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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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I could care less

A loathed phrase turns 50

It was 50 years ago this month — Oct. 20, 1960 — that one of America’s favorite language disputes showed up in print, in the form of a letter to Ann Landers. A reader wanted Ann to settle a dispute with his girlfriend: “You know that common expression: ‘I couldn’t care less,’ ” he wrote. “Well, she says it’s ‘I COULD care less.’ ”

Ann voted with her reader — “the expression as I understand it is ‘I couldn’t care less’ ” — but she thought the question was trivial. “To be honest,” she concluded, “this is a waste of valuable newspaper space and I couldn’t care less.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but her reader’s trivial question would be wasting newspaper space (and bandwidth, too) for decades, as it blossomed into one of the great language peeves of our time. In 1972, Ann’s sister and fellow advice-peddler, Dear Abby, used “could care less” in print herself, and got an earful from readers. In 1975, the Harper’s usage dictionary declared that “could care less” was “an ignorant debasement of the language.” (Said panelist Isaac Asimov: “I don’t know people stupid enough to say this.”) In 1979, William Safire declared in his New York Times column that “could care less” had finally run its course: “Like most vogue phrases, it wore out its welcome.”

But three decades on, “could care less” is flourishing. Ben Zimmer, examining its career last year in a column at the language website Visual Thesaurus, reported that “could care less” had steadily gained ground in edited prose. In American speech, according to research by linguist Mark Liberman, “could care less” is far ahead of the “couldn’t” version. And “could care less” is no recent corruption, Zimmer found; it shows up in print by 1955, only 11 years after the first sighting of “couldn’t care less.”

As Liberman observed in a 2004 post at Language Log, “could care less” is not uniquely odd. Its pattern is familiar in other phrases like “I could give a damn” (and its ruder variants), and in the lyrics of Sammy Cahn’s 1940s classic, “I Should Care.” But whatever its sources — sarcasm, irony, Yiddish, or (as its detractors say) ignorance — “could care less” is snugly embedded in the American idiom. Yet the complaints keep rolling in.

Half a century, it’s true, is not excessively long in the world of usage disputes. This is one of the mysteries of peevology: Why do certain innovations annoy people, year after year, while other changes pass unnoticed? Why are some terms “skunked,” in the coinage of usage maven Bryan Garner — trapped awkwardly between the traditional usage and the emerging sense — for decades? Why do others shift and adapt, almost unremarked, right under our noses?

Among the peeves of 100 years ago, there are plenty of short-lived scandals, nits nobody has picked since the Treaty of Versailles. Usagists once scorned ovation (for “applause”) because the word “really” meant a minor Roman triumph. Dirt was supposed to mean “filth,” not good clean soil. Reliable was called a “monstrous” coinage, practitioner “a vulgar intruder.” But none of these rulings had much effect.

In our time, bemused has quietly shifted its sense from “befuddled” to something like “wryly or quizzically amused.” Apparently everyone finds it more useful in its new role, because objections (though they have been recorded) are relatively rare. The transition from “was graduated from college” (once the proper form) to “graduated from,” in the 19th century, met little resistance, and the 20th-century move to the simpler “graduated college” is well underway.

Other peeves just won’t die. Aggravate was aggravating Latin-minded usage writers in the 1860s, and you still hear from people who think it should mean only “make worse,” not “annoy.” Other issues nearing the 150-year mark are the propriety of “there’s two more,” the use of decimate to mean “destroy,” and the debate between “taller than I” and “taller than me.” Compared to these hardy perennials, “could care less” is a mere sprout.

But these days, we can circulate a lot more opinion in any given week. In its contentious half-century, “could care less” has probably generated as much usage comment as aggravate has in 150 years. And the volume isn’t slacking off: Last month in Reader’s Digest, this month in the Simmons College Voice, all over the Web, sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that “I could care less” really must mean “I care to some extent.” But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.

Around the Internet, a popular saying (variously attributed) defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” After 50 years, it’s not likely that the next iteration of the argument against “could care less” will change American usage. So let’s stash the phrase in the “idioms” bin, along with “head over heels” and “have your cake and eat it too,” and forget about it. Truly, there is nothing more to say.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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A new lens

The rise of ‘optic,’ and how we love shiny toys

The trouble with being a lexicographer is that you’re often less interested in the point someone is making than in the language they use to make it.

This happened to me not long ago when I was listening to the morning news. “We’re seeing this through the optic of our idea of democracy,” a political pundit said.

“Hang on,” I thought. “When did optic replace lens?”

This wasn’t a case of the trendy use of optics to mean “outward appearances” — the public-relations concern over how the look of something affects people’s perceptions of it (as in a recent Washington Examiner article that mentioned the “need to control the optics of” lifting the oil drilling ban). The speaker was using “optic” in the sense of perspective, and it was a use I recognized from somewhere else entirely, the optique of French literary theory.

In French, the word optique has meant “point of view” at least since the 19th century. It jumped into English in the 1960s through translations of theorists like Roland Barthes, who used it to refer to a reader’s perspective in responding to a text. From there it entered the prose of academics writing in English; by 1991, M. Keith Booker was writing about “reading Chaucer through the optic of postmodernism.” But how and when did the word make it out of academia?

Political theory is a likely channel. We can see a nice example of literary and political theory overlapping in the title of a 1999 article by Michael Null in Shakespeare Quarterly: “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare’s Histories.” Optic here is referring to a nationalist viewpoint, a use we also see in the book “A World Without Islam,” in which its author, Graham Fuller, says, “The problem lies in the optic we employ….[W]e believe we are essentially out there, just minding our own business, trying to help make the world right.”

This political use of optic is the one I heard on the radio, and it seems to be preferred over perspective or lens when what’s meant is something less unconscious and more chosen about the way one sees the world. And that’s an interesting development to watch. The stock-in-trade of lexicographers is language change: How are people using words? Is a new meaning developing, or is an older meaning migrating to a new context?

It’s fairly common knowledge that English happily borrows words from other languages and loves a good new coinage. Something sparkly like optic catches our attention, and we shove aside a perfectly serviceable word like lens (a much earlier adoption) to make room for it, often giving it a nuance of meaning that justifies our having swiped it.

English will often raid its own attic, too. Wherever a word or phrase came from originally, if it’s been in the language for a while and is in active use, chances are if the meaning hasn’t shifted yet, it will. Take the word parse, which means to break out and describe in detail the grammar of each part of a sentence. We’ve hauled it out of its specialized jargon drawer and given it a good airing, but along the way we’ve diluted its meaning. Now we see headlines like “Candidates for Maine House Parse Economy” and even “Parse Out the Parking Issue.” Compared with parsing something, clarifying or explaining seem so, well, 20th century, don’t they?

The use of parse in an abstract sense at least has a little history behind it. But many times, a shift in meaning happens without much warning. For instance, the current business-world use of monetize — roughly “to make money out of” (“How can we monetize our website?”) — hasn’t even made it into mainstream dictionaries yet. In the sense that economists use the verb, if you monetize an asset or a debt, you convert it into money. If you monetize an economy, you convert a barter system to a money system. It’s not a stretch to see how the older, specialized meanings lent themselves to the extended one, but clearly it has happened too fast for dictionaries to keep up.

Tracing exactly how and when a new use sprang up can be like trying to pinpoint the first dandelion in a field that’s been overrun with them. The first seed might be from an influential academic, author, or pundit — anyone who’s a popular talking head. Those who want to sound as though they’re smart and in the know pick it up, sometimes mangling it through misunderstanding. Suddenly, the term is everywhere, like yellow flowers in a yard.

In some cases, a word’s new use, whether coined, borrowed, or adapted, fills a gap: A newly invented technology needs a name, or another language has just the word for a concept it takes us a sentence to describe. But many times there isn’t a hole in English; we didn’t really need a new word for “make money from,” or “figure out,” or “perspective.” It’s just that when we see a new model, we like to trade up.

I don’t ask whether the reason is pretension or bandwagon-jumping or insecurity or love of the new. I’m just fascinated when it happens. I’m sorry; what was your point?

Wendalyn Nichols is the US commissioning editor for Cambridge ELT Dictionaries,, and the editor of Copyediting newsletter

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No love for ‘Gov?”

Why we hate ‘gubernatorial’

As we count down toward Election Day, more than a few citizens probably share the sentiments of reader Mark Leonard, who e-mailed last week wondering why we have to live with gubernatorial. ”It sounds archaic and pompous,” he said, and it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives: We could simply switch to ”the more obvious governatorial.”

And so we could. In fact, English has tried out a number of variations on the ”governor” word family. In the 13th century, it borrowed govern from Old French, which eventually gave us governance, government, and, briefly, governator (insert Schwarzenegger joke here). Then, in the 15th century, English went back to the Latin gubernare to form another set of ”govern” words–gubernate, gubernatrix–of which the sole survivor is gubernatorial.

We really can’t call it archaic–gubernatorial is only 300 years old, and thriving–but American critics have called it some other names along the way. Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as ”a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity…pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish.” Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only ”pedants and ’small potatoes’” flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial ”needless and bombastic.” ”Leave it to those who call a political office a ’chair,’” he urged. ”’Gubernatorial chair’ is good enough for them. So is hanging.”

Why the ferocity? One possible reason is that gubernatorial was probably coined, and certainly embraced, by Americans. That would have tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police, who were often anxious about our divergences from British usage. If England had given up on all its gubernator-derived words, why were we sticking with gubernatorial?

One obvious reason is that Americans had increasing numbers of state governors, and thus of elections in need of an adjective. As early as 1848, John Russell Bartlett, in ”Americanisms,” listed gubernatorial among words ”whose origin has grown out of our peculiar institutions, and which consequently are of a permanent nature.” (Caucus, lobby, mileage, and bunkum also made his list.) If the British had shared our need for gubernatorial, they too might have kept it current. But this commonsense analysis seems to have eluded the mavens.

As the 20th century marched on, though, Americans stopped judging their language by British usage, and gubernatorial prospered. So I was surprised to find official disapproval still on the books: Just last week, The New York Times’s in-house language guardian, Philip Corbett, objected to the word. ”The Times’s stylebook advises against the stilted ’gubernatorial,’” he wrote in his Tuesday blog. ”Make it ’Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor’ or ’who is running for governor.’”

That ”stilted” is the stylebook’s description, and it’s a bit hard to decode; ”stilted language” is stiff, high-flown, artificially formal, but what makes a single word ”stilted”? Possess, opine, parley, and apprehend have been accused of stiltedness; but while they’re clearly more formal than have, say, talk, and catch, how you can tell–in the absence of context–that they’re ”stiff” or ”pompous”?

Maybe gubernatorial is just too long and lumpy? But if that’s the problem, why aren’t words like gladiatorial, arachnophobia, discombobulation, excommunication, and indefatigable ever accused of pomposity? And you can hardly accuse gubernatorial of hanging out among the toffs and swells of English; if we’re tired of the word, it’s because we encounter it everywhere, as TV and radio and the Web and print media report on the current…gubernatorial campaign.

In fact, Mark Leonard’s e-mail gave me a whole new theory about our distaste for gubernatorial, because he went on to ask about goober. The words aren’t related, but I started to wonder: What if goober has affected the older word’s reputation?

Goober started out as a Southern word (with African roots) for the peanut, but it soon began to accumulate slang senses. By 1862, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, goober was a synonym for ”bumpkin, yokel, simpleton.” In the Confederate Army, it was a nickname for soldiers from North Carolina and Georgia. A goober-grabber was a poor white farmer.

But goober didn’t go national until the mid-20th century, when ”The Andy Griffith Show” brought us the genial dimwit Goober Pyle. Along with its clipped form, goob, it became a popular term for anyone acting silly or dumb.

So here’s an idea: Maybe our resistance to gubernatorial isn’t related to the old prejudices at all. Maybe it’s just that the ignominy of goober, over the past half-century, has rubbed off on gubernatorial. Other words with the goo sound might also play a part: Gooey, googly, goofball, goofus, goombah, gooney bird…except for googol, there’s not a lot of dignified restraint to be found among the dictionary’s goo– entries.

Of course, on the other side is the ubiquitous Google, working hard to make us like the sound of goo. That would be nice, because I don’t think gubernatorial is going away, whatever the Times stylebook says.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Banned Words Week

Why people blacklist

This past week was, for those of you who missed it, Banned Books Week. Since 1982, booksellers, librarians, and readers have spent the last week of September drawing attention to the problem of censorship and book bans, by creating displays of challenged books, holding “read-outs” (where authors read from their challenged books), and encouraging people to fight censorship and enjoy their right to read what they please.

We don’t yet have a Banned Words Week, where lexicographers, journalists, and word lovers celebrate our right to use any word in English we please, but during the past 12 months, it seemed that we could have declared one almost any week. In late December of last year, media outlets (including Public Radio International’s program “The World”) covered the news that although the words brat, corner boy (meaning rogue), hypocrite, and yahoo (among others) were banned from use in the Irish Parliament, the f-word was not — which was discovered when a legislator employed that word on the floor.

Back in March, this column covered the 119 terms banned from Chicago’s WGN AM radio station, by order of the CEO of the Tribune Co. That list was more comical than sinister, a ham-handed attempt to discourage stale news phrases (lone gunman, bare naked, senseless murder, sketchy details, and close proximity) and nonstandard pronunciations (such as hunnert for hundred). It didn’t contain any truly shocking terms, probably because those are already banned from the airwaves. Also this past March, local government councils in Great Britain sent around a list of their own banned words, mostly corporatese such as best practices, benchmarking, slippage (in the sense of delay), and democratic legitimacy (having been voted for).

It’s not just English-speaking countries where words are banned, of course. In China this past April, newscasters on the state-owned channels were asked to stop using English-language abbreviations — such as NBA, GDP, and WTO — in their broadcasts, and told to use the Chinese equivalents alongside or instead of the English.

As these examples suggest, word-banning has a variety of motives beyond Orwellian efforts to reframe the language. Sometimes it’s simple truth in advertising. If I were making posters for a Banned Words Week, I’d be sure to include bans like these:

■On June 22, new FDA rules to protect consumers went into effect, banning the use of the words light, mild, and medium from cigarette packaging — since light, mild, or medium cigarettes aren’t any better for you than ones that aren’t marked with those words.

■In July, Goldman Sachs banned its traders from using profanity in e-mails and is using screening software to enforce the new policy. (Traders had already been asked to use “appropriate language” on the televised trading floor.)

■In September, the Obama administration embraced a word ban left over from the previous administration, saying it would fight in court to preserve the FCC’s power to punish networks with hefty fines for “fleeting expletives” — that is, accidentally broadcast swear words. (Before 2004, the FCC held that an occasional, spontaneous expletive did not violate its indecency standards.)

If you’ve noticed that offensiveness is a theme when bans are concerned, you’re right. As with the FCC’s list of words you can’t say on television, many books on the most-challenged list are there because of concern over profanity (“The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “A Separate Peace”) or racial or ethnic slurs (“Slaughterhouse Five,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”). But most of the books that are championed during Banned Books Week were challenged for moral or ideological reasons, by people upset by the books’ topics or themes, especially those having to do with sex or sexuality.

Words, on the other hand, seem just as likely to be banned for being euphemistic, pretentious, or banal as they are for being offensive. The bans are efforts to protect the language as much as to protect young ears. Most of the “official” lists of banned words fall into this category, such as the “Banished Words” list put together every year by faculty and staff at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, which tends towards new tech words, awkward neologisms (often blends of existing words, like staycation), and overused buzzwords (2010’s list included tweet, app, czar, bromance, and teachable moment).

We don’t see books being challenged for being insipid or fatuous: They’re simply ignored. Perhaps we all realize that there are more ways to get around the ban of a word — but when a book is banned, that idea (or the person behind it) is truly silenced.

At heart, though, the spirit that animates Banned Books Week and our so-far-uncelebrated Banned Words Week is similar: the belief that bans, besides being repellent to anyone who cares about language and ideas, don’t really work — that they never do manage to get rid of uncomfortable, awkward, boorish, banal, or offensive ideas. We actually need those books and words to talk frankly about the problems they raise in our minds. And luckily, no matter how often books (or words) are banned, the important ideas always manage to win through.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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So wrong it’s right

The ‘eggcorn’ has its day

Over the past 10 days, language bloggers have been exchanging virtual high-fives at the news of an honor bestowed on one of their coinages. In its most recent quarterly update, the Oxford English Dictionary Online announced that its word-hoard now includes the shiny new term eggcorn.

An eggcorn, as regular readers of this column may recall, is — well, here’s the official new definition: “an alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.” If you write “let’s nip it in the butt” (instead of “bud”) or “to the manor born” (instead of “manner”), you’re using an eggcorn.

The term derives from “egg corn” as a substitution for “acorn,” whose earliest appearance comes in an 1844 letter from an American frontiersman: “I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I can not get her and I hop to help you eat some of it soon.”

Why would eggcorn (as we now spell it) replace acorn in the writer’s lexicon? As the OED editors comment, “acorns are, after all, seeds which are somewhat egg-shaped, and in many dialects the formations acorn and eggcorn sound very similar.” (And, like corn kernels, acorns can be ground into meal or flour.) This coinage came to the attention of the linguists blogging at Language Log in 2003, and at the suggestion of Geoffrey Pullum, one of the site’s founders, it was adopted as the term for all such expressions.

Eggcorns needed their own label, the Language Loggers decided, because they were mistakes of a distinct sort — variants on the traditional phrasing, but ones that still made at least a bit of sense. “Nip it in the bud,” for instance, is a horticultural metaphor, perhaps not so widely understood as it once was; the newer “nip it in the butt” describes a different strategy for getting rid of some unwelcome visitation, but it’s not illogical. Hamlet said he was “to the manner born,” but the modern alteration, “to the manor born,” is also a useful formula.

And because they make sense, eggcorns are interesting in a way that mere disfluencies and malapropisms are not: They show our minds at work on the language, reshaping an opaque phrase into something more plausible. They’re tiny linguistic treasures, pearls of imagination created by clothing an unfamiliar usage in a more recognizable costume.

Even before the eggcorn era, most of us had heard (or experienced) pop-song versions of the phenomenon, like “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” (for Jimi Hendrix’s “kiss the sky” line), but these have had their own label, mondegreen, for more than half a century. The word was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright, in commemoration of her mishearing of a Scottish ballad: “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray/ And laid him on the green,” went the lament, but Wright thought the villains had slain the earl “and Lady Mondegreen.”

Then there are malapropisms, word substitutions that sound similar but make no sense at all. They’re named for Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the 1775 play “The Rivals,” whose childrearing philosophy illustrates her vocabulary problem: “I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning….I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.”

And when the misconceived word or expression has spread so widely that we all use it, it’s a folk etymology — or, to most of us, just another word. Bridegroom, hangnail, Jerusalem artichoke — all started out as mistakes.

But we no longer beat ourselves up because our forebears substituted groom for the Old English guma (“man”), or modified agnail (“painful nail”) into hangnail, or reshaped girasole (“sunflower” in Italian) into the more familiar Jerusalem.

The border between these folk-etymologized words, blessed by history and usage, and the newer eggcorns is fuzzy, and there’s been some debate already at the American Dialect Society’s listserv, ADS-L, about whether the distinction is real. Probably there is no bright line; to me, “you’ve got another thing coming” and “wile away the hours” are eggcorns — recent reshapings of expressions I learned as “another think” and “while away” — but to you they may be normal.

But we face the same problem in deciding which senses are valid for everyday, non-eggcornish words. When does nonplussed for “unfazed” or enormity for “hugeness” become the standard sense? We can only wait and see; the variants may duke it out for decades, but if a change takes hold, the battle will one day be forgotten.

The little eggcorn is in the same situation: It’s struggling to overcome its mixed-up heritage and grow into the kind of respectable adulthood enjoyed by the Jerusalem artichoke. We’re not obliged to help it along, but while it’s here, we might as well enjoy its wacky poetry.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (  


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Randy Britton e-mails: “I’ve noticed in much of the coverage of the BP oil spill that the press has taken to calling the oil well ‘busted.’ Since when is ‘busted’ the proper way to describe a broken oil well?  It seems very colloquial and not a form I would expect to see in proper journalistic forums.”

Even now that BP’s troubled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is being permanently sealed, news reports continue to refer to the “busted well,” particularly wire services like the Associated Press and AFP. Reuters was an early adopter, reporting on efforts to contain the “busted well” on May 3. Alternatively, busted has modified oil rig, or just plain rig. A database search of coverage of the BP spill finds the first recorded use of busted came nine days into the crisis on April 29, when the MSNBC host Ed Schultz said, “The busted rig is leaking — get this — 200,000 gallons of oil a day.”

Is busted overly informal for journalists? The verb bust certainly has colloquial roots, beginning its life on the American scene as a folksy variant of burst. (The same dropping of the “r” turned curse into cuss, horse into hoss and parcel into passel.) Building on earlier use as a noun, bust busted out as a verb as early as 1806, when Meriwether Lewis, while on his famous expedition with William Clark, wrote in his journal, “Windsor busted his rifle near the muzzle.” Since then, bust has worked its way into a wide variety of American expressions.

Bust runs the gamut from slang to standard,” explain David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf in their book “America in So Many Words.” “When it is used to mean ‘to explode or fall apart or be arrested,’ bust is generally slang. In the sense of failing (especially financially) it is informal, as busting the bank in gambling lingo, while in the specialized sense of taming a horse it is standard, the only way to say busting a bronco.

Despite its potential slanginess, busted is “not actually forbidden” in the news media, as the Boston Globe language columnist Jan Freeman wrote in August. Indeed, reporters often latch onto the occasional colloquialism that seems particularly expressive, and in this case, Freeman surmises they were drawn to the term’s “criminal-cowboy-macho connotations.”

Regardless of the reasons for its current vogue, it’s notable that busted was rarely relied on by the press to describe stricken oil wells before the BP disaster — even in incidents that were highly similar, such as the 1979 blowout of the Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the precursors I found come from more literary sources. It was appropriate, for instance, in some light verse by J.W. Foley published in The New York Times in 1904:

Dear friend, there’s a question I’d like to ask you,
(Your pardon I crave if it vexes)
Have you ever invested a hundred or two
In an oil well somewhere down in Texas?
Have you ridden in autos (I mean in your mind),

With the profits you honestly trusted
Would flow from your venture in oil stocks — to find
That the oil well was hopelessly busted?

I can’t find fault in reporters drawing on the rich history of bust and busted in American English to add a little extra oomph to their dispatches from the gulf. Calling the well busted does evoke a looser, wilder state of disrepair than broken, or the more technically accurate blown-out. But after many months of news coverage, the phrase “busted well” has now turned into little more than a cliché. That’s a far worse journalistic offense than a bit of well-placed slang.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


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Limning a controversy

Hate that headline? You have company

It is probably a bit too harsh to call those upset by The Baltimore Sun’s recent use of the word limn in a headline word-haters, but I assume they’d be even more offended by the fancy word misologists.

If you didn’t catch the (admittedly brief) controversy, it went a bit like this. On Sept. 7, The Baltimore Sun used the word limn in a front-page headline (“Opposing votes limn difference in race”). That same day, Carol N. Shaw sent a letter to the editor complaining about the paper’s use of the word, calling it “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing” to use a word that she, having graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, didn’t immediately understand.

Although the Sun has used the word limn twice before in headlines (and 47 times, total, in the paper’s history), those previous uses didn’t occasion much, if any, comment. The Sun’s level-headed and pragmatic grammar and usage blogger, John McIntyre, supported the use of limn in the headline, especially as it’s one of the limited stock of short verbs in English that are (as he put it) “neither scatological nor obscene.”

At first glance, it’s hard to see why limn should be considered verba non grata: It’s related, etymologically, to illuminate, and has been in use in English since the 1400s, at first to mean “to paint with gold or bright color” (as in illuminated manuscripts) and then (metaphorically) to mean painting a picture in words. That metaphorical use has proven to be irresistible to book reviewers, especially: Michiko Kakutani, the book reviewer for The New York Times, has been criticized for overuse of limn.

It’s not very frequent, but limn isn’t any more specialized or opaque than the words burgeon or kiosk, all of which were estimated by the Living Word Vocabulary (a 1981 vocabulary study) to be understood by less than a third of college graduates.

Ben Zimmer, writing on the Visual Thesaurus website, pointed out that limn, in particular, has come in for more than its fair share of abuse over the years: Michael Dirda, The Washington Post book critic, has called it an example of an “ugly, pushy” word; writer Ben Yagoda called it a word that has “never been said aloud in the history of English”; and David Foster Wallace admitted that limn could seem “just off-the-charts pretentious.” William Safire, back in 2002, called limn a “vogue word” and gave it a life span of “six more months.” (Here at the Globe, Page One editor Charles Mansbach says he’d avoid limning anything in a headline: “It probably would baffle too many readers.”)

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether limn is a reasonable word to expect readers to understand, the interesting part of this controversy is how clearly it divides people into two groups: those who feel intrigued and excited when they encounter a new word, and those who feel irritated or defensive.

Some of the latter would explain their irritation in terms of efficiency: why add another hurdle to comprehension by throwing in a word you’re not confident your audience will understand? And it’s true — a word that sticks out can distract a reader to the point of ignoring everything else that’s been written. But the dogged pursuit of the most-widely-understood word can leave both precision and elegance behind, resulting in colorless and boring writing.

Those who feel defensive are almost certainly reacting to years of assertions by word-lovers that a large vocabulary is a sign of an educated and cultured person. Hundreds of books and thousands of websites imply that a large vocabulary is the ticket to success in business and life. (One list of increase-your-vocabulary books states baldly: “It’s useless to be intelligent if you cannot express those ideas”; another suggests that a large vocabulary is necessary to be accepted as a “mature person.”) After all that hype, why are we surprised when the use of an unusual word is felt to be an implicit criticism of those who don’t immediately recognize it, a slur on their education, intellect, maturity, and literacy?

And there’s no denying an element of showoffishness is present in many uses of rare words. It would be peculiar if the all-too-human desire for status — the motivation behind name-dropping, wearing luxury brands, listening to obscure bands, or checking in to velvet-rope places on Foursquare — didn’t manifest itself in word choice, as well.

It shouldn’t be too hard to broker a truce, here, though. If the word-lovers can agree to throw in an acknowledgment whenever we use a geason word — one that’s rare or extraordinary — and the word-avoiders can agree to be a little less impatient with us when we do (and not take it personally), then problem solved. And we can all just paint — or limn — a happier world.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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The pause that annoys

When a comma makes life needlessly hard

Punctuation, quietly doing its job, rarely arouses the passions of the general public the way buzzwords and mispronunciations do. Yes, certain manly writers enjoy denouncing the wimpy semicolon, and spotting misused apostrophes is a popular pastime. But when you hear people arguing about the serial comma or the overuse of dashes, they’re probably editors.

The folks behind National Punctuation Day, coming up Sept. 24, would like to change that (and sell a few T-shirts). Their previous ploys to raise punctuation awareness have included a baking contest and a recipe for the holiday’s “official” meatloaf (in the all-too-appropriate shape of a question mark). This year’s challenge is a great leap forward in literacy: Readers are invited to compose haiku about (and involving) punctuation. Among the samples at the website:

Are you Brit or Yank? Show me your quotation marks And I’ll tell you which. I won’t be competing for a coffee mug, but NPD seems like the perfect opportunity to explore a subtle rule of punctuation that has probably cost publishers way, way more than its benefit to readers warrants.

You probably know the rule about setting off nonrestrictive elements — the descriptive bits that could be omitted without changing the essential meaning of a sentence — with commas: “The berries, which were moldy, went straight into the compost.” Well, it also applies to words in apposition, which are sometimes restrictive and sometimes not. The Chicago Manual of Style explains it this way: If you write “My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet,” you are implying that Betty is your only older sister. But if you write “My sister Enid lets me hold her doll” — with no commas around the name — Enid is not your only sister.

The rule is not hard to apply, if you know Betty and Enid’s sibling situations. But what if you don’t? In a New Yorker article last year, John McPhee remembered facing this problem when fact-checking his 2003 book, “The Founding Fish.” In his draft, he had “Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to ‘buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod.’ ” But McPhee didn’t know whether Margaret’s name needed commas; was she an only daughter? The punctuation “would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one,” he wrote. “The commas were not just commas; they were facts.”

But were they important facts? It’s easy enough to find out how many children William Penn had (yes, Margaret had a sister). But suppose the father in question was a more obscure figure, or a fictional character. How much time should you spend finding the answer — commas or no commas — to a question nobody’s asking?

As a former editor, I can attest that hours are wasted in researching such trivia. Did your profile subject get a phone call from “his brother Mark” or from “his brother, Mark”? Did she inherit from “her cousin, Mary,” or “her cousin Mary”? The rule even requires that you write “my husband, Dave,” and not “my husband Dave,” because the latter suggests there’s more than one husband.

There’s not a lot of debate about the value of this convention, perhaps because it’s a fairly recent fetish. The New York Times must have been enforcing it in the ’50s, because Timesman Theodore Bernstein, in his 1958 book “Watch Your Language,” treated it as dogma; he objected to a news story’s mention of both “his daughter Zinaida” and “his daughter, Zinaida,” saying “both versions cannot be correct.” But in their Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, published just a year earlier, Bergen and Cornelia Evans were more flexible: “Sometimes the relation between an appositive and the preceding noun is so close that the two form a unified idea, such as the River Tiber and my brother Dick. In this case the commas are not needed.”

Earlier usage bears out the Evanses’ observation. For instance, beginning in 1938, The New Yorker published the embellished memoirs that became the book (and play and movie) “My Sister Eileen.” No other sisters are mentioned, yet the magazine’s editors felt no need to make it “My Sister, Eileen.” As far as I know, J.R. Ackerley had only one dog, but his 1956 memoir (like the current film) is called “My Dog Tulip,” not “My Dog, Tulip.” Misleading? Inaccurate? I don’t think so.

My modest proposal, then, is that we return to the tolerant days of yore, when these familial appositive commas were optional. When it comes to mothers, fathers, and spouses, we can assume people have one each, commas or not, unless we’re told otherwise. As for children and siblings, in-laws and cousins, yachts and cats and gerbils, unless their number is somehow germane to the story, who cares?

Or to put my argument in the preferred form of this year’s Punctuation Day observance:

There’s my sister Peg! — Is that sister, comma, Peg? None of your business.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Turning the page

New words and the dictionary of the future

The end of summer must be the perfect moment to put out a dictionary-related press release: There’s not much other news, and everyone’s thinking about the new school year approaching. So it’s no surprise that the recent announcement that 2,000 new words and phrases have been added to the new third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English has received so much media attention.

The Oxford Dictionary of English isn’t the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, but rather its smaller, younger counterpart, a single-volume dictionary of contemporary English published mainly for a UK audience. (The comparable US edition is the New Oxford American Dictionary, of which I was the editor for the second edition in 2005.)

Its roster of new words will probably not be all that new to regular readers of The Word — in fact, one, chillax, was the subject of this column a while ago. They’re the usual mix of tech words (microblogging, netbook, paywall, tweetup), science words (geoengineering, carbon capture and storage), words drawn from current affairs (exit strategy, toxic debt, deleveraging, vuvuzela), and popular culture (steampunk, LBD).

The majority of the list, though, is what I would call PR bait: bromance, chill pill, cool hunter, defriend, turducken, wardrobe malfunction. It’s not that these words aren’t worth knowing — they certainly are, and they’re all “real” words — it’s just that these short lists are chosen more to generate coverage (and brand awareness) than for their usefulness. And they work, too: A headline on the blog of the New York Observer read “Defriend Anyone Who Tells You To Chillax About New Words In The Oxford Dictionary.”

In the old days, before Google, Wikipedia, and online dictionaries, these new-words-in-the-new-edition lists were intended to signal the strength and power of a dictionary: Its lexicographers and researchers had discovered and judged all of the cutting-edge vocabulary in science, art, technology, popular culture, and sports, and selected just what you needed to know.

But the Internet has changed the kinds of information we expect to have at our fingertips, and how we expect to gain access to it. The idea of a single reference source, either in print or online, seems a bit quaint, like an old-timey carnival barker. We enjoy the idea of stepping right in and seeing the show, but we don’t expect much more than an ironic thrill. Even Nigel Portwood, the CEO of Oxford University Press, the dictionary’s publisher, sees the end coming: He was quoted in the (UK) Daily Mail as saying that, given current sales declines, he expects that the printed dictionary — not just Oxford’s, but printed dictionaries in general — will have a lifespan of another 30 years.

Mr. Portwood’s remarks attracted quite a bit of attention, and worry — as did another bit of dictionary news, the announcement that the third edition of the immense Oxford English Dictionary, whose completion date is still estimated to be at least a decade away, will be digital only, never appearing in printed form. (The press later backtracked and said that “no decision has been taken” as to whether there would be a print version of the third edition.)

Abandoning the book format might sound like a surprising move by a publication that might seem to be the most bookish book in the entire world of books — its current edition runs to 20 volumes and nearly 300,000 entries — but in fact the OED has been embracing its digital side for a long time. Oxford spent more than $13 million and five years digitizing its second edition in the late 1980s and published a CD-ROM version (cutting-edge at the time!) in 1992. And the OED Online is the Oxford dictionary that currently updates itself the most frequently, at least in public: The OED publishes online updates of new words every quarter. And though these receive far less press attention than other “new word” announcements, they are usually more interesting to the word-nerd, as the OED covers a wider range of texts and times. (The lists are freely available at, although the actual entries are only accessible by subscribers.)

The OED’s new-words lists aren’t just shiny pop-culture crowd-pleasers — although they do have those as well, including Generation Y (added this past March) or server farm (added in June). They tend toward obscurities such as rhandir, a share of inherited land; ancient words like halirift, a veil worn by a holy woman; or nonce-words (words used only once) such as ridibund, meaning “inclined to laughter, happy.” In the OED model, the limiting factor isn’t the number of pages available, but the staggering amount of editorial time historical lexicography requires. Because the OED concerns itself primarily with tracking the histories of words, behind every new word — and especially behind every old one — is quite a bit of work.

Or, as Jesse Sheidlower, an OED editor based in the United States, put it on his Twitter feed recently: “Antedating three different senses of _action_. A reasonable day.”

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Start the school year right: Forget these 10 language laws

Another school year, another set of writing assignments: Students of all ages will soon be composing papers on summer vacations, the Chinese economy, or the heroines of Henry James. And beginners or veterans, these student writers all risk exposure to usage myths — bogus rules of English they may hear, or read, or suddenly discover (via a teacher’s red pen) that they’ve violated.

Fake language rules can come from respected sources, but that’s no reason to believe them. As Kathryn Schulz explains in her new book, “Being Wrong,” people don’t know that they’re misinformed: Being wrong, after all, feels just like being right. But learning to write is hard enough without the burden of following non-rules. So let’s lighten the load a bit, starting with 10 usage topics that deserve a good leaving alone.

None are? None is? They’re both correct; none has meant both “not one” and “not any” for more than 1,000 years. During the past century though, a few usage writers have fretted about it, arguing that making none always singular would be etymologically and aesthetically preferable. Their reasoning was faulty, and they haven’t made a dent in usage, but the singular superstition hangs on somehow. Let’s not encourage it.

The girl that I marry. No, it doesn’t have to be whom I marry. “People that has always been good English,” notes Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage, “and it’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.” Choose who if you like, but to claim that using that “makes a person seem less human,” as Mignon Fogarty suggested in a Grammar Girl podcast — that’s just looking for trouble.

Since you asked. It’s totally legit to use since for because, unless it would cause ambiguity. Since has had its causal sense, as well as its temporal sense, from the beginning.

Healthy choices. Many of us have been taught that it’s healthy people but healthful foods. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, healthy meant both “hale” and “wholesome” from the time it arrived in English in the mid-16th century. More than 300 years later, an American usage critic proposed limiting healthy to living things; his idea has ardent supporters, but in practice, healthy has always been preferred to healthful.

“Till” was there first. In recent decades, somebody launched the mischievous rumor that till is a substandard form of until. In fact, till is ancient English, and until was formed by combining on and till. If you want to disparage a member of this family, go with ’til, the entirely superfluous 20th-century addition.

Verbing nouns. Your teacher hates to see nouns used as verbs? So that teacher never hammers, brakes, weeds, elbows, or trashes anything? Verbing nouns is standard procedure in English. We may dislike new verbs, especially if they seem like in-group jargon (incent, effort, unfriend, tweet). But you can’t predict which ones will have legs: The verbs progress, contact, and experience were scorned in their youth, and look at them now.

“And” can start a sentence. So can But and However. One theory is that teachers ban the and opening for kids of Tooth Fairy age so they can’t just string together a series of “and then” sentences, thus planting the idea that it’s forbidden. But anyone old enough for Harry Potter should be able to handle the truth.

Misspelled is not misused. Errors like “faster then a speeding bullet” and “taking a lot of flack” are mistakes in spelling, not comprehension. But you’ll often see them flagged as “confusions,” as if the writer truly didn’t know the meanings of then and than. The confused person here is the critic, who fails to distinguish a spelling goof from a true word mix-up like flaunt for flout. Learn to spell, by all means, but don’t fall for this sort of violation inflation.

The adverb can be “wrong.” The usage czar of the Telegraph in London recently chastised a reporter for using the construction “spelled it wrong.” But the reporter had it right: He spelled it wrong, it’s tied too tight, she drives too slow — all these adverbial forms are fine. Once there were more “flat adverbs” — identical to the adjectives, lacking the “ly” ending — but “two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians” has taken its toll, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Flat adverbs: Get ’em while you can!

You only live once. Spotting “misplacements” of only is a hobby for some picky readers — they’d rewrite that sentence as “you live only once,” so there’s no way to misinterpret it. Yes, there are times when moving the only can change the meaning of a sentence. But can you show me a published example of a misplaced only causing genuine confusion? I offered readers that challenge in 2001, and it still stands. Other usage critics, including H.W. Fowler (1926) and Bergen Evans (1957), have also pooh-poohed the only alarmists — though Garner’s 2009 usage tome still argues for strict enforcement. Until there’s evidence of harm, though, I say a normally worded sentence should get the benefit of the doubt.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Forget Ashton Kutcher and Kanye West: The newest Twitter celebrity is bright green, heavily muscled, and often described as “incredible” despite his anger-management problem…The Incredible Hulk.

At first glance, Hulk may not be the most obvious comic book character to make a splash on Twitter. Batman and Wolverine are far cooler, and Spidey and Flash much more glib; by contrast, the Hulk seems uncommunicative and inarticulate: This is, after all, a character whose trademark phrase is “HULK SMASH!”

But the Hulk’s style — let’s call it Hulkspeak — is to talk in short bursts, in statements with a simple grammatical structure — so simple, in fact, that he only uses present-tense verbs and avoids first-person pronouns. Hulk often leaves out words that would otherwise be expected (especially the, an, and a) and eschews conventional capitalization, preferring to smash the caps lock key (and keep it smashed).

Short simple structures, use of ellipsis, and nonstandard capitalization: These are the very same characteristics that researchers have found to be typical of text messages, making Hulk a great fit for Twitter’s 140-character limit. (Granted, Hulk doesn’t go in much for abbreviations, but, then again, abbreviations are thought to be more prevalent in text messages than they actually are: One 2005 study found that only 6 percent of text messages included abbreviations of any kind.)

But the stylistic parallels are not enough to explain the sudden outburst (sorry) of Twitter Hulkspeak. Bizarro Superman, another comics character with a distinctive and Twitter-friendly speech pattern, only shows up in a few Twitter accounts, concerned mainly with comics geekery. Twitter accounts that reference Hulk number in the dozens, and have a much wider scope.



But the most interesting Hulks are those who exploit the incongruity between Hulkspeak Twitter style and the subject matter of the tweets themselves. By appropriating a lowbrow comic book style to talk about highbrow subjects, the people behind these Hulk Twitter accounts can perform acts of stylistic irony: using a very different way of talking about something than readers would normally expect. My favorite example of this stylistic irony is EditorHulk using HulkSpeak to talk about good writing: “HULK SMASH CLICHES! CLICHES LAZY WRITING. HULK LIKE ORIGINAL WRITING! (“HULK SMASH” NOT CLICHE — IT TRADEMARK!)”. Similarly ironic Hulks include GrammarHulk (“HULK BIG FAN OF GENDER-NEUTRAL TERMS, BUT WISH THEY WERE LESS CUMBERSOME. “MAIL CARRIER” PROBABLY WORST”), KeynesianHulk (“KEYNESIAN HULK NEED GREATER AGGREGATE DEMAND”), LawyerHulk (“RICK JONES ASK HULK IF TWITTER ACCOUNT VIOLATE MARVEL COPYRIGHT. HULK SHOW BOOK ON FAIR USE IN PARODY TO RICK…AND THEN HIT HIM WITH IT”), LitCritHulk (“HULK RECOMMEND THE ASSISTANT BY BERNARD MALAMUD, FORGOTTEN TITAN OF POSTWAR JEWISH AMERICAN FICTION”), and FilmCritHulk (“HULK SORRY HE NOT BEEN TWEETING LATELY. HULK HAVING MANY BATTLES WITH MEPHISTO. HULK ALSO HAD NO INTEREST SEEING CHARLIE ST. CLOUD”).

But the main reason for the popularity of Hulk-style communication is the very thing that makes Hulk Hulk: anger. Don’t like something? HULK SMASH! Hulk is all anger, and channeling Hulk allows people to express anger and simultaneously keep their real selves apart from it. Hulk lets us all escape from being too serious, too rational Bruce Banner and talk about what really makes us mad — and do it in all-caps, the shouting of the Internet. FeministHulk (one of the more popular Hulks, and recently featured on the Ideas blog) can use all-caps Hulk anger without being tagged with those old antifeminist put-downs “strident” and “shrill.” All-caps is just what Hulk does! The same goes for GlobalistHulk (“HULK CONCERNED ABOUT KYRGYZSTAN, BUT NO MAINSTREAM MEDIA CARE. WHY GREEN MUTANT NEED TO POINT OUT U.S. INDIFFERENCE?”).

The freedom of expression that comes from Hulkspeak means there seems to be a Hulk for every interest: XdressingHulk (“APPARENTLY WONDER WOMAN WEAR PANTS AND NOW WORLD ENDS. HULK SUPPORT WONDER WOMAN’S PANTS”), FattyHulk (“FATTY HULK NOT AFRAID TO GO SLEEVELESS IN WARM WEATHER. BIG ARMS AND SHOULDERS USEFUL FOR RAISING SELF ABOVE BODY HATRED”), FoodieHulk (“HULK THINK EVERY MEAL SHOULD COME WITH AMUSE-BOUCHE”), DerbyHulk (Roller Derby, that is “WHAT IS BLACK AND BLUE AND SMASHED ALL OVER? OPPOSING BLOCKERS OF DERBYHULK”). There’s even PLONEHulk (PLONE is a content-management system) whose tweets are even more arcane than the usual run of Hulktweets: “WHY PLONE 3 REQUIRE PYTHON 2.4? PLONE WANT TERNARY IF/ELSE!”

It’s too soon to tell whether Hulkspeak has the staying power of other Internet language tropes (such as LOLcat) but it does show promise, given that there’s even a few Twitter accounts that mix Hulkitude with other popular tropes (mashups are always the sign of a successful meme): There’s WhatWouldHulkDo, Sh*t My Hulk Says, which mashes up the very popular “Sh*t My Dad Says” with everyone’s favorite angry green mutant as the father figure, and E_Hulkingway (“PUNY BOY SAY, “THERE GOOD FISHERMEN AND THERE GREAT FISHERMEN “— BUT THERE ONLY HULK!”). Sadly, there doesn’t seem (yet!) to be a language-related Hulkspeak mashup — a search for UlkHay (Pig Latin Hulk) turned up nothing.

What would Hulk think of the Hulkspeak phenomenon? It’s hard to know — for a superhero, Hulk’s a pretty modest guy — but he’d probably say HULK THINK IMITATION LIKE FLATTERY.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Rig talk

What the oil spill did to language

As we move on (fingers crossed) into the cleanup-and-restoration stage of the BP oil well disaster, maybe it’s time to cap off a few of the usage debates that bubbled up along with the gusher of crude.

I’m not talking about the truly arcane drilling lingo — “junk shot,” “top hat,” “static kill” — that has come and gone in the past several months. These terms range from obvious to mysterious, but so far, none seem to be seeping into our everyday vocabulary. (The “static” in “static kill,” by the way, refers to achieving stasis, or equilibrium, between the pressure of the oil and the weight of the drilling mud holding it back.)

No, the complaints I noticed were about the (possible) misuse of ordinary words. Siphon, for instance: Back in June, when a containment cap was allowing BP to pipe some of the spewing oil onto ships, newspapers around the world suddenly began to call that process “siphoning.” “Am I the only person wondering whether the journalists and other writers discussing the Gulf oil spill actually know what the word siphon means?” asked Robert Abruzzo of Burlington in an e-mail. “To begin with, a siphon flows down.”

No, he wasn’t the only one wondering; a blogger at Daily Kos also pointed out that to siphon is technically “to cause a liquid to move from a higher level to a lower one, with an intermediate higher point, by action of gravity.” And no matter how the escaping oil was corralled onto ships, it didn’t end up at a lower point.

But this casual use of siphon is not new. Figurative senses of siphon have been common for at least 70 years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its earliest example, dated 1940, comes from Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”: “All the fervor of which they were still capable was siphoned off into the revolutionary army.” Siphoning can also be a shady activity, as in “siphoning off funds meant for charity.”

Nobody would object to those uses. It’s only when siphon is further extended — to mean “pump, suck up, or otherwise divert something liquid” — that the metaphorical meaning collides with the technical one, setting off alarms in scientifically oriented brains.

This development, my cursory survey suggests, may indeed be newish — that is, only a few decades old. Searching Google News for the phrase “siphon up” — a clue to loose usage, since true siphoning brings liquid to a lower level, not “up” — I found only a handful of examples before the mid-1970s. Then comes a flurry of “siphoning up” — “The Indians say it will siphon up their water without bringing any long-term benefits to the Navahos,” wrote columnist Jack Anderson in 1975 — and this siphon usage has been spreading ever since.

And yet, I have found no protests from the language sticklers who bemoan the corruption of other technical terms, like beg the question and quantum leap. For most of us, it seems, the similarity between siphoning and other ways of diverting, pumping, and sucking up fluids far outweighs the difference in the physics of the process. That’s not even remotely a corruption; it’s just language doing its usual metaphorical thing.

Another small faction of purists piped up when BP said it would cap the well, once the flow was stanched, with a cement plug. These were members of the “no-it’s-concrete” camp, always ready to remind us that cement is just one ingredient in the mix that produces concrete. But they spoke too soon. If you want details, Google Books can tell you all about the American Petroleum Institute’s approved formulations for oil-well cements, but trust me: This time, it really is cement.

Probably the most furious debate flared over naming the event: spill, leak, gusher? A lot of folks objected to spill, some because it wasn’t a limited amount leaking from a tanker, others because the word seemed too mild for such a catastrophe. But as Ben Zimmer, The New York Times language columnist, noted in a radio interview, the compact spill was destined to get lots of use in headlines (and leak, to most of us, sounds even less serious). Public opinion might have coalesced around an alternative — blowout, geyser, rupture — but it didn’t; instead, we seem to have stretched the meaning of the six-decade-old term oil spill to cover spewing pipes as well as leaky ships.

Then there was the controversy that never quite got its head above water, over the ubiquitous description of the BP site as a “busted well.” “They should have used ‘broken,’ ” several commenters at agreed. But busted, though slangy, is not actually forbidden, and even conservative news outlets went with “busted well.” Maybe reporters hoped that busted, with its criminal-cowboy-macho connotations, would help offset the wimpiness of oil spill. Or maybe, like the rest of us, they just plain enjoy slinging slang.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Bad name

When political names become insults

ENGLISH ADDED another word to its political lexicon recently: Breitbarting, or intentionally taking a statement out of context for political ends.

The new word surfaced on political websites after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture official, edited so she appeared to admit being biased against a white farmer. (In the full video, released later, it became clear that Ms. Sherrod was telling a story about overcoming her initial prejudice to help the farmer save his land.)

It was only a few days after the video was released that the verb made an appearance: one early use was by The Nation’s Ari Melber, quoted on as saying “We live in a world where anyone can be Breitbarted.”

This is what linguists call an eponym, a word created from a person’s name. There are plenty of eponyms that are positive, reflecting their namesakes’ contribution to human knowledge: sandwich, leotard, cardigan. But those with an origin in the rough-and-tumble world of politics tend to be much less so.

Breitbart is just the latest political figure to give rise to a negative eponym, following in the footsteps of borked (meaning attacked in the media, from the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Robert H. Bork), quisling (a traitor, from Vidkun Quisling, who headed Norway’s government during the Nazi occupation), and gerrymander (to draw political boundaries for partisan advantage, fusing the name of Elbridge Gerry, a former governor of Massachusetts, with salamander, which is what the district drawn that way supposedly resembled).

More recently we’ve seen fisking (a point-by-point critique of a piece of writing, often from the conservative end of the spectrum, after British journalist Robert Fisk, whose work has often been given that treatment), and Willie Hortonize (to use racial prejudice for political purposes, after Willie Horton, the black convict whose furlough helped sink the Dukakis presidential campaign). There’s even the now-obscure swartwout, which means to embezzle public money and then flee, from the name of Samuel Swartwout, a 19th-century New York customs collector.

Why are so many political eponyms overwhelmingly negative? Leaving aside the presidential adjectives (Jeffersonian, Nixonian, Clintonian, Reaganesque) and the political ideologies (Maoism, Peronism, Thatcherism, Gandhism) it seems that if your name is associated with a political word, you’re more likely to be infamous than famous. This applies to place names, too: Buncombe (as the source of the word bunkum), Tammany Hall, Teapot Dome, the Beltway, and the Watergate apartment complex are none too pleasant in their associations.

It’s interesting that Breitbart was chosen for eponymization rather than Sherrod. Part of it must be due to Breitbart’s reputed history of giving less than the full story (he was also the source for some selectively edited videos which implied that voting-rights group ACORN gave advice on tax evasion). Part of it must be linguistic: breitbart is easier to conjugate and use as a verb than sherrod: Is it sherroded? Or sherrodded? (And where do you put the stress?) But part of it must be because Sherrod is indisputably the victim here, and thus not a suitable source of an active verb. (After the initial report forced her to resign, the DailyKos website jocularly coined another one, based on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who accepted her resignation: “vilsacked: being fired from your job over an event before the boss has all the facts.”)

The negative spin on most political eponyms could well reflect our modern distaste for political leaders. But it might also be that eponymization itself is becoming a partisan political tool. When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in the budget standoff of 1995 and 1996, it was variously described as newtered or Gingriched (or, occasionally, gingrinched, after the Grinch of Dr. Seuss, who also tried to steal Christmas). In 1996 Senator Bill Napoli of South Dakota had his name turned into a verb for a particularly brutal sexual assault when he tried to explain just how bad a rape needed to be to justify an abortion in his state.

Political eponymizing has also been a tool for humorists who make a living mocking politicians. David Letterman managed to turn the famously unpronounceable former governor of Illinois into a verb: blagojeviching, or lying and cheating. (You can also buy a “Blagoing, going, gone!” T-shirt online, if you haven’t tired of the former governor yet.)

Perhaps the pervasive practice of negative political eponymizing just proves what Shakespeare (who has recently been associated with a different political eponym, where his quotes are “Palinized,” or reworded to sound like they were spoken by Sarah Palin) set forth in Othello: “Who steals my purse, steals trash…But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.”

These days, it seems, you don’t even have to steal your opponent’s good name; you just have to turn it into a verb.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Road trip

Two men, one car, 437 typos

Language nitpickers may recall the saga of college buddies Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, who two years ago set out on a road trip with a mission: They would cross America in search of misspelled signage, correcting plurals, relocating apostrophes, and adding commas as needed. Along the way, they would (of course) blog the progress of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, or TEAL, as they grandly dubbed themselves. Their quest was easy to grasp and hard not to like, and by the time they hit California — land of “Sweedish berries” and “hellicopter helmets” — they were getting air time on national TV.

The three-month odyssey ended with a whimper, though, when the guys returned to Deck’s Somerville home to face a summons from the National Park Service: A sign they had corrected at the Grand Canyon was, it seemed, a 1932 hand-painted artifact, its mispunctuation protected by federal law. Deck and Herson could have gotten away with it — but they had posted the damning evidence on their own blog. Fined, muzzled, mocked in the media, and given a year’s probation, they closed the incriminating website and hunkered down.

But in the same spirit of enterprise that launched the trip, Deck and Herson have now made lemonade from that sour experience. In their new book, “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” (Crown, $23.99), they tell their side of the story: The arduous weeks on the road, the 437 typos spotted, the 236 corrected.

Yes, you could find 437 typos closer to home in a lot less time, just by reading newspapers and restaurant menus, without putting an ounce of CO2 into the atmosphere. But where’s the adventure in that? Deck, the instigator and narrator, understands that the idea of two Dartmouth grads setting forth to rid the world of “hooded sweatts” and “braclets” is comic at its core, and he wisely takes a mock-heroic tone: “Your/you’re confusion, comma and apostrophe abuse, transpositions and omissions….Each one on its own amounted to naught but a needle of irritation thrusting into my tender hide. But together they constituted a larger problem, a social ill that cried out for justice.”

And so begins the quest to right such wrongs, sometimes by stealth, where possible with cooperation from the perpetrators or their enablers. Sometimes it’s easy: In New Orleans, a mellow fellow at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville responds to news that his chalkboard says “Thrusday” with, “Sure, if it’s wrong, we can fix it.” But weeks later, in what must have been one of the more discouraging encounters, the clerk at an educational toy store in Hudson, Ohio, refuses the team’s offer to repair “in doors” and “year around fun”: “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign,” she tells them.

Even with such provocation, the daring duo manages to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. (For better and worse; after all, it’s righteous rage that gives a good rant, like Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” its tang.) Instead, between the pit stops and language face-offs, they offer a series of soul-searching digressions: Do we care about just spelling, or usage too? Are we Grammar Hippies or Grammar Hawks? Is the issue really clear communication, or are apostrophes just class markers? And above all, is this truly a Meaningful Enterprise?

Eventually, back in Massachusetts, they have their eureka moment as they observe a first-grade language drill in a Malden charter school: Education is the key! TEAL will “proactively enable the next generation of communicators” by helping to get phonics back into the education mainstream.

How much of this theorizing went on in real time, on the road, only the knights-errant know for sure (though I’ll note that both authors write fiction). But the result is a creditable buddy adventure — “Harold and Kumar Proofread America,” say, or “Dude, Where’s My Sharpie?” — only with G-rated language, as befits a quest to improve the nation’s literacy. (The swear-free account had me wondering, I admit: Did someone’s agent whisper “Disney movie”? Could be; for all the cold beer on tap, the team’s only brush with gross-out content is Herson’s violent disagreement with a fast-food burger.)

The tale’s major weakness, in fact, is the meager variety of typos. Of the top 10 errors the writers tabulated, five are apostrophe misuses — a broad hint that we might be better off just abolishing the apostrophe (as Deck himself suggests). Subject-verb agreement makes the list (“Lemons sure is tasty”), but all the others are plain misspellings (restaraunt), double-letter confusions (dinning room, desert/dessert), and unstressed vowel missteps (independance, definately).

So if a movie script should come to pass, the screenwriters will want to invent some more outrageous mistakes. We Americans, it turns out, just aren’t the wild and crazy spelling anarchists we’re made out to be.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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What do these words and phrases have in common? Friend, Google, TiVo, log in, contact, barbecue, unlike, concept, text, Photoshop, leverage, party, Xerox, reference, architect, parent, improv, transition, diligence, host, chair, gift, heart, impact?

They’ve all been declared–by someone, somewhere, whether a usage expert or just a self-appointed language cop–”not verbs.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re useful, interesting, or entertaining as verbs; to many people, if a word began its life as a noun, then ”verbing” it (like I did there) is just wrong.

This visceral reaction is the motivating force behind the recently popular, one man’s impassioned plea against this kind of verbing. The site’s elaborate (and funny) arguments against login’s verb status really boil down to a simple denial. ”I will repeat the important part for clarity: ‘login’ is not a verb. It’s simply not,” he writes.

The history of English, however, suggests that the language is remarkably flexible in terms of what can be verbed. Almost any word can be drafted to serve as a verb, even words we think of as eternal and unchanging, stuck in their more traditional roles. It’s easy to think of scenarios where ”She me’d him too much and they broke up” and ”My boss tomorrowed the meeting again” make sense.

(Linguists discussing this process sometimes avoid the nonstandard word verbing by using the technical terms denominal derivation or conversion instead. Rhetoricians are even less likely to use the word verbing and use the general term antimeria to describe any use of a word in a different part of speech.)

Objections to verbification in English tend to be motivated by personal taste, not clarity. Verbed words are usually easily understood. When a word like friend is declared not a verb, the problem isn’t that it’s confusing; it’s that the protester finds it deeply annoying.

Some of the outrage might be connected to verbing’s popularity as a feature of business jargon: Liase, incentivize, leverage, and status are often cited as horrible bizspeak to be shunned at all costs. (Why are businesses supposed to be superefficient in everything but their use of language? ”He didn’t have a chance to status us before he left” is four words shorter than ”He didn’t have a chance to give us a status update before he left.”)

Some not-a-verb declarations are made for reasons that are more financial than linguistic: Google, TiVo, Adobe, and Xerox want to defend their trademarks, and one way to do that is to announce loudly, and at every opportunity, that Google, TiVo, Photoshop, and Xerox are not, repeat NOT, verbs. Xerox occasionally runs ads in major magazines (most recently in the Hollywood Reporter this past May) reminding people that Xerox is still a trademark, and asking writers not to use Xerox the trademark as a verb.

Given the outrage, why do people verb? Often, it’s a shortcut: There comes a point where text is just a shorter way to say ”send a text message.” And there’s a kind of cultural currency to verbing, which might be a reason that it’s a staple of television writing. (There’s an episode of ”Seinfeld” where Kramer says ”Let’s bagel!”; and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” used proper names as verbs on multiple occasions, including Keyser Soze, Clark Kent, and Scully.)

But something deeper is going on, too: When done well, verbing delights our brains. Philip Davis, a professor at the School of English at the University of Liverpool, devised a study in 2006 that tested just what happens when people read sentences with verbed nouns in them–and not just any verbed nouns, nouns verbed by Shakespeare. (Shakespeare was an inveterate noun-verber; he verbed ghost, in ”Julius Caesar, I Who at Phillipi the good Brutus ghosted”; dog, in ”Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels”; and even uncle, in ”Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.”)

So what did happen? When people were confronted with verbed nouns (in sentences such as ”I was not supposed to go there alone: You said you would companion me.”) EEGs measured their brains recognizing a syntactic anomaly, but not a semantic one. In other words, the subjects understood–in a time measured in milliseconds–that something cool and new was happening. And they immediately got what it meant. Their double-take was measurably different from the one caused by hearing nouns or verbs unrelated to the context of the entire sentence (”you said you would charcoal me” ”you said you would incubate me”).

Granted, it was just one study, and using Shakespearean language to boot. But if there’s even a slight chance that verbing attentions people, wouldn’t it be a shame not to take advantage of it?

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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‘Would’ pile

What’s so wrong about stacking up your conditionals?

“It is wrong to write or say If I would have hit him I would have killed him,” declared Wilson Follett in “Modern American Usage” (1966). “No would haves of this kind follow each other.”

But of course they did, and do. Take basketball commentator Reggie Miller on LeBron James’s move to Miami: “If he would have stayed in Cleveland and won one championship…we would have put him on Mount Rushmore.” Or Dutch footballer Mark van Bommel, stacking up conditionals after the World Cup final: “If Robben would have scored in the one-on-one…we could have won this.”

This kind of double conditional is wrong, wrong, wrong, 20th-century usage mavens agree. In the best prose, it’s not “if he would have scored” but “if he had scored, we could have won.” This isn’t a close call: When the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel was asked to rule on the double would — “If she would have only listened to me, this never would have happened” — only 14 percent called it acceptable.

And yet, our distaste for the double would may be a fairly recent prejudice. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage dates the earliest objection to 1924, when a college grammar manual laid down the law. Is this one of the (many) language rules codified only around the start of the 20th century, amid the boom in popular usage advice?

The evidence suggests that it is. I haven’t found any earlier pronouncements on the evils of double would, but Google Books supplies plenty of evidence of the usage itself in 18th- and 19th-century texts. Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” for example: “I believe, if I would have let him, he would have worshipped me.” Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon”: “They would not have been here if they would have only let peaceable people alone.” Trollope’s “Prime Minister”: “If Emily would have yielded to her she would have arranged meetings at her own house between the lovers.”

It’s not just novelists who embraced the loose construction. Sober scholars — especially, for some reason, theological writers — also indulged in the double would. And even the grammarians of earlier centuries didn’t treat it as a problem. For instance, an 1875 grammar book, “First Work in English,” includes in one exercise a sentence from Smollett’s “Roderick Ransom”: “If our consternation would have permitted, we might have retreated with great order.” But the exercise has nothing to do with conditionals, and there’s no suggestion that the sentence as it stands is faulty.

John Lesslie Hall, the author of “English Usage” (1917), is equally oblivious of the double conditional (would/might) in a sentence he quotes: “It was often said, that if Cromwell would have…given him a good round pension, that he might have been induced to resign his title.” Hall has other fish to fry: “The second that is clearly redundant,” he says.

I’m not suggesting that the double would was ever widespread; in fact, if it follows the usual pattern, it was probably condemned only after it became too popular to ignore. Most writers in earlier centuries preferred the crisper “If we had known,” as most writers do today.

But I’m not surprised that the double would persists in informal speech. When you’re waxing hypothetical, the urge to underline the contrary-to-factness of your supposition by throwing in an extra conditional seems natural enough. If I would’ve been a basketball star instead of an editor, I would probably do it, too.

. . .

TOO GOOD TO CHECK: Have you been gnashing your teeth recently at the syndicated columnists who accuse President Obama of overusing “I” and “my” (overweening egotism!) or the passive voice (girlie talk!)?

Or maybe you did your teeth-gnashing during the previous administration, when George W. Bush was persistently mocked for the alleged speech blunders collected and published as “Bushisms”?

Whatever your political allegiance, when you hear this kind of “language analysis,” your fact-checking antennae should be twitching. No, Obama doesn’t use a lot of passive verbs (and no, passives aren’t especially “feminine”), as Kathleen Parker alleged in a recent Washington Post column. Nor does he overdo the first person, as George Will and Charles Krauthammer have claimed; linguist Mark Liberman, checking the archives, found that Clinton and both Bushes racked up higher totals.

And no, Bush was no more goof-prone than the average guy. Back in 2004, in a post at Language Log, Liberman defended the president against “Bushisms” collector Jacob Weisberg. “You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and…non-standard pronunciation or usage.”

These allegations about language are easy to check, but you can’t assume that a writer, however famous and well paid, has done so. For journalists, says Fred Vultee, who recently refuted Krauthammer’s latest claim at Headsup: The Blog, that’s yet another reason for pessimism. “Do newspapers even deserve to survive,” he asks, “if they publish writers who care so little about the facts?”

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Click here

In those old dark days before the Internet (and before Twitter!), if you were stumped on a question of style, or puzzled as to how to use a word, you pretty much had a single option: Look it up in a book.

Mostly that book was “the dictionary,” unless you were erudite enough to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage lying around, or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. The really hard-core might have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or Garner’s Modern American Usage. But still: one book, maybe two, to satisfy every question you might have about word use in English? The Internet came none too soon.

There are now plenty of well-established sites for those interested in discussing questions of meaning, usage, pronunciation, and style. And just in the last couple of months, we’ve seen several great new resources come online — Web pages, blogs, and Twitter feeds. If you wanted, you could spend all day hopping from one to another. Here are a few worth your attention.

The Economist, that venerable magazine (which calls itself a newspaper, which is itself a usage question), recently relaunched its language blog, Johnson (named after Samuel, of course). Johnson, which originally ran as a column in the magazine from 1992 to 1999, concerns itself with the “effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world” and covers plenty of topics of interest to readers of this column, including presidential use of possibly-offensive words, the verbing of nouns, and the word “halfalogue” to refer to the familiar annoyance of hearing only half of a cellphone conversation. The Economist’s style guide is also online, and is written in the same style as the magazine, with lovely, take-no-prisoners sentences such as “To write Washington and Moscow now differ only in their approach to Havana is absurd” and “However, it is often possible and even preferable to phrase sentences so that they neither give offence to women nor become hideously complicated.”

The website of the British newspaper The Guardian has also made its style guide available online, and it recently joined Twitter (@guardianstyle) to parcel out bite-size style nuggets, such as “moon walk — what Neil Armstrong did; moonwalk — what Michael Jackson did.”

Twitter has become a hotbed of word and language advice lately. All the usual suspects now have Twitter accounts: @MerriamWebster, @CambridgeWords, and @OEDOnline (as well as the dictionary site I run, @Wordnik). A new addition is the Subversive Copy Editor, @SubvCopyEd, the Twitter feed of Carol Fisher Saller, the author of the book of the same name and the editor of the online Q&A for the Chicago Manual of Style. (The CMOS, as it is familiarly known, is also available online by subscription only, but the Q&A is free.) In preparation for the 16th edition of the CMOS, she’s been tweeting “sneak peeks” of new style guidelines forthcoming in the new edition, such as “Possessives of classical proper names ending in an eez sound add apostrophe-s (Xerxes’s armies).”

Other usage mavens on Twitter include @EditorMark, an Ohio-based copy editor, and @GrammarMonkeys, the copy editors at the Wichita Eagle. Ben Zimmer, who recently took over William Safire’s On Language column in The New York Times, has set up a separate Twitter account just for column updates, @OnLanguage. There’s also @Copyediting, the Twitter feed of Copyediting Newsletter, which posts advice geared more towards professional copy editors, such as “Be careful when a state abbreviation is also a word itself — like ‘Ark. flood.’ ”

Another great usage website — not new, but less well-known outside of journalism circles — is the Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner. Helmed by Merrill Perlman, the legendary former director of The New York Times copy desks, it is always well-informed, pithy, and fun to read. The Language Corner helps with topics such as whether careful writers really need to follow trademark owners’ guidelines for use of their trademarks (nah — they can only suggest, not enforce, so it’s OK to write Taser instead of TASER), or the difference between proven and proved.

With all these different sources at our fingertips, it’s tempting to think that the there’s always a quick route to “the” answer online. But the very multiplicity of places to find answers — and the often inside-baseball look at the issues that even professional editors struggle with — points up an important fact about English usage and style: It’s often purely a matter of taste.

No usage expert has all the answers. And as more and more voices join the conversation, we’re seeing the world of usage advice change from “you must say it this way” dogmatism to something more akin to music or film reviews: a variety of knowledgeable people offering themselves as guides, walking readers through an arena where there’s plenty of room for debate.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Fine distinctions

Can we really tell ‘genuine’ from ‘authentic’?

The quiz show host opened with a round of questions on word pairs, starting with the simplest: ”What is the difference between further and farther?” Aha, I thought, turning up the volume. Maybe I can’t spout 19th-century poetry like the educated Brits on the panel, but usage distinctions —that’s my line. We use farther for literal measures of distance, further for figurative ones.

But the quizmaster of ”My Word!” — the BBC radio show broadcast from 1956 till 1990, and now airing in repeats on several public radio stations — quickly escalated the challenge. How about the difference between convince and persuade? I knew ”convince to” was frowned upon in some circles, but it was no longer a distinction that obsessed editors. Vengeance and revenge? Ummm — vengeance is more formal?

Authentic and genuine? Wait, I learned this one just last year — but wasn’t the distinction so fine that nobody could ever figure out how to apply it?

Since the questions were drawn from the venerated H.W. Fowler, whose ”Modern English Usage” appeared in 1926, it’s not surprising that the panelists and I didn’t always have pat answers. We groped around, drawing on our experience to infer what the subtle differences might be — which is, of course, how we learn most of our vocabulary. But these four fine distinctions had once rated inclusion in the 20th century’s most admired usage guide; where had they come from, I wondered, and what had become of them?

Further and farther, for starters. A mid-19th-century usage book notes that though some writers distinguish between farther and further, ”they are, in fact, the very same word: further, however, is less used than farther.” By Fowler’s time, further had taken the lead, and he expected it to prevail. That may yet happen, but we’re still resisting: ”Farther refers to physical distance,” says the AP Stylebook, ”further…to an extension of time or degree: She will look further into the mystery.”

Convince vs. persuade? Two hundred years ago, the earliest English synonym books explained that persuade had to do with emotional appeals and convince with reason and logic. You were convinced of conclusions, persuaded to actions. The New York Times style guide has the summary I remembered: ”Convince cannot be followed by a to phrase.” But the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel disagrees: In a 1996 survey, 74 percent OK’d ”I tried to convince him to chip in.”

The other two pairs don’t even rate a mention in the AP or New York Times stylebooks. In ”Garner’s Modern American Usage” (2009), Bryan Garner says, just as Fowler did, that vengeance is more likely to relate to impartial justice, revenge to personal score-settling. Fowler, however, added that the distinction was ”neither very clear nor consistently observed.” That hasn’t changed, especially since vengeance comes in handy as hyperbole: See pro wrestling (”Kane’s quest for vengeance”) and Hollywood (”Furry Vengeance”).

As for authentic and genuine, they owe their prominence to the 18th-century Bible scholars who used authentic to mean ”in accordance with facts” and genuine to mean ”not counterfeit.” This slippery distinction was doomed from the start; Fowler noted that it was ”by no means universally observed,” and Garner deems the words ”interchangeable in most sentences.”

”Interchangeable in most sentences” is not, of course, the same as ”synonymous.” Nobody denies that there are shades of meaning that make one word more appropriate for some speakers in some contexts. But between the dry land, where most people agree on farther and convince, and the ocean, where it’s mostly further and persuade, there’s a tidal zone where the boundaries are constantly shifting.

This area of uncertainty was a huge frustration to language mavens of the period we might call the Great English Tidying-Up, roughly from 1860 to 1960. A growing middle class was hungry for instruction in bettering its English, and journalists, teachers, and scholars hustled to meet the demand. The new mavens were openly competitive, scoffing at one another and insisting that their (ever finer-tuned) rules were the only right ones. If two words overlapped in sense — admission and admittance, avoid and avert, generally and usually, hurry and hasten, partially and partly — some usage adviser would come up with a rule to guide the choice.

Some usage rules survive from those days — the journalistic fetish about over and more than, the aversion to loan as a verb, the anxiety over healthy for healthful, the (theoretical) differentiation of hanged and hung. And subtle distinctions are still on offer, for those who want to adopt them: Garner has nearly 900 densely packed pages of advice.

But inventing and tweaking such semantic distinctions is no longer a major part of the language adviser’s job. For better or worse, Americans today are comfortable splashing around on their own in the tidal zones of ambiguous usage.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Language police

A failure I’d love to watch

You may have missed this news, but The Queen’s English Society, self-appointed defenders of proper speech and writing since 1972, recently announced plans to set up an Academy of English.

The goal is to guard against “impurities” and “bastardizations” by ruling on what in English is correct, and what is simply unacceptable. The academy would be modeled after the Académie Française, which for nearly 400 years has rigorously policed which words are allowed into official French, as well as similar bodies in Spain and Italy.

The idea of an Academy of English isn’t a new one — Jonathan Swift suggested one in 1712, with one of his goals being to prevent people from pronouncing words like rebuked with two syllables instead of three (he preferred re-buke-ed). But it’s not one that has ever made much progress towards reality.

As a lexicographer, I used to be strongly against the idea of an Academy of English. English is too widespread and dynamic, and English speakers too creative, to be reined in by some stodgy committee debating whether or not toughicult (tough + difficult) or oneitis (the condition of concentrating romantic attention on one person) can be considered “standard English.”

But this recent attempt by the Queen’s English Society has me thinking, cynically, that perhaps this time an Academy of English is a good idea. Not because English needs a standards body — or could ever possibly obey one — but because I think that, by showing just how ludicrous and unworkable a standards-setting body would be, we can get people to think more kindly of English as it is, and stop lamenting that everyone else’s language isn’t up to snuff.

The founder of this current incarnation of the “Save English” movement is Martin Estinel, a 71-year-old retired translator and interpreter who lives in Switzerland. Part of his motivation for founding the academy lies in his discomfort with people who use the word gay to mean anything other than “happy,” and his desire to keep any other words from going down the same path.

It’s hard to find anyone under the age of 71 who feels as strongly about gay as Mr. Estinel, and the other bugbears of the Queen’s English Society seem just as wrongheaded. The society has taken a stand against gender-neutral language (such as chairperson) and the use of the title Ms.; it is strongly opposed to txtspeak (though the overwhelming evidence shows that txtspeak is not overtaking standard English), and deplores Americanisms. Its battle plan, in other words, is one long rear-guard action against natural language change.

A new academy would (in its own words) “have a body to sit in judgment,” but hasn’t yet nominated anyone to do the actual judging. This is where things could get interesting. From my point of view, anything that focused our attention on the validity of the rules themselves, rather than on someone supposedly breaking the rules, would be a great thing for English.

We would want, of course, a process that unfolded as publicly as possible, starting with written statements of what the nominees believe to be standard and nonstandard English. There could be Oxford Union-style debates between candidates. Which writers, linguists, and general-purpose pundits would qualify? Who would be comfortable even allowing their work to be scrutinized to the extent necessary for their confirmation? Since it’s impossible for even the most devout prescriptivist to follow all the rules that he or she espouses (as the linguist Geoffrey Pullum has pointed out, even E.B. White, coauthor of “The Elements of Style,” broke his own rules), we could imagine the nominees having to defend first their rules, and then their infractions — much to the edification of those watching.

And, of course, we would want the potential academicians to take a public stand on real words — which they thought were useful additions to English, and which were pointless fads. They’d have to explain why some verbings of nouns were okay (campaign) while others were unacceptable (impact, gift), and exactly who is insulted by gender-neutral use of the word dude. There would be hours of discussion about what distinguishes a useful new word from vulgar slang or unacceptable jargon. (Bling and top kill alone could occupy entire news cycles.)

The UK-based academy is seeking a royal charter, which would imply some degree, however small, of governmental authority — and create other delicious questions, like whether it could blackball words from government publications, or sell licenses or seals of approval. Considering that they don’t just hand out royal charters, however, it’s fair to consider that something of a long shot.

There’s obviously something appealing in the idea of a set of rules for English: Just follow these few precepts and no one can criticize you, or so the thinking goes. It works for playing board games. But English is (thankfully) messier, wider-ranging, and much too alive to be hemmed in by a set of checklists and “don’ts.” So bring on the academy, I say: Let the arguments begin!

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Monster of rock

‘Megalithic’ and the power of metaphor

If global warming brings sea levels dangerously high, could “a megalithic building project” help Boston ward off the threat? A couple of weeks ago, Ideas writer Drake Bennett described such a proposal for a barrier in Boston Harbor, one that would use “massive sea gates that could swing shut to seal the city off from the most devastating storm surges.”

The idea drew responses not just from big-government and global-warming skeptics, but also from language watchers wondering why anything “megalithic” would be used in 21st-century construction. Our dictionaries, after all, define megaliths — literally, huge stones — as the slabs used by the ancient builders of dolmens and menhirs; so far as they tell us, megalithic means only “relating to [literal] megaliths.”

This time, it clearly doesn’t: It means something like “huge, imposing, impressive,” but not “made of stone.” “It’s an interesting metaphorical use,” e-mailed reader Bill Ossmann, who recognized that the word, in broadening its meaning, was only doing what comes naturally. But he wondered — as I did — “Is it new or just new to me?”

The answer was at my fingertips: In the past month alone, Google News supplied a soccer player described as “the megalithic Søren Larsen,” a reference to “Tchaikovsky’s megalithic Symphony No. 4,” and a plate of barbecued chicken praised as a “megalithic bundle of breast, thigh, drumstick, and wing.”

Further examples of the metaphoric megalithic are fairly common back to 1990 or so, and I’ve snagged one example from 1952, when The Wall Street Journal complained of the “strangling bureaucracy of megalithic government.” And at least one dictionary has noticed the innovation: The New Oxford American gives the figurative megalithic its own definition, “massive or monolithic.”

If only semantic change could always proceed so smoothly. Generally, of course, it does: We swim in a sea of metaphors we no longer notice, weighing our options, chairing meetings, kicking ourselves, feeling low and high and driven and pressured. (Did anyone ever object that an option has no weight?) New senses (metaphorical and otherwise) are constantly evolving, and most of them, naturally, suit our needs and set off no alarms.

But since the rise of popular language peeving in the 19th century, we’ve been increasingly fond of playing gotcha! with new words and usages. Of course, to the person with the peeve, this seems entirely reasonable — who wouldn’t want to save the world from incentivize? The history of usage prescription, however, is a litany of dire warnings about changes that now seem as minor as megalithic’s baby step into the figurative domain.

Extend an invitation, for instance. Today’s language watchers sometimes grouse about “Please RSVP” and an invite, but I’ve never heard a complaint about extending an invitation. A century ago, though, the phrase must have been newly fashionable, for it was roundly thumped by American language mavens. Richard Grant White called it pompous; Robert Palfrey Utter declared it condescending. And Ambrose Bierce attacked it at the root, as an unsound metaphor: If an invitation isn’t delivered by hand, he said, it can’t be “extended.”

As for your unkempt appearance: Once upon a time, you would have been chastised for using the word for anything but hair. Its literal sense is “uncombed,” but in the 19th century — despite the protests of etymological fundamentalists — unkempt was increasingly adopted as a synonym for disheveled. (Which would also apply only to hair, if etymology were destiny.)

And as recently as 1926, in “Modern English Usage,” H.W. Fowler was trying to beat back the figurative use of endorse. The original sense had migrated, by the mid-19th century, from “sign the back of” to our modern sense of “vocally support, approve,” and in the 20th century the flourishing young advertising industry heartily endorsed endorse. American usagists called it vulgar commercial language, but Fowler decided it was worse than bad taste: It was an “unsustained metaphor.” It was OK to endorse an argument or a claim on paper, he conceded, but the verb could not be applied to cornflakes or cars: “To talk of endorsing material things other than papers is a solecism.”

These arguments now seem oddly overwrought; their authors might better have simply said — as they sometimes did — “my friends and I don’t approve.” After all, it is our collective decision that deems a new usage acceptable or not, and reasons, good or bad, don’t seem to make much difference.

So welcome to megalithic, as it makes its metaphorical way forward. “Massive, imposing, solid” remain part of the package, it seems, but a literal stone is not essential. A megalithic soccer player? If you say so. A megalithic chicken? Allow for some foodie hyperbole and a forbiddingly full plate, and I can see it. A megalithic marshmallow would be harder to swallow, but who knows — someday our metaphorical rocks could be lighter than air. Words have been known to do stranger things.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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Geo whiz

How a prefix went from grounded to virtual

MAYBE “SUDDENLY hot prefix” isn’t a phrase you utter in everyday conversation, but if you’ve noticed the rise of geo- lately, you might be tempted.

Geo- used to be reserved for a set of fairly staid words: geography, geology, geometry. If you wanted to get fancy, you could reach for geodesy (the study of the measurement of the earth, and the root of the geodesic dome) or geomancy (telling the future by how dirt falls when thrown).

All of these words had a grounded quality — fitting for a prefix that came directly from an ancient Greek word meaning “earth.”

Over time, geo acquired a note of abstraction, of detachment from the ground itself. World events gave us geopolitical and geostrategy. The space race gave us geostationary — an orbit that puts a satellite in a steady position over the earth. There’s also the emerging field of geoengineering, large-scale manipulation of the planet to help mitigate the effects of global warming.

But lately we’re seeing a whole new set of geo- words come into common use, all accelerated by the rise of geodata. This is the location data created and emitted by cellphones and other devices equipped with GPS — devices that know where they are, and can remember and upload that information.

Any information you send from your GPS-enabled cellphone (such as pictures you post to Flickr, or tweets you send via Twitter) can be geotagged, marked with information about where you were when you took the photo or sent the tweet. Geoblogging involves marking your blog posts with geotags. Programs that send out or rely on geodata are sometimes called geoapps, and many new geoapps are based on the principle of geotility, giving you information that is useful to you where you are.

This kind of geoknowledge has created a whole new set of possibilities in the business world. Merchandisers can geotarget their ads, determining a user’s location from their IP address. Start-ups offering geolocation services — such as Foursquare or Gowalla — let users deliberately broadcast and share their locations with each other. This, of course, can lead to geomarketing, hitting consumers with marketing messages based on where they happen to be at any moment.

If you’ve ever tried to watch video on the BBC’s site in the United States (or on Hulu’s site in other countries) you might have encountered geofiltering or geoblocking, which restricts online content, especially video, to people in a particular geographic area.

Another interesting geo-idea is the geofence, a virtual boundary set up with the aid of GPS coordinates, usually in order to trigger some action or alert when crossing it. Geofences are already being used to track delivery people, rental cars, and wildlife in parks, and soon they’re expected to become more widespread — you might find yourself crossing a geofence near your favorite coffee shop, and suddenly a coupon for a free latte shows up on your cellphone.

The increased availability of GPS-enabled devices over the last 10 years has also led to the invention of a geo-game — geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt where you search (guided by GPS coordinates) for caches left by others. Caches are usually little waterproof containers with logbooks (to record that you found the cache) and sometimes little trinkets to share or trade. One popular trinket is a geocoin, a collectible coin that is either moved from cache to cache and tracked online, or kept as a trophy. Geotokens are less-expensive, laminated-paper geocaching markers that are also collected and traded. Not everyone is content to swap tokens and make entries in logbooks: Geosmashers deliberately ruin caches, sometimes in the name of environmentalism.

Some people are calling this whole new field of people making their own connections between data and place neogeography (or, sometimes, neo-geo) and use it to describe everything from geotagging their vacation photos to those “Where’s Santa Now?” maps news stations display on Christmas Eve.

The new eruption of geo-words has created an interesting shift for the prefix itself. In this neo-geography, the world is no longer defined by a single map of the terrain — it’s a collection of multiple, overlapping virtual maps that only certain people can see. Geo- has changed from being a prefix concerned with our entire large, real, physical planet to being one that indicates a tight focus on one particular place, or even one person.

Its rise offers an interesting contrast to the decline in cyber-type words — cyberspace, cyberchat — which implied we were abandoning our real-world locations to hang out in some placeless virtual world. Some folks are calling this new geo-smart realm the geoweb. The promise of this new domain — and its prefix of choice — is that the limitless information we’ve come to expect in the online world is now crossing over to the “real” one, right to wherever on Earth we’re standing.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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Correction isn’t the most important thing

For schoolchildren, the red pen has long been a fearsome weapon, blazoning the marks of failure on once pristine writing assignments. And in recent years, many teachers have turned down the volume, switching from red’s loud rebuke to gentler purple pens. Now research has illuminated another aspect of the red-pen effect: A study published last month reveals that teachers armed with red pens actually grade more severely than those using blue.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found that when participants marked up a paper supposedly written by an English learner, the red-pen wielders found more language mistakes to criticize. And when asked to grade a paper with no actual errors — just some doubtful style choices — the red-inksters awarded lower overall marks than the blue team.

The researchers — Abraham Rutchick of California State University, Northridge, Michael Slepian of Tufts University, and Bennett Ferris of Phillips Exeter Academy — don’t address whether marking more errors is good or bad (though earlier studies have linked the color red with failure). Their main point, Rutchick noted in an e-mail, is that “we’re constantly bombarded with stimuli that influence how we think and act, even (especially?) when we’re trying our hardest to be objective.”

But the urge to correct is a powerful thing, and when their results were published, even that mild conclusion drew hoots and catcalls from some online commenters. Tom Jacobs, who reported the study’s results at the website of the Californian magazine Miller-McCune, got a virtual earful about squishy liberals and their feel-good pedagogy. Teachers “SHOULD use the [pen] that causes them to find the most errors!” said one. “If you don’t mark the mistakes they made properly, they’ll never learn.” Another reader called the research “meaningless claptrap,” adding, “Big problem today is teachers not correcting things, whether in red, green, pink or purple ink.” (It goes without saying, I suppose, that there were mistakes in these comments, including two failed attempts at the plural possessive students’.)

The zero-tolerance legions are sure of their principles, if not their apostrophes. They never question the assumption that correcting pupils’ language mistakes will help them to write better. They’re scandalized by “invented spelling” — the radical idea that 6-year-olds might write more and (eventually) better if they weren’t smacked down for every inaccurate guess. They revel in outrage, like the writing teacher who declared that if he saw a comma fault — that is, a comma used where a semicolon or conjunction is traditionally required — he stopped reading the paper and gave it an F. (A “comma fault” is not always wrong, of course; “I came, I saw, I conquered” has two of them.)

And many a former student can tell of similar abuses. At Stan Carey’s language blog, Sentence First, an Irishwoman recently told how her elementary-school teacher would cut out the “wrong” words in homework and send pupils outside to bury the shameful scraps. The discussion continued at John McIntyre’s blog, You Don’t Say, where a reader recalled a teacher who “gave an automatic F for any piece of writing containing the word ‘thing.’ ”

Non-teachers, though powerless to enforce their peeves, also enjoy making a show of zero tolerance — like the commenter who planned to tune in a radio interview with Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The New York Times, but only provisionally: “If he says ‘basically’ or ‘essentially’ once, I turn it off.” Presumably, such people think they’re spreading the usage gospel; without them, we poor language sinners would continue to walk in darkness.

But even if the peevers were always right — which is not even close to true — the zero-tolerance approach betrays a misunderstanding of language learning (as well as a dim view of human nature). Toddlers don’t need to be rudely corrected whenever they brave a new construction; “the dog runned away” will become “ran away,” the “mouses” will turn into “mice,” and they’ll end up talking like their friends and families.

Why should writing be different? It’s harder than talking, but like any skill, it’s mastered by imitation and practice. Making prose, like making art or music, is a process of experimenting, revising, and remodeling; the errors that peevers love to pounce on are often the least important (and most fixable) of all the ways writing can go wrong.

If even good students are writing worse today — and it may be so — my (unscholarly) guess is that it’s lack of exposure to models, not lack of correction, that ails them. If you don’t read much — not only great books, but even everyday competent exposition — you won’t get the rhythm of long-form language into your bones. And without that, writing will be a struggle.

Sure, if you’re an editor, you want to flag every problem in a story that’s destined for print. But in most lines of work, peeving over other people’s language is mere preening: Nyah, nyah, your modifier is dangling! It’s only natural to cherish a few language peeves. But if your red-pen reflex is overactive, you might ask yourself — is all that indignation doing you, or the world, any good?

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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One-day wonder

How fast can a word become legit?

How fast can a word enter the language?

A couple of weeks ago, an apparently totally made-up new word seemed to set the land-speed record for the jump from “early use” to “inclusion in a dictionary.” On May 12, the word malamanteau showed up in the Web comic xkcd, where it was defined as “a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism.”

It’s not the clearest definition ever written, but the idea is that a malamanteau blends one or more not-quite-right words to create a completely new one. Examples include the classic misunderestimated, bewilderness (as in “lost in the bewilderness”), and insinuendos (innuendo + insinuation).

The comic in which it appeared — self-described as a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” and beloved by Web geeks — showed the word malamanteau as the subject of a Wikipedia page, with the caption: “Ever notice how Wikipedia has a few words it really likes?”

And just like that, we were off. In a sterling example of life imitating art, a Wikipedia page for malamanteau was speedily created — and just as rapidly deleted for “not being a real word,” but not before generating thousands of words of discussion as to its “realness,” “notability,” and general usefulness or lack thereof.

I’m a regular reader of xkcd (even its name appeals to wordy people — it was deliberately chosen by the author, Randall Munroe, to be an unpronounceable and meaningless four-letter word). So when I saw malamanteau show up in the comic strip, the very first thing I did was head to Wordnik, the collaborative online dictionary that I run. I wasn’t disappointed: By the time I got there, the word already had its own entry, complete with reference to its appearance in xkcd and examples of malamanteaux (the preferred plural). The word quickly made it to the Urban Dictionary, too, although the first meaning there, where users vote on their favorite meanings of words, is slightly different. There, it’s “a word defined to infuriate Wikipedia editors.” Time from the word’s debut in a comic strip to appearance in a dictionary: less than half a day.

True, for many English speakers, use in a Web comic and inclusion in a couple of online dictionaries are not enough to establish malamanteau as a “real” word. But whether you consider malamanteau to be a real word or an elaborate joke, it is a classic example of the kind of word that people argue about when they argue about what makes a word real.

Some people feel that words made up, on purpose, as jokes can never be real — that they always keep their second-class status. Others feel that words need to “cure” for some unspecified period of time, cooling their heels in the English-language waiting room, until they’re admitted to the list of things generally accepted as words.

But if we leave the circumstances of its birth aside, malamanteau already has a number of the qualities we associate with real words. It has a clearly defined meaning (leaving aside the Wikipedian-irritant one), and seems to be fairly useful (we all recognize the real-world phenomenon that it attempts to describe). It has been used, or at least looked up, by thousands of people — on May 12 it made the top 10 list on Google Trends, and the word has been looked up more than 1,800 times on Wordnik.

Why then the knee-jerk “not a real word” reaction of so many people to malamanteau? Since online dictionaries are effectively limitless in scope, it’s not like malamanteau is taking up space that would be better used for other words. And it’s not crowding out a worthier word, as there wasn’t already a well-known term for this phenomenon. Its comic-strip origins may cast a shadow on its credibility, but comics have given us a number of new words — brainiac, goon, and skunkworks were all either coined or popularized in comics.

And it’s not even as new as its detractors claim. It has appeared once before, in 2007, when it was proposed by a commenter on the website Metafilter as a term for language errors such as flustrated (for flustered + frustrated) and misconscrewed (for a blend of misconstrued and screwed, as in “I misconscrewed it up”). The commenter, Steve Goldberg, a Philadelphia musician, also suggested portmanpropism as an alternative. But until xkcd gave it a boost this month, neither one showed any signs of catching on.

So: Is malamanteau a “real” word? It may depend on what you consider real — does a word’s “realness” comes from its use, or from its pedigree? For some, malamanteau will only become real when it’s used, unconsciously, by someone who’s never heard of xkcd. Every old word was a new word once, and at some point “silly word prank” may yet turn into “etymology.” It’s possible that day will never come, but until then, I say, if it acts like a word, we might as well let it be one.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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