."
I admit it hadn't occurred to me that misusers of penultimate were thinking about pinnacles. (Obviously that's because, being a native speaker of pure, wholly unaccented California English--oh, go ahead and scoff--I clearly distinguish between pen and pin, unlike some of my fellow citizens in Flyoverland.)But it does make sense in a way. It's wrong, but it's logical and rather creative.
¹ By the way, Popsicle is the furthest thing from an erstwhile trademark: it is very much alive, and no doubt sturdily defended by its owner, Unilever.