Friday, May 29, 2009

Blogging Under the Influence of No Coffee

I looked at that excerpt from the Scripps website, which is pasted in the last blog entry, and immediately understood:

Merriam-Webster is the copyright holder. "(Webster's Third)" is the shortened name of the dictionary. Weird how I couldn't see that this morning ....

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Of Bees and Bookworms: Looking at Scripps' Official Dictionary

I was wondering whether the Scripps Spelling Bee people get their words from the same places the rest of us get our words from. So I went to their website and found this:

Official dictionary and source of words:

Webster's Third New International Dictionary and its addenda section, copyright 2002, Merriam-Webster, (Webster's Third) is the final authority for the spelling of words.

How odd that they’d answer such a simple question with such an ambiguously structured sentence. Does that mean that Merriam-Webster’s, Webster’s Third, and the addenda section of the international dictionary are one and the same – here, appositives – that are all copyright 2002? Is “Webster’s Third” a parenthetical renaming of Merriam-Webster and, if so, why is there a comma after “Merriam-Webster”? Does this mean Scripps relies on two dictionaries and, if so, why would the coordinated subject take the singular verb “is”?

I’m familiar with Merriam-Webster, it's the default dictionary of the Chicago Manual of Style. Webster’s New World College Dictionary is the default dictionary of the AP Stylebook. American Heritage, even though it doesn’t get such a nod from a major style guide, seems to rival the other two in popularity.

But Webster's Third New International Dictionary was a new one on me. I checked Amazon and learned why: It has a cover price of $129. Understandable for a huge, unabridged tome. But still, this means it’s not on most of our bookshelves. (I, for one, don’t spend that much on jewelry.)

So I thought I’d look up some spelling bee words in the dictionaries that we little people rely on. Here are some of the spelling bee words that cropped up in newspaper articles today and what I found when I looked them up in the online versions of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage via, and’s own entries (which often draw from other dictionaries):

laodicean: All four dictionaries list, offering similar definitions like “lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.”

ergasia: Merriam-Webster does not list the word, but offers a definition credited to Merriam-Webster’s Medical dictionary. American Heritage lists the word, its definition very similar to M-W’s: “the sum of the mental, behavioral, and physiological functions and reactions that make up an individual. Webster’s New World does not list.

kurta: M-W: yes. AH: no. yes, from its unabridged version. WNW: yes. Definition: “a knee-length, collarless shirt worn over pajamas by men in India”
or “a woman's dress resembling this shirt.”

apodyterium: M-W: no (but says it can be found its unabridged version, which users must pay to access). AH: no. yes (attributed to Webster’s Revised Abridged Dictionary. WNW: no. Definition: The apartment at the entrance of the baths, or in the palestra, where one stripped; a dressing room.

hebdomadally: All but WNW had a listing for this word, which means “weekly.” A search for hebdomadally WNW online turned up information about the word under listings for “regular” and “weekly.”

That’s better than I thought. I suspected that Scripps was acting sort of like that board game Balderdash, which, though great fun, picks some very questionable words.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

To Bee or Not to Bee 'Pedagogick'

For those who missed it, there's a piece in today's Los Angeles Times about early lexicographers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster and their influence on spelling. Johnson didn't believe that any word should end with C, and so filled his 3 million-word tome with stuff like "musick" and "publick."

Two generations later, enter Webster, who returned fire with a dictionary that nixed all those extra Ks, along with a lot of U's and Qs (think "colour" and "barque").

What interests me most about pieces like today's Times op-ed is not the content but the news hook. The author found in this week's National Spelling Bee a hook to discuss Johnson and Webster, who related directly to the op-ed writer's book, which he plugs in the tagline.

Still, book-promotion envy aside, I never knew that Noah's story had such a good arck.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Words I'm Not Looking Up (Because the Magical Fantastical Computer Box Thingy Is Looking Them Up for Me)

sui generis

Reading Paul Krugman's Sunday New York Times column today (better late than never), I came across this "sui generis." Terms like this used to frustrate me and make me feel like a dink for not taking Latin. But thanks to the magical, mystical computer box thingy, my days of stumbling over words like qua and quo and pro and ipso may be over.

I moved my cursor over the unfamiliar term and one of those little question marks popped up. It was a link straight to an online dictionary that said:

su·i ge·ne·ris (sū'ī' jĕn'ər-ĭs, sū'ē) adj.
Being the only example of its kind; unique.

He was talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger, by the way, and not 24 hours after I saw my esteemed governor buck naked in CGI form on the big screen, his fiscal assets obscured only by a little mist.

He's sui generis all right. And, though I don't know Latin, I'd venture to say that he's lots of things with the word "corpus," too. (Though lately his posteriori is looking a lot less delicto.)

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Coinage in My Head That Just Won't Mint

Two weeks before the deadline for my new book, I keep hearing in my head a term I think made up: “I hit the decimal point.”

Its bones are kind of like “it shit the bed” or “he screwed the pooch,” just without the yuck factor.

The idea is that I was trucking along writing this book (it's about sentence writing), working at a fine clip, when suddenly I noticed that the the words "the end" seemed to be moving further away. With every hour I put into the project, completion was set back an hour.

I remembered I needed to further explain something about adverbs. I realized that I'd stumbled on a disparity in the linguistics world that I had to find a way to deal with. (Experts, it seems, use the term "participial phrase" for the same thing that others call a "participial clause." Geoff Pullum from Language Log was kind enough to write me back and explain that, basically, it's a matter of interpretation. Just he explained it better than that.) I realized that I needed a chapter on quotation attributions (something that hit me around the jillionth time I edited a certain writer's use of "enthused" as quotation attribution. "Our peppermint facials are very soothing," Jones enthused. Yuck.).

Anyway, "I hit the decimal point" seemed the only way to explain how I seemed to be getting infinitesimally closer to finishing -- but never done.

I've always wondered about how phrases get coined. I've always found it fascinating how, one day I hear a co-worker say, "You rock," then suddenly I'm hearing it everywhere I turn -- for twelve years and counting.

But, today, I think I've unlocked one secret of phrase coinage: In order to catch on, it has to be good.

Also, I hope I've unlocked the secret of how to apologize for being an AWOL blogger without resorting to the tedious blog opener "Sorry I haven't blogged in so long"). The secret: Bury the apology under a long story about how busy I've been.

(Sorry 'bout that.)

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Great Moments in Copy Editing

" ... enjoy an appetizer of Shrimp Louis or Lump Crap Cocktail ..."

And here's what's not so great about this moment in copy editing: I didn't catch the typo. One of my colleagues did -- after yours truly had read the document.


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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Art of Saying Something When You've Got Nuthin'

Today's Los Angeles Times has an article about some of the people whom Obama might tap to fill David Souter's Supreme Court seat. It mentions Solicitor General Elena Kagan, federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, federal appeals court judge Diane Wood, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

A fascinating list. But where does it come from? The writers never say. In fact, the article and the short trail of articles leading up to it form a case study in wily writing.

The subhead of today's article: "Obama is apparently debating whether to choose a traditional nominee or opt for a 'real world' selection."

The lead sentence: "As President Obama's search for a Supreme Court justice progresses, it appears that the White House has locked in two competing sets of nominees ..."

From the next sentence: " ... much of the speculation about who will succeed (Souter) has centered on candidates such as ..."

The next sentence forms the basis of the whole article: "But the president's own words have made some of the obvious favorites less obvious.

The next sentence is designed to substantiate the prior: "Obama said his choice would possess a 'quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles ...'"

The sentence after that tips the writers' hand: "What Obama meant by 'quality of empathy' has been left to interpretation."

And the next sentence contains perhaps the most sincere attempt to attribute the information that forms the basis of the story: "The White House said the president was seeking a candidate with a diverse set of life experiences."

That's it. That's all they've got. Yet it was enough for them to run a story with prominently placed pictures of the five women.

So I searched for other Times articles that might tell us where the names came from.

I found the May 2 article "Who Will Fill Souter's Shoes," which listed a handful of candidates -- some on today's list, some not. The list is hinged entirely on the opener: "Here are some of the names being mentioned as possible replacements for Justice David H. Souter." (There's that wily passive use again.) I found a May 1 piece with a list of names. Of them, two also appear on today's list: Granholm and Sotomayor. The information is attributed with only: "This list, from NBC's Pete Williams, is making the rounds."

So the nuthin' the Times has is based largely to the paper's own nuthin' and partly on another journalist's nuthin'.

For those not familiar with reporting standards, a competitor's report is usually not a valid source on which to base facts. You can report that the information was reported. But ideally a news organization verifies the information for itself.

I'm troubled by this type of hot-air reporting. But I'm not totally against it. That's because, often, these reports contain much more than hot air. These completely unattributed, based-on-nothing speculations, with surprising frequency, contain solid information. The reporter is trying to share with readers something that, from his vantage point, can be sniffed in the air. And often, his nose knows. There's a good chance one of these people will indeed be tapped. So this brand of B.S. reporting often turns out good information.

What bothers me is that the news agencies aren't more up front with readers. They go to such great lengths to write around the fact that they've got nuthin': "apparently," "speculation has centered on," "appears," "have made less obvious."

Today's LA Times article makes it sound as though the names can be deduced from a few words from Obama and White House staffers. They cannot. Based on what they've got, you could say that Dick Cheney "appears" an "obvious" pick. Cheney is clearly empathetic to his gay daughter to the point of dissenting from his whole party on gay rights issues. You could also deduce that Sarah Palin is a clear choice for the short list. The woman gutted a moose, for heaven's sake. You'd be hard pressed to find in national politics a more "diverse set of life experiences."

I don't like being skeezed. Tell me you've got nuthin'. Tell me you're guessing. Hell, tell me straight up that all you've got are rumors. Just don't tell me that you deduced it logically from solid, sourced public information when clearly you did not.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Blame the Nonexistent Society for Parenthetical Initialisms (NSPI)

Lots of writers think that, anytime you have an organization name, you should shove its initials in parentheses immediately after the first reference to the organization. Like, say, the Nonexistent Society for Parenthetical Initialisms (NSPI).

Once you've done that, Jane writer thinks, you can just use the initials thereafter, never having to worry about whether the abbreviation has any meaning whatsoever for the reader.

It's a slap in the face to the reader. A, "Hey, I already told you what NSPI stands for. Now it's YOUR job to take it as something meaningful. Ball's in your court." Plus, it has those damn disrupting we-interrupt-our-current-programming parentheses that drive me nuts.

It's funniest when there ARE no subsequent references. In those cases it amounts to, "Hey! Did you know that this association has not just a name but also initials?!?"

I want to kvetch about writers who think this is standard form. But I used to be one of them.

I have no idea how that bad idea got into my head. But, for the record, here's how some of the most professional publications deal with long organization names, etc., and their initials as abbreviations:

* If the initialism is already known to the reader, use away: CIA, FBI.

* If the initials do not form a familiar moniker, give the full name on first reference. Then, on subsequent references, find a word meaningful to the reader to use in its place. "Nonexistent Society for Parenthetical Initialisms president is John Doe. He said that the society is conducting a survey." Society, association, organization, the school (especially helpful in place of "The Tupelo College of Industrial Sciences, Graphic Arts, and Peach Harvesting (TCISGAPH).")

* If there's some reason why the initialism must be used, place the first instance close enough to the full name that you don't have to squeeze in an eye-jarring parenthetical. If it's clear, the reader will get it.

* If a quotation contains an initialism, well, you can't change that (at least, not without making it worse with those god-awful brackets). So, in those cases, see if there's a more flowing way to introduce the initialism. "John Doe is the president of the organization, known in the community as TCISGAPH." (That is, you're weaving in the fact that it has this nickname instead of cramming it in.)

* Occasionally, when all the alternatives stink, go ahead and put the initials in parentheses. But this is a last resort, and should be chosen for the reader's benefit and not for the writer's convenience.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Wikipedia, Heck Yeah! (Like Wikipedia, &!@*! Yeah, just without the smut)

According to this Wikipedia entry, "Standing on the beach" would be a participial phrase.

According to this Wikipedia entry, it's a participial clause.

And to think, 20 years ago I got out of sales because it was too hard.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

We Aught to Be Glad It Didn't Take Till 2010

Recently I blogged about the word "aught" used to name years in this decade: We're in the "Twenty aughts." There was an election in "aught four."

My inspiration: a Los Angeles Times column by Michael Hiltzik, in which he used the word (although he spelled it "ought").

I was happy to see that finally -- finally -- someone had embraced a word for our decade. A green shoot, if you will.

Well, last night, the green shoot done took root. Stephen Colbert, on his show, mentioned a run-in he had with billionaire Richard Branson "back in aught seven."

That, I suspect, was the big step the word needed to eventually work its way into the popular lexicon. I'm betting that, in about two or three years, "aught" will be the word of choice for the years between 2000 and 2009. (Though I'm not sure it will be the spelling of choice.)

Either way, it's good news that we may have finally named our decade. And it only took us nine years and five months!

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

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


I came across this word today, used in earnest – not in a comedy context like the Wealthy Dowager character on The Simpsons.

Per American Heritage online, "dowager" means: 1. A widow who holds a title or property derived from her deceased husband. 2. An elderly woman of high social station.

Those aren’t bad things to be. “Dowager” may not be an enviable status, as it requires a woman to have lost her husband or lost her youth. But it doesn’t mean “ugly,” “uptight,” “mean,” or anything deserving of contempt or warranting shame.

Yet the thought of being labeled a “dowager” is perfectly icky. And I’d bet lots of other women would feel the same way. We 21st century types are awfully invested in NOT identifying with “old” – especially not with “old woman.”

That, in turn, got me thinking about other words used for woman – none of which I’d want slapped on me:

* matriarch (Hard-faced, old, mean)
* dame (Fraternizes with guys who still listen to Sam Spade radio broadcasts)
* lady (Once an honorable term even for the young and beautiful, but now somehow conjures images of pastel-suited biddies who subsist solely on gossip or quiet judgment)
* broad (See Sam Spade reference above)
* gal (Should be a perfectly good alternative to calling a grown woman “girl,” yet it remains stuck in the past)
* chick (A glimpse into my own sexism in that I hate it primarily when women use it. A man saying “chick” reminds me of Ritchie Cunningham. Coming out of a woman’s mouth, “chick” often seems venomous.)

I won’t get into those famously sexist words – babe, hon, bitches, etc. on down to beaver and worse. That’s not exactly the issue that interests me here. (If only because I don’t feel I can add anything new to that discussion.)

What interests me is how FEW words for women seem devoid of negative connotation. And though we could sniff out negative connotations in guy, fellow, dude, bro, chap, or bloke, it’s not the same. They’re not on the same scale.

Maybe we should take “lady” back. Then again, to do so, we would have to admit we can no longer go by “girl.” And that would be motherfrickin' icky.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

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


I saw "The Soloist" this weekend.

In it, Robert Downey Jr., who plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, narrates a few excerpts from his columns in progress. In one, the Lopez character talked about Los Angeles' Skid Row, where the homeless former Julliard student Nathaniel Ayers was living. Lopez/Downey said Skid Row was home to "rats the size of meatloafs."

Or, at least, that's what I thought I heard.

I checked the Times archives. But Lopez has never mentioned meatloaf and rats in the same column. (I guess he doesn't eat at Denny's.) So the supposed column excerpt was probably added by a screenwriter.

The idea of a plural "meatloaf" interests me. The word is usually treated as a mass noun. (As opposed to a count noun. Think "milk" as opposed to "marbles.") But must it be? Can we have our meatloaf and count our meatloaves/fs, too?

Neither Webster's New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online, American Heritage via nor's own entry offers a plural form or any discussion of whether "meatloaf" can be a count noun.

Dictionaries usually volunteer spellings of irregular plurals. For example, under "loaf" Webster's includes: "pl. loaves." So we can only assume that the dictionaries aren't down with "meatloaf" as a count noun.

That leaves us to wonder: Just how big is a rat the size of "meatloaf" and would it, therefore, have a guitar and a bit part in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show"?

That'd be one rat out of Hell.

(I know. The musician's name is two words. Still, I couldn't resist.)

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