Plural trouble

Uh-oh. Now there’s more than one kind of Prius

You might not think linguistic issues would be high on the agenda at a car show, but don’t tell that to Toyota. At the Chicago Auto Show two weeks ago, the company announced the results of an online poll he held to determine the “proper” plural of its popular hybrid car, the Prius.

The poll was part of the company’s announcement of three new Prius models: a crossover hybrid, a small concept car, and a plug-in hybrid. Although none is on the market yet, the prospect of more than one kind of Prius meant the question of the proper plural had become urgent, at least to Toyota.

The Prius, of course, is tricky to pluralize, because it ends with an “s” and sounds Latin, both of which tend to throw English speakers into fits. As part of its marketing campaign, Toyota also created a series of jokey videos with James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio.” In one, Lipton interviews an octopus, who of course picks Prii (pronounced pree-eye) as its preferred plural; in another, William Shakespeare plumps for the faux-Latin Prium. More than 1.8 million votes were cast over six weeks, and the final winner was Prii, with 25 percent, followed closely by Prius, 24 percent; Priuses, 20 percent; Prien, 18 percent; and Prium, 13 percent (sorry, Bill). The winner has now been added to’s entry for Prius. (Toyota has long been an advertiser on’s site, including a 2009 campaign that linked Prius ads to words such as sustainable, green, and moonroof.)

Toyota is not the first to try to leverage people’s strong opinions about language to draw attention to a brand. Other companies have done similar campaigns — Nestle ran television ads featuring Shaquille O’Neal arguing about how to pronounce caramel (CARE-uh-muhl v. CAR-muhl), old cartoon ads for Heinz Worcestershire sauce played on the difficulty of pronouncing Worcestershire, and just recently The New York Times reported that Italian children’s brand Chicco is running a contest for parents to record their children saying “Chicco” (pronounced KEE-ko) with the winners appearing on a billboard in Times Square.

Toyota’s enthusiastic embrace of the plural is unusual in the business world. Trademark holders typically like to avoid their marks being entered in dictionaries at all. When I was an editor at a traditional dictionary, I had a thick file of letters from trademark holders demanding special treatment for their trademarks — or their immediate removal. The more knee-jerk the use of a trademark for the branded object becomes (think Band-Aid, Kleenex) the more the company starts worrying about “genericization,” the risk that its valuable brand will become so widely used that it loses trademark status. Xerox runs regular ads to remind people that the company prefers you to use Xerox only as an adjective (as in “Xerox brand photocopiers”) instead of as a verb or even as a plural noun (which they give, if you must, as Xeroxes). No fanciful ad campaign asking us to choose between Xeroxes and Xeroxim!

Toyota must feel that the risk to its trademark is outweighed by the positive publicity. Steve Rivkin, a branding expert and coauthor of six books on marketing strategy and innovation, agrees. He found the Toyota campaign “very much in keeping with the brand’s irreverent, cheeky personality.”

But have the people really spoken? Before the vote, both expert language opinion and general usage seemed to be firmly on the side of Priuses. Kory Stamper, an associate editor for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, was quoted in January by The Detroit Free Press as being “tempted as an English lexicographer to pluralize it as a regular English noun, Priuses.” Ben Zimmer, of the (recently canceled) On Language column for The New York Times Magazine, also threw in his support for Priuses: “We might as well form the word the way English plurals are formed.” In normal usage, people seem to treat Prius just like any other regular English plural, slapping an “es” on it. Newspapers and magazines, by and large, have unselfconsciously used Priuses since the brand entered the public eye in the late 1990s. (The Prius was first released in Japan in 1997.)

Despite the votes and the imprimatur, I’d bet against Prii, and put my money on the more pedestrian Priuses. Most people will use the first form that comes to mind, the clearer and more English-y Priuses. People who care deeply about etymologically motivated plurals will use the correct Latin (Priora, meaning “earlier, better, or more important [things],” as Jan Freeman reported in this space back in 2007, citing Harry Mount, author of “Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life”). That leaves only the people who enjoy voting in online polls to throw their weight behind Prii.

And me? I admit a sneaking fondness for the completely unjustifiable and rarely suggested Prixen, which makes the cars sound like one of Santa’s reindeer.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of

Don’t say it

The art of dodging bad words

What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.

We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)

Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)

For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.

Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians…presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”

This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.

But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.

In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.

But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article:

A whole nother language

Embrace your inner American!

Lauren Collins, the New Yorker writer who profiled Benjamin Creme in the Nov. 29 issue, described the London-based spiritual leader as — among other things — “ruddy-complected.” I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the occasional typo, as well as the occasional F-word, in the magazine, but complected — that was a bit of a shock. Wasn’t that a word to avoid in polite company, hardly better bred than irregardless and ain’t?

Complected, our teachers told us, was a misbegotten monster. It seems to have been derived from complection, a once-familiar variant spelling of complexion, but the language didn’t need it; we already have complexioned, in use since the 17th century. And despite its appearance, it’s not related to the verb complect, which means “to interweave.”

Still, if complected had been a favorite of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, it might be the standard form today. But in fact, the earliest citations of the word come from Lewis and Clark, who both use it in the journals of their transcontinental trek. In 1805, Clark recorded having “smoked in the pipes of peace” with the Flathead Indians, who were “Stout & light complected.” A few months later, in January 1806, Lewis described another tribe as “lighter complected…than the Indians of the Missouri.” An upstart American usage, and one that displaces the traditional complexioned: No wonder complected was labeled nonstandard and dialectal.

Does its New Yorker debut mean complected is finally getting some respect? Not necessarily. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, ranks the word at stage 3 (out of 5) on his language-change index, the same level of acceptability as “a couple things,” “grow the economy,” and the spelling straightjacket. But he notes that complexioned outnumbers complected in print sources by 3 to 1, and he urges editors to hold the line.

The mavens at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage are (as usual) more tolerant. Complected, they say, is “not an error, not a dialectal term, nor an illiteracy,” but simply an Americanism, one used by some of our best literary authors. “There seems to be no very substantial objection to the term, other than the considerable diffidence American usage writers feel about Americanisms.”

But much as I admire Merriam-Webster’s usage research, this seems to oversimplify. It’s true that American usagists and literati of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were defensive about Americanisms, fearful of sounding like hayseeds to their British counterparts. They repudiated native coinages like editorial, locate, lengthy, enthused, dirt (for “earth”), and donate (“Good American, but not good English,” grumbled Ambrose Bierce).

But the label “Americanism” no longer embarrasses American writers. The anxiety flows in the other direction these days; it’s British readers who complain about Americanisms, British stylebooks that publish lists of American expressions to be avoided. Just last month, the Guardian’s David Marsh devoted his Mind Your Language blog to readers’ complaints about “ugly Americanisms.” “Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck,” said one correspondent.

And in June, Matthew Engel of the Daily Mail surveyed hundreds of readers’ American-import peeves, including “autopsy for post-mortem; burglarized instead of burgled; filling out forms instead of filling them in; fries for chips; chips for crisps; and food to go as opposed to take away.”

At the Telegraph, the stylebook doesn’t rave about Americanisms, but it quietly reminds writers that an axe “is an implement used for chopping wood…not a verb,” that “people live ‘in’ not ‘on’ a street,” and that movie is only allowed for American films.

BBC News, on the other hand, has an entire stylebook section on Americanisms. “Head up, check out, free up, consult with, win out, check up on, divide up and outside of are not yet standard English,” it declares. Yes, we’ve adopted commuter and baby sitter, but “euthanise is not a verb you will find in any dictionary and it has no place in our output.”

Some Americans, it’s true, dislike some Britishisms — go missing and gobsmacked leap to mind — but few complainers, in my experience, object to (or even recognize) these terms as British. It’s their novelty or illogic or “ugliness,” not their origin, that annoys.

I don’t know if the New Yorker’s endorsement of complected is the start of something big. But if a new era is dawning — one in which Americans proudly embrace our linguistic inventiveness — I have some other nominees for a reputation rescue. “A whole nother” is a wonderfully useful expression, and surely good enough for journalism. There are good reasons for “it’s a ways away,” and for “way back” too (either in time or in a station wagon). Americans are apparently replacing the verb career with careen; I say, right on.

I’m not yet loving the AP’s newly approved drive-thru, I admit, and complected still leaves me cool. But maybe we can finally agree that the answer to Edwin Newman’s 1974 question — “Will America be the death of English?” — is a resounding no.

Thanks for asking

Questions that led surprising places

“Where do you get your ideas?” people often ask. And for years, I’ve answered, truthfully, “Mostly from readers.” It’s great to have that constant feedback. But here’s the best part: The most routine-looking questions, on the most familiar usage issues, can lead us down the rabbit hole to a land of language surprises.

Take (speaking of rabbit holes) a recent question from Gil. “Am I the only one who associates the Tea Party with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and not the Sons of Liberty disguised as Indians?” he asked. He’s not, a quick search revealed: A handful of columnists and bloggers have included the Mad Hatter’s soiree in their discussions of Tea Party politics.

That wasn’t hard to check, but along the way I encountered a new and murkier language question: When did the original Boston Tea Party get its name? Not till decades after the 1773 raid, sources agree. Several of them — including Jill Lepore’s brand-new book about both political Tea Parties, “The Whites of Their Eyes” — credit an 1834 retrospective by George R.T. Hewes with the earliest Boston “Tea Party” citation.

Google Books goes them one better, though: It offers an 1805 issue of the Boston Weekly that reprints toasts reportedly given at an Independence Day celebration a year earlier. One is offered to “The Tea Party: — Thirty-one years since, our fathers’ patriotism deprived our mothers of the use of tea — may our mothers’ tea never deprive us of our fathers’ patriotism.” Such casual use suggests the Tea Party label was already in circulation, and if there are earlier citations, surely Bostonians should be the ones to unearth them. Sons and daughters of Liberty — to the archives!

Another word steeped in American history is buncombe, “nonsense,” named for Buncombe County, N.C. The story goes (more or less) that Felix Walker, the district’s representative, orating irrelevantly on the House floor in 1820, resisted his fellows’ pleas to stop. He wasn’t speaking to them, he said, but “for Buncombe” — that is, for the newspaper accounts that his constituents would see.

In a recent column, I spelled the word bunkum, quoting an 1848 slang dictionary and shocking reader Jay Gold: “I always thought the proper spelling was buncombe,” he said, citing H.L. Mencken for support. So I went back for another look. Yes, Mencken used buncombe, but he gave both spellings as equal variants, like ketchup and catsup. He really had no choice: Bunkum had made its move early — the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1828 — and was well established when Mencken published “The American Language” in 1921.

It was in Britain, curiously, that the bunkum version took off. In 1926, H.W. Fowler advised using that spelling, “decidedly the prevalent one,” and his countrymen listened: In today’s British papers, bunkum beats buncombe by about 400 to 1. Americans, naturally, were more attached to the spelling with the colorful local history; usage writer Bryan Garner still prefers buncombe “because it recalls the interesting origin of the word.” So though bunkum also predominates here, its lead is far smaller: 3 to 1 in The New York Times, for example, and 3 to 2 in the Globe. So take your pick, or skip the debate and go for the short form: bunk.

Perhaps most often, the surprise in store for me and my questioning reader is that we’ve both succumbed (once again!) to the Recency Illusion — the mistaken impression that a usage new to us is new to the world. When Maria Sachs wrote to ask about the increasing use of culminate as a transitive verb — as in “The win culminated a World Series between two unlikely participants” — I agreed that it was odd. In my dialect, things “culminate in” a climax. But it turns out that transitive culminate, though its popularity waxes and wanes, has been here since the verb arrived in English in the mid-17th century. If sportswriters want to use it, history is on their side.

. . .

SHELLACKED: The moment President Obama conceded that the midterm elections were a “shellacking” for Democrats, the word sleuths were on the case. Why would shellacked — literally, coated with varnish made from the resinous secretion of the lac insect — mean “trounced”?

Well, Americans were using shellacked for both “drunk” and “beaten” by 1920, and it’s hard to say which came first (though Mark Liberman at Language Log notes that the transfer of senses usually goes from violence to drunkenness, as in bombed, wrecked, and clobbered). But shellacked may have a more concrete origin: During Prohibition, it’s said, some drinkers were desperate enough to try extracting the alcohol from shellac varnish.

Ben Zimmer, in a post at the American Dialect Society’s listserv, quotes a 1922 newspaper on the process: “This consists of dipping the blotter in the shellac, withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter into another receptacle. The blotter will absorb the alcohol.” This evidence “establishes the connection as well as we can ever expect for a slang term nearly a century old,” says Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, reminding us that even the most tantalizing theory is not the same as proof.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article:

I hate to tell you

Phrases that announces ‘I’m lying‘

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there’s a whole range of phrases that aren’t doing the jobs you think they’re doing.

In fact, “I hate to be the one to tell you this” (like its cousin, “I hate to say it”) is one of them. Think back: How many times have you seen barely suppressed glee in someone who — ostensibly — couldn’t be more reluctant to be the bearer of bad news? A lack of respect from someone who starts off “With all due respect”? A stunning dearth of comprehension from someone who prefaces their cluelessness with “I hear what you’re saying”? And has “I’m not a racist, but…” ever introduced an unbiased statement?

These contrary-to-fact phrases have been dubbed (by the Twitter user GrammarHulk and others) “but-heads,” because they’re at the head of the sentence, and usually followed by but. They’ve also been dubbed “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” and, less cutely, “lying qualifiers.”

The point of a but-head is to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of “best offense is a good defense” strategy. This technique has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer. When someone says “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but…” they are maneuvering to keep you from saying “I don’t believe you — you’re just trying to hurt my feelings.”

Once you start looking for these but-heads, you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says “It’s not about the money, but…”, it’s almost always about the money. If you hear “It really doesn’t matter to me, but…”, odds are it does matter, and quite a bit. Someone who begins a sentence with “Confidentially” is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out “Frankly,” or “Honestly,” “To be (completely) honest with you,” or “Let me give it to you straight” brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

“No offense, but…” and “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying “Promise me you won’t get mad, but…” you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)

Sometimes the but-heads are intended more apologetically than defensively, and serve as a helpful advance warning, leaving you free to reply in kind. Once someone has said “It’s (really) none of my business, but…” it’s entirely permissible (if slightly rude) to reply “You’re right, it is none of your business.” It’s also reasonable to reply “Well, then, don’t!” to someone who says “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but…”

Related to the but-head but coming at the end, rather than the beginning, of problematic statements are more aggressive disclaimers, such as “Nothing personal!” “Lighten up!” “Can’t you take a joke?” or “Just kidding,” none of which ever really seem to work to lighten the mood. There’s also the phrase meant to lessen the sting of something which could be perceived as criticism: “but not in a bad way.” (As in “It had a bit of a fishy taste…but, uh, not in a bad way.”)

Perhaps the ultimate but-head is the “I’m not saying” prefix, which always seems to mean “I’m pretending I’m not saying X, but really, I am.” This is a cousin to “I’m just being honest,” in which the crucially disingenuous word is “just” — people who use this phrase rarely feel the need to be “honest” about pleasant or complimentary things.

So if these words are so clearly dishonest that they’re essentially signals of dishonesty, what’s the motivation for hiding behind them? Why do people — why do nearly all of us — fall back on them from time to time?

It would be nice if we all stood behind our words instead of erecting walls of disclaimers in front of them. But it’s also human to want to mitigate people’s reactions when we say something negative. The phrases, in this sense, operate as almost a fingers-crossed superstitious protection: “If I say ‘no offense,’ maybe he won’t punch me!”

But our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy, or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent. Please don’t take this the wrong way — and really, I hate to say it — but the true audience for the but-head may not be our listeners, but ourselves.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


Full article:

What King James wrought

How the Bible still shapes the language

In the past week or so, anyone following the news might have read that Jon Stewart is “a thorn in the side of politicians”; that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada won reelection “by the skin of his teeth”; and that people in the newspaper industry “see the writing on the wall.”

That well-informed reader wouldn’t have been especially surprised to hear that these phrases all come from the same source, the Bible. It has long been an article of faith among speakers of English that biblical language — especially that of the Authorized, or King James, version, published in 1611 — has been immensely influential. The KJV, wrote linguist David Crystal in 2004, “has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source.”

But just how much was that “far more”? Not even Crystal knew, and with the KJV about to celebrate its 400th year, he set out to explore and tabulate its contributions to everyday language. Now, in “Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language,” he has some answers. The short one is “257” — that’s the number of familiar idioms, from “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis) to the whore of Babylon (Revelation), that he credits to the stature and popularity of the King James Bible.

This doesn’t sound like a lot, given some past claims that thousands of phrases are Bible-derived. But Crystal is counting only idioms — the expressions we use and modify freely with no reference to their origins. He excludes what he labels “quotations,” like “the meek shall inherit the earth” — Bible words that are rarely borrowed for reuse in nonreligious contexts. And even that 257 beats Shakespeare, who has fewer than 100 original phrases to his credit.

But Shakespeare was an innovator, notes Crystal, and a prolific coiner of words, if not of phrases. The translators who produced the KJV were conservative, dedicated to continuing a language tradition. Their mandate was to improve on the earlier English Bibles — “to make…out of many good ones, one principall good one.” And in fact, only a handful of our 257 familiar idioms — “how the mighty are fallen,” “to every thing there is a season” — appear only in the KJV.

Crystal displays these variants clearly in a tabular appendix, showing which idioms were preserved from earlier Bibles and which were rewritten. Only the KJV, for instance, has “a thorn in the flesh”; earlier versions had “a prick” or “a sting” or “unquietness,” none as sharp as that thorn. The KJV asks if a leopard can “change its spots,” but the committee might have gone with “a pard may change his diversities,” from the Wycliffe Bible. “Cast thy bread upon the waters” is mysterious, but we manage to use it anyway; “lay thy bread upon wet faces” would not have been so versatile.

Other Bible-based idioms have evolved with use so they no longer reflect any one text. “From the cradle to the grave” was once “womb to the grave”; “pride goes before a fall” condenses four much wordier alternatives; our shorthand “fly in the ointment” no longer spells out the stink of the fly-fouled ointment.

But if you think this is dull, sober scholarship, think again. In Crystal’s definition, an idiom is an adaptable expression, and his 257 phrases have been adapted, twisted, and punned on to a fare-thee-well. “Signs of the times” begets “whine of the times” (on an advice column) and “shine of the times” (for a hair product). “Love of money is the root of all evil” becomes “Money is the root of all baseball” (and so on) and even “Monet is the root of all evil.”

Headline punsters, read this book with caution: When you see what your tribe hath wrought, you may have to conclude that when it comes to biblical wordplay, there’s nothing new under the sun.

HELLO, DARKNESS: When even the calendar publishers can’t get it right, we don’t need to lose any sleep over today’s biannual usage problem. But just for the record, today’s time shift marked the end of this year’s Daylight Saving Time. Not savings; just saving.

There’s no denying that the “savings” version is common — Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says it’s the spelling in about one-fourth of print appearances — but why? Garner blames it on a “miscue” — a momentary confusion over the parsing of the phrase.

“Daylight Saving” is meant as a compound adjective, as in space-saving containers, money-saving tips, labor-saving technologies. But the verbal noun savings (“an amount saved”) is also widespread, notes Garner, so “using savings as the adjective — as in savings account or savings bond — makes perfect sense.”

The US government contributes to the problem by styling Daylight Saving Time without a hyphen, probably to keep it (superficially) consistent with Central Standard and the other zone designations. But that (along with the capital letters) is a preference, not a rule. Feel free to lower-case, and to add that clarifying hyphen, as we take our leave of daylight-saving time.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article:


Inside the urge to shorten

When a new electronic gadget appears, it’s taken as given that it will be smaller, lighter, and more compact than the previous model (even if the basic functionality remains the same). We marvel over old computers that took up entire rooms and laugh at early cellphones the size of a man’s shoe. Devices that transmit information get smaller and smaller, and we accept it as the natural progression.

Words transmit information, too, but there’s not an equal outpouring of awe when they get smaller, quite the reverse. The use of contractions in formal writing has only recently been deemed acceptable by the guardians of style, and the abbreviated style of text messaging is regularly (and erroneously) blamed for every modern language ill. (Not to mention the outrage we saw when the clipped word ‘za, for pizza, was added to the official Scrabble dictionary.) For some reason, short and simple is fine when it comes to sentences, but the desire for conciseness and simplicity doesn’t extend to individual words.

Word-shortening has long been considered a particular vice of English, with Voltaire claiming that “The English gain two hours a day more than we [the French] do, by eating their syllables.” Jonathan Swift also observed that “we cram one syllable, and cut off the rest, as the owl fattened her mice after she had bit off their legs, to prevent them from running away; and if ours be the same reason for maiming our words, it will certainly answer the end; for I am sure no other nation will desire to borrow them.” (A thought which itself might have benefited from a bit of clipping.) The English philologist John Horne Tooke considered language clipping only natural, with “Letters, like soldiers, being very apt to desert and drop off in a long march.”

Wanting to take the quickest, most familiar, and most direct path to meaning is not a new thing, as we see in two recent books. The first, “Short Cuts” by Alexander and Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn, covers almost every kind of abbreviated communication, verbal and nonverbal, from street signs and slogans to text messages and T-shirts, across the course of human history. (Did you know the Romans used to begin letters with the abbreviation SVBE, standing for “si vales, bene est” meaning “if you’re well, that’s good”)?

“Short Cuts” gives us fascinating investigations into the diverse situations where we have to get the right message across but are limited by time, space, or simply convention, including the terse language of “note jobs” (bank robberies committed by passing a “demand note” to a teller), calling cards (which the authors call the “nineteenth-century hybrid of an answering machine and Facebook”), Christmas cards (which the Romans, again, presaged with gifts of oil lamps stamped with seasonal messages), obituaries (the list of survivors mentioned in newspaper obituaries is sometimes called “the lifeboat”), and dog tags. After reading “Short Cuts,” the 800 words of a normal newspaper column feel as vast as the prairie, and a novel might as well be interstellar space.

Other motivations for shortening words include humor and demonstrating in-groupness, both of which we find behind the word OK. OK — the word called in a story by Edward Everett Hale “the shortest message of comfort” — is the subject of another new book, Allan Metcalf’s “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.” Metcalf, the longtime executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, goes beyond the birth of OK (created as an offhand journalistic fillip in the Boston Morning Post one day in 1839, used as a facetious abbreviation for “all correct”) to investigate the whole life of those two little letters, including such diverse topics as the amplifying power of the telegraph in legitimizing and disseminating OK, uses of OK in names (such as the OK Corral and a little-known, now-defunct product of the Coca-Cola Co., OK Soda), the “I’m OK — You’re OK” phenomenon, and that Louisa May Alcott is the first known author to use the spelling “okay,” in “Little Women” — although it was edited out in a later edition.

After reading Metcalf’s book, it’s easy to accept his claim that OK is “America’s greatest word”: One sign of the success of something is the eagerness others show in claiming it for their own, and OK is no exception: Despite OK’s rock-solid Boston origin, there are those who insist it comes from Greek “olla kalla” (all right), Finnish “oikea” (correct), French “O qu-oui!” or Wolof “waw kay” (both meaning “yes indeed”), or Choctaw “okeh” (used to end assertions).

“Short Cuts” and “OK” are separate testaments to language ingenuity, demonstrating that it’s not (as is often proposed) laziness in language that drives clippings and shortcuts, but a very human combination of eagerness, creativity, and familiarity. We’re eager (or in a hurry) to express our ideas; we enjoy playing with different ways to express them; and, once we’ve developed more than a passing acquaintance with a word or a phrase, or even with an entirely new area of vocabulary, we look for opportunities to show off our new intimacy (much like being able to say Dubya or Barry instead of “Mr. President”). Shortening words isn’t a sign of ignorance, but a reflection of deeper knowledge.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


Full article: