Friday, September 30, 2005

Charms hang, bracelets wrap

Questionable phrase: “hanging from him like charm bracelets”
Citation:Justice DeLayed” by John Dickeson, Slate, September 29, 2005.
Usage: Second paragraph, third sentence, “DeLay's got troubles hanging from him like charm bracelets,” talking about Rep. Tom DeLay’s (former Majority Leader) recent indictment in Texas.

Recommendation: I would have said something more like “hanging from him like charms on a bracelet.”
Rationale: I don’t think the writer really meant troubles hanging like bracelets, which is what his simile says; rather, I think he meant troubles hanging like charms, which is what charms do – they hang, while bracelets wrap around the wrist. Otherwise, I really like the metaphor.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

New words and the sources to figure them out

American lexicography continues to grow, much as the English language that it studies grows. How does an editor keep up with all the new words? Various sources are available to learn what’s new.

Copy Editor’s Dictionary Update
The bi-monthly editing newsletter
Copy Editor publishes “Dictionary Update” each print issue, bringing its readers up-to-date with new words and their meanings. For instance, in the August-September 2005 issue, they include the following new words:
• babymoon
• go-bag
• hick-hop

FYI, Copy Editor's "Dictionary Update" is prepared by Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the North American unit of the Oxford English Dictionary. His DU entries come from the OED files.

Wired’s Jargon Watch
The monthly Wired magazine (print and online) includes five or so new words from technology each issue under “jargon watch.” For instance, in the September 2005
issue they include the following:
• non-analytical positive
• dirt-style
• toyetic
• meat puppet

Wikimedia’s Wiktionary
Have you seen a word but you can’t find it in the dictionary? It might be new to the lexicon. One sure place to look is the Wikimedia Foundation’s “
Wiktionary” or “Wikipedia.” Caution: Wiktionary and Wikipedia are not static sources of information. The Wikimedia Foundation describes the Wiktionary in this way:
Wiktionary is a free multilingual dictionary and thesaurus that's being
written collaboratively on this web site. Anybody can edit any article,
and a record of changes is kept. Since December–2002, we have created
92,802 definitions or articles.

Still, having a fluid definition may beat no definition in a pinch. And they provide definitions for words in dozens of languages.

I will bring you new sources in this weblog as I find them.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Time is precious and so is language

I ran into a great new expression that I just had to share it with you! Thus, my second post on language of the day.

Quotable expression: "time precious"
Citation: "What Are Some Blogs About?" by Peter Brady, Ads on Blogs, Friday, September 23, 2005.
Usage: Third paragraph: "What I do know is that most people are time precious and want to know what a blog is about within seconds of landing on a home page." [color text mine]
Recommendation: Use as is and give Peter Brady a pat on the back.
Rationale: You hear about people who are "time conscious" and "time sensitive," but can you recall ever hearing about someone who is time precious? It's a great addition to our language that expresses with far more immediacy how critical time is for many people -- it's precious.

Also see my blog on clichés at

When "more importantly" may not be "more important"

Questionable phrase: "more importantly"
Citation: "
Can Bloggers Strike It Rich?" by Adam L. Penenberg, Wired online, News
Usage: Fifth paragraph, "...but more importantly, they'd be validating..." used as a bridge in quoting David Hauslaib, founder of
Jossip and Queerty blogs.
Recommendation: "more important"
Rationale: Here again, this is a quote, so maybe this isn't as pure an example as I could use, but I ran into it today and it occurs frequently in many other magazines, newspapers, and other communications vehicles.

The problem with using "importantly" this way (beyond this specific example) is that it's an
adverb, and what does that adverb modify? Taken face value, it seems to say that the mere fact of stating the clause which is to come is important, giving an unintended heightened sense of importance to the writer. What the writer (or speaker, in this case) really means is that the point he is about to make is more important than the point he previously made in the same (long) sentence. In this case, I think "more important" is the better phrase.

It's become almost standard use, and I think it occurs out of rote rather than out of correctness. One almost falls easily into its use because one has seen it so often.

What do you think?

Also see my blog on cliches at (Note the hyphens in "cliche-a-day".)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Where do you go for the last word on words?

Today, I am going to depart slightly from my usual form. What I'm about to say is germane to our discussion on language, so please bear with me a moment and read on.

The Copy Editor newsletter recently ran an article on dictionary publishers and their contributions to American language. It brought up the issue of what readers expect out of entries in a dictionary, which reaches to the core of how we make decisions on word usage and lexicography in general.

So here is a thought to ponder for writers, editors, and other students of our language: What do you expect when you reference a word in a dictionary? Are you looking for definitive decisions on words as they must be, or are you looking for suggestions on words as they may be? (Let me know what you think by using the Comments feature.)

You might be surprised to learn that dictionary publishers look for the latter when making an entry on a word. From their point of view, our language isn't static, it changes over time -- morphs if you will -- to the way people actually use it. These scholars, who often do extensive research on words, try to depict a word's usage nearest the time of the writing. Their citation actually reflects their best educated guess.

Furthermore, as in many disciplines, scholars don't always agree on word usage. So, you may find different information in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary than you do in the American Heritage Dictionary. As a word researcher for your project, you need to decide what usage will make the most sense to your readers.

Then how much should you rely on your favorite dictionary to help you find word information? Only to the extent that you trust its knowledge base, and only to the extent your word(s) are non-controversial. In the latter instance, it would be wise to have a second dictionary on hand -- today you can even use a couple of online dictionaries.

Online Dictionaries
Cambridge Dictionaries Online (currently being upgraded)
Oxford English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A final note on dictionaries: Did you know that there is more than one version of "the Websters"? Yes, multiple dictionary publishers use "Websters" in their titles. Which is best? It depends on what information you want to find and which Websters provides it to you the most consistently. It also depends on how many words you may need to research and how wide the area of language it may provide.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cliché about Moss gathers no stones

Quotable text: "...this picture worth a thousand words...and millions of dollars."
Citation: "Moss Loses Two Jobs After Cocaine Reports" Associated Press, ABC News Tonight, Wednesday, September 21, 2005. Original story without recast of cliché, at
Usage: Kicker to the television version of the story about supermodel Kate Moss losing contracts after photos in a London (England) tabloid showed her using cocaine.
Recommendation: Leave as is and give the writer a long round of applause.
Rationale: Using clichés is all right when you give them a twist as the writer (unknown) did here. It would have been easier -- though far less effective -- if the writer had simply picked up the old cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words. Recasting the cliché to greater effect is what good writing is about.

See my blog on clichés at

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Finally, some language to cheer about

Quotable text: "...and by threatening to revoke the licenses of repeat polluters, the Senate seeks to return to the public square the gentler tenor of yesteryear, when seldom were heard any scurrilous words, and famous guys were not foul mouthed all day." [color font mine]
Citation: "
Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore" by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Science, Tuesday, September 20, 2005.
Usage: Second paragraph, describing potential new federal legislation to increase penalties for uttering obscenities on the air.
Recommendation: Leave as is. I applaud this twist of an old and sometimes overused lyric, "when seldom were heard a discouraging word, and the skies were not cloudy all day."
Rationale: I have highlighted abused or questionable language more recently and I was excited to have something positive to share. The whole article is a joy to read and I highly recommend it.

Also try my blog on cliches at

Friday, September 16, 2005

Caption falls short as it leans too far forward

Questionable caption: "New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, left, leans forward to view a map as he calls out areas that will be open as the city recovers from Hurricane Katrina." [color text mine]
Citation: "
Mayor Plans to Reopen Parts of New Orleans" by Brett Martel, AP., AOL News, Crisis After Katrina, Latest News, Thursday, September 15, 2005, 9:49 pm EDT.
Usage: Photo of New Orleans mayor looking at map.
Recommendation: delete "leans forward to view"; better yet, recast the whole caption to something more like "New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, left, identifies areas of the city to reopen beginning Monday as it recovers from Hurricane Katrina."
Rationale: Captions can be hard to write, but please! Telling the reader that the mayor is leaning is useless information. Who cares that he's leaning? More important is the fact that the map identifies areas of New Orleans, La., soon to reopen to residents.

Also try my blog on clichés at

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Let's remove water instead of dewatering

Questionable word: "dewatering"
Citation: White House Press Release, September 12, 2005. "
President, Lieutenant General Honore Discuss Hurricane Relief in Louisiana North Claiborne and Cleveland Streets
New Orleans, Louisiana."
Usage: In third paragraph, "And we just came through an area that had had substantial water in it, and the dewatering is an indication that the city is moving forward."
Recommendation: "water removal" or "removal of water"
Rationale: This is a quote directly from the President during extemporaneous comments, so you probably have to use what he said, verbatim. However, written comments for the President might have been a better route: Mr. Bush isn't nearly as effective speaking off-the-cuff as he is when given something to say. My hope is that editors would paraphrase for him and not use the bureaucratic-sounding "dewatering."

Also try my blog on clichés at