Thursday, December 31, 2009

Look Out! That Word's Been Banned!

Reuters today reported on some overused and icky terms that are now "banned."

Think "sexting," "unfriended," and any compound including the word "czar."

The Reuters piece is extremely informative -- not for what it says but for how it says it. You see, the headline tells us that several words are "in U.S. banned words list." Then the first paragraph says:

"Fifteen particularly over- or misused words and phrases have been declared 'shovel-ready' to be 'unfriended' by a U.S. university's annual list of terms that deserve to be banned."

Setting aside the all-around weirdness of this sentence, what interests me is its use of the passive "have been declared" to downplay rather important matter of: By whom? Who the hell has "banned" these words? Who thinks they have that authority? And who can get Reuters to treat them as though they have that authority?

Those are the types of questions that journalists like to draw attention away from because they make for much less-interesting articles.

"These words are banned, according to an annual list published by a U.S. university" seems to carry a lot more weight than ,"A U.S. university says that these words are banned."

And only after reading all that do we learn that the self-appointed word-banning czar isn't even one of the nation's best-known or most respected, though Lake Superior State U. now gets my vote for the most media-savvy.

Back when I was a reporter, I used to pull the same trick: Play up the implications, play down their validity. And if I didn't, my editors would do it for me. It's just how news works. And my guess is that readers are getting wise to this brand of sensationalizing.

So, while this brand of spin isn't necessarily so awful, the Reuters story nonetheless offers a "teachable moment" that makes me wonder whether media spin is a "toxic asset" calling for a "news czar" to declare such news stories "shovel-ready."

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Flurry of Aughts/Oughts

Earlier this year, I wrote here about about "the aughts," the name for the decade about to end. As I wrote, I prefer the spelling "aught" to the also-used "ought" because the former poses less risk of confusion.

Yesterday, Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times mentioned the "aughts." Today, the Los Angeles Times once again indirectly voted for the "ought" spelling.

Bad call, L.A. Times.

But at least the L.A. paper spells aka without spaces, as the New York paper did in the Krugman column linked above.
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Monday, December 28, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


As work continues on our bathroom addition, I become more — not less — confused about how to pronounce this word. Some people say it "WAYNE'S-coating," others say it "WAYNE-scotting."

So I finally went to, where they have audio files that let you hear the pronunciation, and here's what I heard: "WAYNE-skuh-DING."

I guess nobody knows. Sure looks pretty, though.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


In a fashion article I was editing today, the writer had said that a hairpiece metamorphosizes an entire ensemble.

I stared at it for a long time try to figure out why it seemed both right and wrong. In the end, all I figured out is that it's wrong -- at least, according to Webster's New World and, anyway.

Both dictionaries say the verb form of metamorphosis is metamorphose. No "ize."

Though it sure seems I hear a lot of people "ize" that word. I bet I've done it myself.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009


From the main page at today. Their layoffs are showing.
Okay .... NOW I'm going dark.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm Dark This Week

I'll be back next week!

- June
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Friday, December 11, 2009

Chopper's Delight

Came across this in my copy-editing work today:
Recovery time varies but is approximately about one week.

I bow down in awe of the inefficiency. I enjoyed this so much I was almost reluctant to change it. On the other hand, razing it was pretty enjoyable, too. It now reads:
Recovery time is about one week.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Man, Do I Hate Sentences Structured Like This

This surveying of the invited dinner guests is what led Joe to serve ham.

The trouble starts with the nominalized sentence subject, but it goes downhill from there. Why couldn't the writer have made "led" the verb instead of "is" to set up "is what led"?


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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ah, I Always Wanted a Term for That

In his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman uses the term "rent-seeking":

... the rapid growth in finance since 1980 has largely been a matter of rent-seeking, rather than true productivity.

It was a new one on me, so I looked it up.

Wikipedia says that, basically, rent-seeking means making money by exploiting economic factors instead of by producing something that creates real wealth.

Nice to know I'm not the only who's noticed how often this seems to happen.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Writing WTF of the Month

Here, modified just enough to keep me from getting into trouble, is a sentence from an article I copy edited yesterday.

"It was a lot of work," said Joe Mason of the 1968 Chevy Camaro he built using parts purchased at a half dozen local junkyards as well as a chassis and quarterpanels given to him by his dad, James Mason, an accountant at Bank of America, and assembled in his front yard over the course of six months to create what Joe had always said was his dream car.

And if you think that's bad, consider this: There was no previous mention of the Camaro anywhere in the story. That "It was a lot of work" referred to nothing the reader could yet know -- stuff that would only be explained retroactively in the quotation attribution.

The lesson here: "Of" in quotation attributions is a recipe for disaster.

To fix this monstrosity, I explained, in separate sentences, that Joe had built the Camaro, and put those sentences before the quotation.

Flabbergasted ...
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Copy Edits* du Jour

The new Yugo has an integrated powertrain, consequently offering tight handling.

Changed to: powertrain, offering tight handling.

Its adaptable headlamps reduce glare, thus improving safety.

Changed to … glare, improving safety.

Thus, as of today, I consequently declare that “thus” and “consequently” have no freakin’ business in a news or feature article. Sure, they're useful elsewhere. But newspaper writing requires simplicity and efficiency and has no space for words that add nothing. So from here out, I’m instituting what I call a Gandalf policy for these two words in any copy I edit, summed up as "You shall not pass."

*As always, I disgused the passages so's I don't get my little old self into trouble.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Modifier Dogpiles: There's a Frog on the Bump on the Log in the Hole in the Bottom of the Sea

From a Yahoo finance story today:

U.S. stocks fell on Monday as investors worried that the holiday shopping season might have gotten off to a tepid start as consumers trimmed purchases over the Thanksgiving holiday amid concerns about an uncertain economy.

There's nothing technically wrong with this sentence. It's just a great example of how, every day, I get worse at reading for content because I'm so focused on form. Whenever modifiers -- especially prepositional phrases but also subordinate clauses -- are dogpiled this way, I lose all focus on meaning and instead go to, "How might they have rearranged this information better?"

"on Monday," "as investors," "that the holiday," "as consumers," "over the Thanksgiving holiday," "amid concerns," "about an uncertain economy." How can I possibly be expected to pay attention under these circumstances?

There's a hole in my brain in my skull on the lobe where the thoughts on the meaning oughtta be ...

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, unless you're one of the people who messes up everyone else's Thanksgiving (I'm looking at you, Drunk Uncle Joe, the cousin who polishes up his holiday conversation skills by watching Fox news, and any family member who begins any sentence with "Why can't you be more like ....")

Everyone else in the U.S. have a happy holiday. (And for those outside the U.S.: Don't worry. You're not missing much, unless you enjoy seeing overweight Americans sitting on a couch with the top button of their pants undone.)

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Best-named Honeymoon Destination Ever

Nooki Nooki Island

In other news, NYT blogger Anahad O'Connor dedicated today's post to some typos in the menu at a White House dinner. "Willamette Valley" was spelled wrong in a wine description, "chickpeas" was written as two words and elsewhere there was one missing hyphen and one missing accent mark.

The point: "One person the White House apparently neglected to hire was a spell checker."

Too bad the wine wasn't from Molehill Winery. Then O'Connor could have bemoaned how no one changed it to Mountain Winery.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From Today's 'Fake AP Stylebook'

On Twitter, I follow Fake AP Stylebook, which is hilarious to anyone who's worked with the real AP Stylebook. One of today's entries:

Avoid using "decimate" as someone will pipe up about it meaning "remove 1/10th of," and those people are dicks.

: )

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I Love Google Maps Streetview

Nothing to do with language. Just thought others might enjoy this.

Here, caught on car-top camera by one of the people who were paid by Google to drive down every street this side of nowhere, we see: a man examining his fingernails while chatting on his cell-phone (presumably about his fab no-polish manicure), a carpetbag-carrying-dude with his carpetbag-carrying ghost, and a gentleman who spends his days wishing he lived on a planet where crosswalks were named crosstangos.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

What's the Tile Layer's Preferred Medium for Communication?

Tile, actually.

When I left the house yesterday morning, the guys laying the tile for our new bathroom warned me that they might need me to get them more "trims" -- the little edge tile pieces -- of the type known as "quarter rounds."

When I got home last night, I saw that they left me this note.

I'm just glad that I'm not working with a septic tank guy.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Not Commas But Not Not Commas, Either

I'm pondering the commas in this sentence, which was is based on a passage from a article:

"Then someone sees, not words on a page, but a vibrant person sitting across the table from them."

From time to time I encounter these structures while copy editing -- the "not blank but blank" structures. I'm never confident in how to handle them commawise.

Should "not words on the page" be set off with commas, as it is here? Clearly, the phrase is an insertion -- an interruption. But, combined with the "but" before "a vibrant," the commas sever the transitive verb (sees) from its likely intended object: (a vibrant person).

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with inserting parenthetical information between a verb and its object. But when the result is to resume the non-parenthetical with a "but" that comes before the object of the verb, it seems to create a logic problem for the whole structure.

My inclination is to leave the commas out: "Then someone sees not words on a page but a vibrant person sitting across the table from them."

I should note: The original sentence was actually a little more complicated: "If someone sees, not words on a page, but a vibrant, energetic person sitting across the table from them, age becomes much less of an issue."

Those other, obviously correct commas seem to somehow make commas around the "not blank but blank" phrase more beneficial.

If only this issue were as easy as whether to eat turducken.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Know You Could Spend Half a Day Wondering Whether This Is a Question (. ? . ? )

This morning, Ted found one of those hanging brochure thingies on our doorknob. The first sentence:
Know you could chase down the guy who left this on your door.

It's an ad for Gold's Gym, the message being that if I signed some centuries-long contract with them, I would be able to leap tall leaflet-hander-outers in a single bound. (They don't mention whether I would also look good in one of those Gold's Gym muscle tank-tops, and by "good" I mean "as ridiculous as all the other human knots who wear them.")

Anyway, we spent some time noodling over the intent of the sentence. At first, I thought it was a truncated question:
Did you know that you could chase down the guy who left this on your door?

But on the brochure it ended with a period and not a question mark.

Then we wondered whether "know" meant "now," but that didn't make sense either.

In the end, I found my guiding light some "Simpsons" dialogue. In an old episode, shyster lawyer Lionel Hutz is struggling to stay sober. He calls his sponsor, David Crosby, who says: "Just take it one day at a time. And know that I love you."

In other words, it probably means "know THAT you could." (There's nothing wrong with dropping a "that," unless by doing so you create enough confusion that it ends up on some stranger's blog.)

Know that I could, if I wanted to, find my way through life without "The Simpsons." It would just be a lot harder.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Words I'm Not Looking Up (First and perhaps last in a series on words that exist despite the handicap of not existing)


Some years ago, I ordered some chicory coffee and some beignet mix from a company called Cajun Creations, at which time I subscribed to their e-mail list.

Since then, every year around Thanksgiving, I get e-mails about deals on turduckens. I knew they were some kind of multibird bird, but never bothered to read more until today, when I finally read enough to learn the definition of turducken. From the Cajun Creations e-mail:
Turducken is the true taste of Louisiana. We take a turkey, duck, and a chicken, and de-bone all three (except for the legs and wings of the turkey). We put the chicken inside the turkey and then the duck inside the chicken.

It's going to take a long time to sort out my feelings about all this.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Copy-editing Catch of the Day

In "Rescue Me," Dennis Leary somehow makes his abrasive character endearing.



I realize that, linguistically, that's not very interesting. I'm just so ... damn ... proud I caught it.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Copy Edit du Jour

They sampled delicious tomato tartar.

Changed to:

They sampled delicious tomato tartare.

Mmmm. Delicious tartar. (Yuck.)

And for anyone who simply must know more about tartar, tartare, Tartars, and mayonnaise-based fish sauces, the Web has you covered.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Just When I Thought I Knew Every Possible Reason to Dislike Merriam-Webster ...

... I learned that, according to Merriam Webster, we copy editors don't copy edit. We copyedit.

I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm just saying it's gross, unseemly, disorienting, and disturbing. Other dictionaries let me copy edit, why can't Merriam?

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up


In a recent column on healthcare, Paul Krugman wrote that "the teabaggers have come and gone."

I've been hearing variations on this word a lot in the last few years, but not like that. Not like that at all.

Usually, the term is uttered by a Jon Stewart or a Seth Rogen and received by snickering twentysomethings privy to all kinds of filthy new figures of speech. I've resisted the temptation to look up the Stewart-Rogenesque form of the word because, well, I don't know. Maybe I'm getting too old for Beavis and Butthead humor. I certainly hope not.

But when a Princeton professor and New York Times columnist uses "teabagger," well, that lends some academic legitimacy to my search for truth.

But here's the thing: Neither Webster's New World online, American Heritage online, nor Merriam-Webster online contains an entry for "teabagger," nor for "teabag" or "tea bag" as a verb.

Which leaves readers like me with no better resource for understanding Krugman's comment than's definition of the verb "to teabag."

Hey, I wonder if there's an old Beavis and Butthead episode on ...

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Now THAT'S Etymology

I've never found word origins very interesting. Every once in a while, I'll wonder how we ended up with a word like "shampoo," so I'll look it up to see that it comes from a Hindi word meaning "to massage."

But for the most part, in those moments when I'm feeling both intellectually curious and energetic enough to do something about it, I'd much rather learn about chemistry or geology or modern French or credit default swaps than the points A, B, and C that one of our words passed through. (It probably has to do with my aversion to history and linear time in general.)

Today, however, I make an exception. It's a passage I came across in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in a chapter about corn.

"The shelled cobs were burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet paper. (Hence the American slang term "corn hole.")

Now that's etymology.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Whom Can We Rely On, New York Times?

In this New York Times grammar quiz, the failure to use "whom" is actually counted as an error of sorts in the question 7 in the passage: "If we can’t rely on the marketers or the government or even the nutritionists to guide us through the supermarket woods, then who can we rely on?"

The reason, the Times says, is that: "If the correct grammar — in this case, 'whom' — sounds stuffy, we should try to find a deft way to rephrase a sentence to make it both fluid and correct."

The key word is "try," which means it's not mandatory, which means the sentence is fine as-is.

The only alternative would be to consider "to rely on" off limits in interrogative uses like this.


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Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Moments in Copy Editing

Admission is $17 for adults, $10 for children ages 5 to 12. One child per adult under 5 is complimentary.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Copy Edit du Jour

The school receives funding from the Jones Foundation, which is dedicated to fostering lifelong learning.

changed to:

... which promotes lifelong learning.

Again, it’s a newspaper thang.

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If I Were Callin' the Shots Around Here ...

I'd say that "healthcare" is now officially one word (contrary to how the New York Times and one of the major dictionaries write it) but "cell phone" is not. Not yet, at least.

(Until it becomes more standard, "cellphone" will continue to make me think "selfown.")

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Copy Edit du Jour

... to ascertain the approximate time of death

changed to ..

... to figure out the time of death

(Here in newspaper land, nobody "ascertains the approximate" anything -- ever.)

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Monday, October 12, 2009

What Happens In Cabo ...

A friend of mine visiting Cabo stopped to snap this picture.

Thanks, Bill. At least now I know they're on to me.

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Berks are Such Knob Jockeys

Just started playing with this "British American Dictionary" -- a service of the BBC.

I recommend selecting "insulting words" and "England" from the pull-down menu.

I'm not really sure its purpose, but it sure would be handy for traveling American jerkwads who want to understand what a waiter in a London cafe is saying about them.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Weasel Words

There are a few words that are indispensible to the media and others because they allow them to imply things that they cannot ethically say. King of them all is "amid."

Suspect a correlation between the Afghan war debate and a sudden increase in the president's approval ratings? Just say, as Yahoo! News did in introducing an AP story yesterday: "Obama's job approval rises amid concerns."

Financial news sites would lost without the word "amid." Like "Stocks plummet amid interest rate fears."

Are interest rate fears causing the stocks to plummet? Are war concerns directly causing the spike in the president's approval rating? The news agencies don't know. They didn't research cause and effect. They only know there's a correlation.

But they suspect cause and effect. All they have to do is say one occurrence took place "amid" another.

I'm not saying this is bad, by the way. It's probably more often good than bad. The news agencies want to show that there probably is a cause-and-effect relationship at work. Just they didn't have the time or resources to prove it.

Still, even if they're using it honorably, "amid" still ranks as the ultimate weasel word.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

They're Finding Me, I Swear

Honest, I'm not looking for typos and other flubs. In fact, in the last few weeks I've been consciously ignoring AOL News and Yahoo! News boo-boos that jump out at me.

But not 20 minutes after I posted that last bad call by Yahoo! News, I saw this Kanye headline.

It's "led," Yahoo. Unless, of course, Kanye had been drinking from a Roman aqueduct. Surely one of your editors would tell you that -- if only you'd staff enough of them to cover the workload there.

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Online Service News Headline du Jour

Thanks, Yahoo! News, for letting us know that our president's review of a major war isn't an accident.

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Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

douchebag = 1,920,000 hits
douche bag = 799,000 hits

If the Google search is any indication, the dictionaries are making the wrong call. Enter "douchebag" into (which includes American Heritage), Merriam-Webster's site, or Webster's New World College Dictionary's site, and they'll politely suggest "douche bag" instead.

Of all these dictionaries, only acknowledges that the term actually describes a type of bag. The others list it only as an insult or slang.

I love English.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Icky Quotation Attribution du Jour

Jones elaborated that interest rates are low.

Not on my watch. It now reads:

Jones added that interest rates are low.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

From the 'How Not to Do It' File ...

Recently, a friend was digging around in a bookstore and found this passage in an old novelization (a paperback based on a movie as opposed to a movie based on a book).

“His gaze darted around nervously, as if apprehensive that somehow, in some insane fashion, someone would suddenly manage to pop out of hiding and surprise him.”

My friend did not tell me the writer's name. But she did mention that, despite this dazzlng prose, she "suddenly managed" to put the book down.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Does Not Compute

It's not uncommon to see in newspapers stuff like "homeowners insurance" without an apostrophe. It's not a mistake. The idea is that you can look at "homeowners" a descriptor and not a possessor.

But how, then, to explain Childrens Hospital Los Angeles?

It doesn't work the same way. While "homeowners insurance" could be insurance that pertains to homeowners, "childrens hospital" would be a hospital that pertains to children -- not childrens.

I also saw a reference to a Womens and Childrens Hospital.

I believe there's a strong trend in this direction. For some time now, publications and businesses have been seizing on justifications for omitting the apostrophe. They don't want to use these apostrophes, so they find reason they don't have to. But now it seems that, more and more, people aren't bothering with the "this is really a modifier" justification. They prefer no justification at all.

I'm not complain', mind you. And I'm certainly not trying to stop the trend. (I know how productive those little campaigns are.) I just don't know what it will mean when the dust settles. Will "womens" and "childrens" start appearing in dictionaries as modifiers? Will grammar books start to acknowledge phantom apostrophes (kind of like the zero relative you create when you change "I know that you like me" to "I know you like me")?

I just don't know.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

More Words I'm Looking Up


I just came across in a document I'm editing: "... those noise-cancelling headphones beloved of frequent flyers."

I don't remember ever hearing "beloved of" before. I thought it was always "beloved by." I tried some wondering and Googling, but the hits I got didn't help: 1.5 million for "beloved by," but most of them followed by the name Toni Morrison. 1.1 million hits for "beloved of," including lots of constructions like, "His beloved of twenty years."

Still, at the top of the hit list was a link to a page that included under "Examples from Classic Literature": There were Emperors beloved of literary men, Emperors beloved of the people ...

Still learning something new every day ...

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Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)

chitter: v. to twitter

How schweet.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thangs a Super (Boss) Might Should Know

A fraudster posing as West Virginia's governor got caught because a letter he sent out was riddled with bad grammar.

Here's the story:

Here's the moral:
If your grammar's so bad that West Virginians notice, you should stick to shoplifting.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Words that Inexplicably Rub Me the Wrong Way


I'm not sure why I hate the word sugar. Lord knows I eat enough of the stuff. But, when spoken, it really grates on my ear. Those consonants just don't belong so close together. Shggrr. It's so fuzzy and tongue-twisting compared to Spanish's crisp azucar and French's oh-so-French sucre.

And don't get me started on Suge Knight. I realize that spelling it "Shoog" or "Shugg" was not an option. But was it really better to spell it in a way that suggests the pronunciation "Sooge"? He should have stuck with Marion. Now there's a name with real street cred, courtesy of one D.C. mayor.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's 11 p.m. -- Do You Know Where Your Chicken Is? (Or: Do You Think I'm Anastos Boy?)

Longtime New York TV newsman Ernie Anastos recently told a colleague, on air, something that sounds a whole lot like "keep fucking that chicken." The context makes it more baffling. It seems he may have been trying to express something akin to "Keep up the good work."

I've never understood the mindless banter of local broadcast news nougatnoggins. But this is a step beyond.

Sure, he may have said "plucking." But I prefer an Urban Dictionary-type interpretation. Or perhaps his colleague really is henpecked.

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