Mighty Red Pen

June 27, 2010

Pedant, pedant, pedantpedantpedant …

Filed under: Pop culture,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:55 pm
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Speaking of pedants, have you heard of the plans to establish the Academy of English? Read Erin McKean’s take, “Language Police: A Failure I’d Love to Watch.”

Hat tip to Toothpaste for Dinner.

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May 31, 2010

What is this malamanteau of which you speak?

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 8:04 pm
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This little tidbit brought to you by xkcd.

And here’s Erin McKean’s column, “One-Day Wonder: How Fast Can a Word Become Legit?

January 27, 2010

I wonder if they leave 50 cents under your pillow

Filed under: Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 8:17 pm
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I just love stuff like this.

From Erin McKean, I learned about sweet tooth fairies, “a combination of two two-word phrases that, when overlapped, make a certain cockeyed sense. Sweet tooth + tooth fairy = sweet tooth fairy.” Some examples include: drag queen bee, peer pressure party, and victory lap dance. Check out “Sweet Tooth Fairies: The Rise of a Language Mash-up.”

For more like these, you’ll want to check out the Illustrated Sweet Tooth Fairy, website of Graham Hidderly/Burgess (yes, it’s a slash), who coined the term in 2008.

Also, you’ve heard of words such as trim (which can mean both to remove or to add), screen (which can mean to show something or to conceal something), or cleave (which can mean both to split something and to cling to something), these are words that also mean their own opposite. Crazy. Also called contronym, contranym, and auto-antonym, I was delighted to learn the more whimisical term Janus words referring to the Greek god with two faces, one that looks forward and one that looks backward.

(As an aside, once upon a time, a fellow English grad student named a cat who had a face that was half black and half tabby Janus. Uh, yeah, not nerdy at all. It took me awhile to get the joke. I thought they were calling her Janice.)

You can read more about Janus words here, here, and here. And feel free to share your own sweet tooth fairies or Janus words.

October 18, 2009

If Dictionary Day falls in the forest . . .

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Lit review,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 9:12 am
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I love the dictionary, really I do. Remember that scene from “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler discovers that Diane Court underlines all the words she has to look up in her dictionary? And this is some kind of proof of her nerdishness? Well, I blushed a little at that scene because, um, I did that, too.

But despite showing lifelong love and appreciation for the dictionary, I have a tiny confession to make: I knew it was Dictionary Day on October 16 (Noah Webster’s birthday, natch) and I meant to mention it, I swear, but it kind of slipped my mind. I mean, I used my dictionary on Dictionary Day, but I’m guessing that doesn’t count.

But apparently, according to Erin McKean, I’m in good company:

Dictionary Day—also known as Noah Webster’s Birthday—was Oct. 16, and throughout the English-speaking world, small children placed their dictionary stands by the hearthstone, hoping that Noah himself would magically come down the chimney and leave them a shiny new dictionary (left open to the word “dictionary,” of course). In some places, Dictionary Day is celebrated with bonfires of the past years’ dictionaries, the baking of the traditional aardvark-shaped cookies, and the singing of etymology carols.

No? That didn’t happen in your household? I’m a lexicographer, and it didn’t happen in mine, either.
Worldwide ambivalence to the idea of Dictionary Day aside, McKean isn’t letting us off the hook on this one:
So we should expand our thinking about dictionaries. Language is power—we understand that words can move us to tears or laughter, inspire us to great deeds or urge us to mob action. Dictionaries are the democratization of that power, and the more words they contain, the more democratic they are. The dictionary is a gigantic armory and toolbox combined, accessible to all. It reflects our preoccupations, collects our cultural knowledge, and gives us adorable pictures of aardvarks, to boot. And it does all this one word at a time.
Read the rest of “Cel•e•brate: The Case for Dictionary Day,” McKean’s call to arms for a more robust celebration of the day. Er, maybe it’s not too soon to start planning for next year?

February 5, 2009

Sticklers of the world, chillax

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Pet peeves,Uncategorized — mighty red pen @ 8:47 pm
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Lately, I just want to tell grammar sticklers of the world to chillax. Yes, I said chillax.

It seems that the hand wringing and hair pulling and the bemoaning the fate of mankind in the face of the rapidly approaching Four Grammarians of the Apostrophocalypse is getting worse as the days go by. But maybe it’s just me.

And although (well-documented) MRP is right there with those who believe that good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important (well, I make a living at enforcing that belief and I do read usage guides for fun), I’ve been wondering if the “grammar nazi” approach—full frontal attacks against those who seemingly can’t figure out the rules of grammar—is really helping the cause.

I’m not talking about where we do it in the safety of our own blogs or in our jobs as copy editors, writers, or teachers. I’m talking about correcting your mom’s grammar over Sunday dinner. In “Correctiquette: Ready to Improve Someone’s Language? Hold On,” Erin McKean takes on the rising propensity among us word nerds for self-righteous indignation and self-appointed grammar policing:

Nowhere is the urge to be right more powerful, it seems, than when it involves other people’s language.

We’ve all encountered it, and we’ve all felt the compulsion to perform it – the quick aside (“Um, don’t you mean infer?”), the snarky online comment that ignores the substance of an argument in favor of pointing out a misused “that” or “which.” Some people proudly travel the country “correcting” road signs and billboards.

If you judge these correctors by their presumed intent—a helpful and permanent improvement in another person’s language—then most fail miserably. Why, then, do we do it? And when should we, if ever?

Maybe  the problem is that I’m reading too many blogs and message boards where commenters use pointing out grammatical or spelling errors (heaven forfend you should leave out an apostrophe!) to put others down. Check out Danny Brown‘s discussion about blog comments. McKean talks about online comments, too:

Online, of course, the urge to correct someone is magnified: The intermediaries of keyboard and screen seem to lend correctors a bravado they might lack in real life. So ask yourself: will posting a comment just to tell someone they misspelled “contiguous” really win anyone over? If you are correcting someone else just to prove yourself the smartest guy in the room, that automatically disqualifies you from the contest. Most annoying guy, maybe.

Along this vein, I read the article, “Fastidious Spelling Snobs Pushed Over the Edge: Books, Blogs and Obsessiveness Mark a Brand-New War of the Words,” with some interest (hat tip to Kasey). (Featured are two words nerds we admire here at MRP: Martha Brockenbrough of SPOGG and Mignon Fogerty of Grammar Girl.)

The general thesis of writer Diane Mapes is that today’s stressful climate is causing peevologists to step up their game somewhat:

Stress can affect how forgiving people are of spelling and punctuation errors, says Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist from Camp Hill, Pa.

“When people are under stress, they have less tolerance for minor frustrations,” she says. “Think of the harried mother rushing around trying to get her kids ready for school who loses it when one of them can’t find his homework. Spelling is something concrete and has a definite right answer so it does make you feel temporarily in control.”

But there are plenty of other principles at play as well.

An obsession with proper usage may be related to some kind of perfectionist streak, she says, or it could have to do with childhood patterns of wanting to please adults or teachers by doing things right. Putting somebody down by pointing out their bad spelling also could be a power thing. Or it could simply be part of the brain’s natural function.

The comments section of this article was a perfect example of how quickly the usefulness of a conversation around language can devolve.  In one hypercorrective comment after another, commenters delighted put each other down for typos and punctuation errors. They railed against friends, family members, and coworkers who constantly disappointed them, both in making mistakes and then not showing gratitude for being corrected. Where’s the dialogue in that?

To me, talking about language is fun. That’s why I write this blog, enjoy your comments, and read other word nerd blogs as often as I can. Spotting a usage error is amusing, reading an article about language is informative. But does it serve any purpose to personally go to town on people who have made a mistake? Instill fear in others that the grammar police have come to town every time you walk into a room?

August 13, 2008

Making up is hard to do

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:53 pm
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MRP here just catching up on some post-vacation reading, including a guest column by the aforementioned Erin McKean, who is of the mind those of us who might get in a twist about made-up sounding words should just, well, chillax:

Whenever I see “not a real word” used to stigmatize what is (usually) a perfectly cromulent word, I wonder why the writer felt the need to hang a big sign reading “I am not confident about my writing” on it. What do they imagine the penalty is for using an “unreal” word? A ticket from the Dictionary Police? The revocation (as the joke goes) of your poetic license? A public shaming by William Safire? The irony is that most of these words, without the disclaimer, would pass unnoticed by the majority of readers. (In case you noticed cromulent, that was invented in the 1990s for “The Simpsons.”)

She goes on:

[W]riters are giving up one of their inalienable rights as English speakers: the right to create new words as they see fit. Part of the joy and pleasure of English is its boundless creativity: I can describe a new machine as bicyclish, I can say that I’m vitamining myself to stave off a cold, I can complain that someone is the smilingest person I’ve ever seen, and I can decide, out of the blue, that fetch is now the word I want to use to mean “cool.” By the same token, readers and listeners can decide to adopt or ignore any of these uses or forms.

McKean invokes a few “wordish” words you might be familiar with (or familiar with cringing at, if that’s your bag): impactful, chillaxing, wackaloon, noirish, and huger, for starters.

Read the rest of “Chillax: If It Works Like a Word, Just Use It.”

In the meantime, all of this chatter brought to mind this strip from Overcompensating, recently invoked by our friends from Language Is the People’s (during an engaging discussion on Editrix about a word that is not made up but possibly banishable) for its use of another reviled made-up word: celebutante.

Do you eschew or embrace wordish words? This editutante (Paris Hilton, eat your heart out) invites you to share your faves.

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