October 2010 Archives

Nearly every major-news-venue article I've seen about California's Proposition 19 (the one to legalize marijuana) has used the word “hazy” and/or some other pun about marijuana smoke or getting high. Some samples:

And so on.

It's like the puns are addictive. It's like the writers (or the editors) are giddy. They can't resist, like a stoner can't resist snacking. It's like the prospect of a pun has clouded their minds. It's like—

Never mind. You get the idea.

It makes me want to do an ad: “This is your article. This is your article on cheap obvious puns.” Or: “Friends don't let friends litter serious news articles and headlines with cheap dumb jokes.”

I know this is nothing new. Headline writers in particular have always loved puns. And articles about sports games and box-office results have always featured puns relevant to the teams or movies involved.

But something about Prop 19 really seems to bring out this tendency in a way that other propositions don't seem to do.

What are these writers smoking?

(PS: Just to be clear: I love puns. What bugs me about these is that they're obvious and ubiquitous and not terribly funny.)

Spammer names

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Still clearing out old comment spam, but close to done.

Most of the time, spambots either enter non-name phrases into the Name box or use pretty ordinary names. But I just noticed a cluster of intriguing ones:

  • Conway Hound in the Plain
  • Chalmers House of Lords
  • Culbert Cool and Brilliant
  • Bartholomew Warlike

I Googled a couple of the phrases, and found that they're the meanings of the names, from baby-name kinds of sites.

Which is pretty prosaic after all; the spambots are just taking a first name and tacking on the name's meaning. But I do like the phrase “Culbert Cool and Brilliant”; maybe it's part of the same series as Sarah, Plain and Tall.

(Okay, it turns out that there really is a series, and the other books don't have titles like that. But it's still a good joke, so I'll leave it.)

metumpsychosis (sic)

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The other day, while doing some editing, I came across the word “psychopomp,” which obliquely reminded me of an incident from high school. Possibly earlier, but I think it was in my high school Humanities class, which might as well have been called Dead White Males 101, or Welcome to the Canon of Great Western European Art.

Early in the semester, maybe even on the first day, the teacher wrote the word METUMPSYCHOSIS on the board (yes, spelled with a U), and asked us what it meant.

Various kids may have given jokey answers, but nobody knew. I knew I had seen the word before, but wasn't sure what it meant.

When we were done guessing, she told us that it was meaningless, a nonsense word that she had made up. I think she was making some kind of pedagogical point, maybe about the value of admitting ignorance? I'm not sure.

I was confused—I was sure I had seen the word before. But I didn't know where.

It wasn't until some time later that I re-encountered the word “metempsychosis.” (With no U.) It is, of course, a perfectly good word with a respected and ancient lineage. It means “transmigration of the soul,” and the term has been used by writers from Kipling to Joyce (speaking of dead white males) to Pynchon.

Whenever this incident comes to mind, I wonder all over again: what would the teacher have said if one of us had known the word? Would she have told us that this was a different (and made-up) word because it had a U in it? (But if so, then why didn't she mention the real word/spelling to us?) Or did she not know the actual word?

Anyway. A mystery without an answer; I'm not sure which teacher it was, I don't know if she's still alive, and I doubt she would remember the incident. But I do wonder occasionally what she had in mind.

First Lady

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I always thought that the phrase “First Lady” meant, by definition, the wife of the head of state; in particular, in the US, that it specifically meant the wife of the US President.

But during a visit to the Vermont Marble Museum a couple months ago, in a hall of busts of Presidents, I saw an explanatory card that mentioned that during Buchanan's Presidency, since he was unmarried, his niece Harriet Lane was the First Lady.

I couldn't figure out what that meant, since again I thought the definition of the term was “President's wife.”

But it turns out that the term has, at least sometimes, more generally been used to mean (among other things) “hostess of the White House”; and Ms. Lane is not the only unmarried woman to have served in that office.

In particular, the bit of that Wikipedia article that I find most surprising is the notion that Chelsea Clinton served as “Acting First Lady” during the two-week period between Hillary Clinton's swearing-in as Senator and Bill Clinton's leaving office as President.

But that's a contentious usage; the talk page for that article makes clear that some people vehemently disagree with it.

And nowhere else on the web is the phrase “Acting First Lady” applied to Chelsea Clinton. (Except other pages that quote the Wikipedia article; you can filter them out of a Google search by looking for pages that don't contain the unusual phrase “during the fortnight”.)

For example, a CNN article from August, 2000, implicitly distinguishes between the “first lady” (by whom they clearly mean Hillary Clinton) and the “first daughter [having] filled in” as hostess and as Bill Clinton's travel companion and source of moral support.

Still, regardless of the specific question of whether Chelsea Clinton can be said to have actually been a First Lady, it's nonetheless clear that the term has in the past, on occasion, been applied to women who were not married to the President.

By the way, the Wikipedia article on First Lady provides slightly more information about the use of the term outside of the US.

Many of those two

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The sort of phrasing problem that comes up when you try to present statistics in terms of small numbers:

More people are using condoms, for example, but they still play a part in only one in three sexual acts, and many of those remaining two acts could benefit from condom use, Reece says.

p. 3 of an ABC News article about a new survey of sexual behavior.

(See also the vaguely related 2005 Language Log entry on WTF grammar.)

Which roundaboutly reminds me that the other day I saw a news article that said something would take “fewer than three months.” Which sounds weird to me; that phrasing suggests to me that it would take either exactly one month or exactly two months, but not (say) one and a half months, because “fewer” suggests to me that it's talking about something that comes in discrete and more or less indivisible units.

The usual rule as described on a bunch of grammar web pages is that “less” is for mass nouns and “fewer” is for count nouns, which is all very well as far as it goes, but then the pages generally add that there's an exception to the rule, in that it's traditional to use “less” when talking about time. To me, that exception suggests that the usual framing of the rule is wrong; it's not so much about mass nouns vs count nouns as such, because time units (month, day, hour, second, etc) are count nouns. In my view, the rule is instead that if you're talking about discrete items as if they're indivisible, you use “fewer.”

At any rate, regardless of how the rule is presented, the outcome is the same: it's generally considered incorrect to use “fewer” with units of time. And yet, apparently people do it all the time:

Before I started looking into this, I would have said that no native speaker of English would say “fewer than three months” or “fewer than one hour.” But I would have been wrong; Googling for those phrases shows instances of each. The latter is much less common—most of the instances I saw in skimming the Google results are accidental, with punctuation in the middle—but not nonexistent. (Though the estimated number of instances for “fewer than one hour” is vastly overinflated; Google estimates 1.5 million instances, but shows only 21 if you page through the results.)

In fact, even the phrase “fewer than one second” occurs on web pages.

I wonder if these are cases of people trying to appear educated. But a bunch of the “fewer than three months” instances appear in articles in respected news venues. So it's possible that my intuition about what sounds right to people is just wrong here.

If you need to point someone to a definitive reference about the usual rule, I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style FAQ item about less and fewer, which quotes the American Heritage Dictionary's usage note. There are a bunch of other web pages out there that give essentially the same information, but Chicago and AHD are more authoritative.

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