The Compulsive Copyeditor

February 26, 2020

Most delicious new malapropism

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:59 am

Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter this morning:

The White House must air on the side of maximum transparency, so the spasmodic alarm Dems are trying to stoke, doesn’t escalate. Pragmatism, not panic.  Preparedness, not politicization.

Yes, fresh air is akin to sunshine as a metaphor for openness and transparency.

I must not be the only one who remarked on this in the comments to the post. Ingraham has since removed the tweet.

January 15, 2020

What does this writer think “trenchant” means?

Filed under: etymology,language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 8:49 am

The writer is talking about political polarization:

Gerber tries to use his sermons to steer congregants to a less trenchant view of politics by urging them to accept that others may disagree with them.

Answer: “entrenched.” Dug in. What it actually means:

If you’re trenchant, it means you think or say smart, sharply worded things that cut right to the heart of the matter.

Consulting the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary, the two meanings spring from one root:

trenchant (adj.)

early 14c., “cutting, sharp,” from Old French trenchant “cutting, sharp” (literal and figurative), present participle of trenchier “to cut” (see trench). Figurative sense in English is from c. 1600.

Interesting! It implies (unintentionally, but aptly) that the sharper the opinions used as a trenching tool, the deeper the trench in which one becomes entrenched.

January 14, 2020

What does this person think “raucous” means?

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 2:19 am

In a tweet:

January 7, 2020

“The agony of being in a limbic state”

Filed under: ambiguity,etymology,puns,typography,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:18 pm

Being at war for so long has left a considerable number of Americans unable to reconcile their global dominance with the agony of being in a limbic state of neither peace nor victory.

Is the author of this Daily Beast piece, Spencer Ackerman, referring to the limbic system, the network of subcortical brain areas that is the axis of emotion? Or does he think that “limbic” is the adjectival form of “limbo”? (Does “limbo” even have an adjectival form?)

Either—or both—would fit. His point actually is that being unable to achieve the consummation and catharsis of victory in the Middle East has left the U.S. and its citizens in a state of limbic limbo.

Here’s the marvelous Online Etymological Dictionary (the “free OED”—you should know it and use it! ) tracing the roots of the words limbic and limbo:

limbic (adj.)

“pertaining to or characteristic of a border,” 1879, in anatomy, in reference to the brain, from French limbique (1878, Broca), from limbe (14c.), from Latin limbus “edge” (see limb (n.2)). Limbic system is attested from 1950.

limbo (n.1)

region supposed to exist on the border of Hell, reserved for pre-Christian saints (Limbus patrum) and unbaptized infants (Limbus infantum);” c. 1300, from Latin limbo, ablative singular of limbus “edge, border” (see limb (n.2)). In frequent use in Latin phrases such as in limbo (patrum), which is entirely Latin, but the in was taken as English and hence the Latin ablative became the English noun. Figurative sense of “condition of neglect or oblivion, place of confinement” is from 1640s.
So the words ARE related—but only in the positional sense of both being at the edge of something (Hell, in the case of Catholic doctrine; the cerebral cortex—its own kind of hell, if you will—in the case of the limbic system). The emotional sense, of being lost in a place where nothing is happening, and therefore in a dully frustrated, affectless state, is this writer’s probably inadvertent inspiration. 
To add yet another etymological curlicue—it’s also left us on edge.
(For those on a roll, liminal (pertaining to a threshold) and limit are also related.)

January 5, 2020

Remain silent harshly

Filed under: Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 10:02 am


Shame on every Republican who enables this tyrant. History will judge every one of you who continues to remain silent harshly.

January 3, 2020

Palate, Pallet, Palette

Filed under: language degenerating,spelling,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 9:23 am

Can you define each of the above? Do you know which is which, and the uses of each?

A very warlike woman on Twitter named Amy Curtis prefaced her call for swift and total annihilation of:our enemies with this:

Giving the Iranians palates of cash is not the answer. Restrictive rules of engagement is not the answer.

I find that unpalletable.


September 29, 2019

The Ize-ization of English, II

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 7:54 am

Both Giuliani and Trump have grown increasingly excited by a conspiracy theory that in 2016 Biden pressurized Ukraine to fire its then chief prosecutor, Shokin.

“Pressured,” or even “pressed,” would be correct. “Pressurized” suggests that Ukraine was flying at such a high altitude that its citizens needed protection from hypoxia and their blood boiling.

August 3, 2018

Beam I Up, Scotty!

Filed under: language degenerating,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 1:42 pm

That’s it! I’ve finally hit on it—the formula that WILL get through to people who persist in writing the likes of “I’m going to sign my niece and I up for lessons.”

UPDATE: A friend on Facebook responded, “Huh?”

I wanted to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

And this is someone who studied Latin in high school!

I’ll put my reluctant explanation in the comments.



December 11, 2016

“Both” Abuse . . .

. . . committed in The New York Times:

“There are splits both within the intelligence agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them.”

“Both” splits a sentence into two streams that have to be equal and parallel. At first glance, either of the following would have been correct:

“There are splits within both the intelligence agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them.”

But no, that wouldn’t have worked because “both the intelligence agencies” can be misread as “You mean the CIA and the NSA?”

So the only correct option (short of rewriting the whole sentence), redundant as it may seem, is:

“There are splits both within the intelligence agencies and within the congressional committees that oversee them.”

Actually, I should refine the rule above:

“Both” splits a sentence into two streams that have to be equal and parallel. The split must be executed by a correctly placed “and.”

A family member of mine who committed this related form of “both” abuse in print—

“sharing their stories online was both an attempt to sort out what they were going through but also to . . . help other[s]”

graciously changed “but” to “and” after I apologized for being so pinheaded as to point it out.

Next, I’ll tackle “between” abuse, if I haven’t already. But I need to assemble some good examples. Like “both,” “between” requires “and,” and you wouldn’t believe the exotic substitutes writers come up with. (Yes, we are now allowed to end a sentence with a preposition, though some friends of mine who are made of sterner stuff still refrain and disapprove.) Scientists in particular seem prone to writing the likes of “Between 5 to 24 seconds . . .”

Stay tuned, fellow pinheads.

January 22, 2016

Usage Finds of the Month

“As I’ve eluded to above the three key advantages are . . .”  ~ Antibody Review Blog

“Love him or hate him, Trump is one of the most consistent people you will ever meet. He changes his political opinions over time, which is normal, but his patterns of behavior rarely seem to waiver.” ~ Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog

Like “tow the line” and “pour over [the document],” these are symptoms of a culture that has become oral and visual rather than literate. What’s wrong with that, you ask? When the spelling of written English is so perverse that it selects for people with a genetic polymorphism that links the sound of a word to the precise look of it? What is the use of being able to master English spelling for conveying meaning? It communicates like a social code to other elite freaks, that’s all.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m one of those freaks, so I don’t want to just assume we’re right and those who can’t do this trick are wrong. I happen to love written English spelling because it’s a playground, or graveyard, of etymology. How words are spelled tells you not only the words’ root meaning but the language they came from (Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Latin, and French having all poured, ahem, into the brew that became English in the first place) and the way their ancestors were pronounced. “Through, thought, rough, dough, plough” send me into paroxysms of delight because I can image phlegmy Anglo-Saxons hawking them up. One doesn’t need to know that to write a blog post that gets its point across, but a language with amnesia for its antecedents is denuded of earth and depth.


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