Book Review: Punctuation..?
Punctuation..? by User Design (Thomas Bohm) is a short handbook on how to use the most common punctuation marks, plus some of the not-so-common ones. Illustrated with simple, yet intriguing line drawings, the book covers British stylistic practice, not North American, and is aimed at the novice writer who is looking to improve their use of common punctuation marks.Read the rest of the article...
The Need for Cursive Writing?
This article is a few months old, but I just saw it, and it got my hackles up. I’m not sure what’s scarier, that this is even a debate or the level of argument that is being put forth by these educators.Read the rest of the article...
Odd Toppled Trees
While here in Toronto the advent of Hurricane Sandy isn’t the cause of evacuations and frenzied preparations that it is for my relatives and friends back on the Jersey Shore, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel its effects. But one sentence from the Canadian Weather Office’s warning for the city jumped out at me:
Sporadic power outages are quite likely across the warned regions due to falling limbs and the odd toppled tree taking out hydro lines.
“The odd toppled tree” is distinctly unbureaucratic in tone; I like it. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to see in an official announcement about severe weather. “Quite likely” is also nicely informal. The “hydro,” of course, is pure Canadian, a clipping of hydroelectric. Had this been a warning in the States it would have read “power lines.”
Whenever normal, human speech works its way into official bureaucrat-speak, it’s a good thing.
Did Chaucer Coin “Twitter”?
Um, no. Or at least, probably not.
But that’s what The Atlantic Wire claimed yesterday in another conflating of coinage with earliest recorded usage. The Atlantic’s blog post was inspired by this tweet from the editors of the OED which says “Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb.”
In his Boece, a translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, written sometime in the late 1370s or early 1380s (the OED says c. 1374, but that’s probably a few years too early; the Middle English Dictionary puts it at c. 1380), Chaucer writes:
And the janglynge brid [...] twytereth desyrynge the wode with hir swete voys. (3.m2.21–31)
(The chattering bird [...] twitters, longing for the woods with its sweet voice.)
Chaucer wasn’t the only writer around that time to be using twitter. John Trevisa in his translation of Higden’s Polychronicon writes:
Þe osul twytereþ mery songes [...] Þe ny3tyngale in his note Twytereþ [...] Wiþ full swete song. (1.237)
(The blackbird twitters merry songs [...] The nightingale in his notes twitters [...] With full sweet song.)
So, the editors of the OED are correct in saying that Chaucer is the earliest known writer to use the the verb to twitter, but others were using it shortly after he was, and it seems likely that Chaucer was using a trendy, new verb that that was floating about London at the time, and not the coiner as The Atlantic Wire inferred from the evidence. It’s a small, but important distinction.
Sources: The Oxford English Dictionary Online; The Middle English Dictionary; and The Riverside Chaucer, Larry Benson, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
This post on the Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language addresses sex-neutral terms and how they’ve been patchily applied in English. While the general thrust of the article is correct, the application of sex-neutral terms, like most things having to do with language, is inconsistent, at points the article starts to go off the rails, conflating issues that have nothing to do with being sex neutral.
“Hostess" is harmless but “mistress” is tainted.
This one is perhaps the most egregious slip in the post. Yes mistress is a tainted word, but it’s not tainted because it is sex-neutral; it’s tainted because of its other senses of adulterous lover and dominatrix.
The lowest enlisted ranks in America’s navy are “seamen"—regardless of the sex of the sailors in question.
True, the lowest ranks are officially dubbed seamen, a word that not only isn’t sex-neutral, but which causes pre-teen boys to giggle, but the more commonly used generic word is the sex-neutral sailor. Although the Johnson blogger is quite correct in that there is no good sex-neutral term for the air force equivalent of airmen.
Female Hollywood types are “actresses”, uncontroversially, but many women of the serious New York stage call themselves “actors”.
Yes, actress can still be used uncontroversially, but the use of actor to refer to women is gaining ground. It’s not just “women of the serious New York stage who call themselves ‘actors.’” It may be that in a decade or so, actress may be a skunked term as well. Although perhaps not, because unlike these other professions sex does make a difference in the roles that actors play. The profession itself isn’t sex neutral. (Like dominatrix, where the outdated -trix suffix lives on because the whole point of the fetish is that the woman is in charge.)
I also note that the sex neutrality can go the other way. The -ster suffix, once used to refer to woman doing a job normally performed by a man, in current use the suffix has lost its sex specificity entirely, although it retains some of its diminutive quality.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton