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)

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

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

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.

Obscene intensifiers (probably NSFW)

Today's xkcd comic strip shows a graph of frequency of usage, for a variety of adjectives, of the intensifiers “fucking” and “as shit.”

It's a cute graph, and some of the adjectives are kind of entertaining. I like the phrase “fucking apropos,” for example.

However, a lot of the instances of the phrases in question don't actually consist of intensifiers modifying adjectives at all—especially the instances of “fucking,” because there are a great many random-word spam pages containing that word in which it isn't used as an intensifier.

[A day after publishing this entry, I rephrased the above sentence for clarity, and added a couple of mentions of adverbs below.]

For example, try doing a Google search for ["fucking stochastic" -xkcd]. (The “-xkcd” part is to skip all the instances that were created today in response to the comic.) That search currently tells me there are about 28 results, which is presumably the number Munroe used for the comic. But in fact, if you click through to page 2, you see only 16 results.

Of those sixteen, eight (including all six on the second page of results) are porn spam pages that happen to have the words “fucking” and “stochastic” next to each other. (Including the amusing phrase “fucking stochastic frontier models with spatial component.”)

Two more results are for the phrase “XANAX is that fucking stochastic” on a Xanax spam page.

And five are for phrases in which “fucking” doesn't modify “stochastic” (that is, where it's an adjective rather than an adverb): “Fucking stochastic shite”, “FUCKING STOCHASTIC PROCESSES” (2 identical instances), “Fucking stochastic life-support system” (2 identical instances).

So it turns out that before this comic, there was actually only one instance on the entire web of “fucking stochastic” in which “fucking” modified “stochastic”:

The times, they are achanging, but whither and how, that is beginning to look fucking stochastic.

I imagine similar things are true of other “fucking” items on the list, but I'll stop now.

I realize that I'm partly nitpicking the comic's phrasing; does it really matter whether “fucking” is modifying an adjective or just appears in the same phrase with the adjective? The numbers are interesting either way.

But I'm also disagreeing with the comic's methodology, because the word “fucking” appears on so many web pages that I think the noise will drown out the signal for a lot of the less common adjectives, resulting in the numbers not really giving useful information about how real people use language.

Then again, the whole idea of using Google results numbers to calculate linguistic answers is a little dubious. (For example, notice how the number went from 24 to 16 when I went from page 1 to page 2; and notice that nearly half of the results were effectively duplicates.)

(I posted a slightly different version of this entry as a comment in the xkcd forum, then realized it would make a good entry here.)

Added later: a comment about adverbs from a friend made me realize that this would be a simpler way of saying much of what I said above:

Munroe is assuming that, in all instances of “fucking stochastic” on the web, “fucking” is an adverb. But in fact, there's only one instance where it's actually an adverb; in all the other instances, it's either an adjective or part of a random collection of words.

Obsolescism: taping

Way back in 1997, I introduced the term “obsolescism” to refer to a term or phrase (like “dialing” a telephone) that has lost its literal meaning but hasn't yet become entirely metaphorical.

One such term that I missed in that column is “film”; people sometimes refer to “filming” something in motion even when the medium they're recording onto is digital video. (Perhaps partly because “videoing” is kind of a clunky verb.)

I've heard “filming” used that way plenty of times, but this is the first time I've run into “taping” used that way:

Albero drained his phone's battery taping the incident[....]

—CNN article about an airplane making an emergency landing

These days, the word “filming” doesn't usually make me think of actual film, any more than “dial” makes me think of an actual phone dial. But in my lexicon, “taping” definitely refers to using the medium of videotape. (I don't think I hear it used non-literally even in the context of recording a show for later use—I hear “TiVoing” fairly often, or just “recording,” but not, I don't think, “taping.”)

I wonder if “taping” is in more common use in that context in the world of television news.

Do y'all use “taping” this way? Does it sound odd to you?


Last November, I heard the song “Margaritaville” on the radio. I was amused at the line “strummin' my sex train,” until I discovered it was actually “strummin' my six-string.”


I first encountered the acronyms “LGTM” and “SGTM”—“Looks/Sounds Good To Me”—at work. I'm sure that plenty of people elsewhere use them, but I don't see many instances of them on the public web, so I wanted to post about them here to encourage wider use.

They're used in all sorts of contexts, wherever the full phrases might be used. If someone suggests an idea or a plan, and you want to succinctly express agreement and encouragement to proceed with it, you can write SGTM. (Another way to express agreement with an idea or an expressed sentiment is to write “+1,” but I'm less fond of that.) If someone puts together a mockup or a document or a piece of code, and you've looked at it and it meets with your approval, you can write LGTM.

The phrases can imply that you have nothing further to add, or they can be a starting point: “LGTM, but before this goes live, remember to change the placeholder usernames. And you might want to run it by the Trademarks people.”

I don't think people say these terms out loud very often, but if they did, I assume they would be pronounced as the series of letters rather than trying to make it sound like a word. I suppose saying the letters aloud would usually be the same kind of semi-ironic emphasis as people saying “Double-you tee eff!” or “Oh em gee!” aloud.

Outside of work contexts, I often find myself writing “Sounds good,” and sometimes I'm tempted to just write “SGTM” instead. But doing so would require writing up an explanation of the acronym, which would be much more work than just writing “Sounds good,“ so I refrain. But I'm hoping that if these terms come into wider use, I'll be able to use them without explanation.