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I was just reading email at work: skimming a message from new co-worker, who was commenting on a thread I'm not involved in. Maybe a dozen lines in, my ears pricked up when I came across a nice turn of phrase. Nothing brilliant, but a phrase that expressed a thought well, and in an unexpected way. The sort of thing that makes those of us who love language smile a little --- not least because we suspect we've come across a kindred spirit.

So I slowed down; started actually reading, not just skimming. All mentally prepared to find a couple more nice turns of phrase: Enough evidence to drop by the guy's desk and say "Hey, nice touch in that email." Engineers who can write are rare, and a clever little flourish in email, like the funny but on-point remark in a meeting, makes the work day better.

So I'm all mentally geared up for another smile of nerdy pleasure. And I'm reading along. And three or four lines later, comes the first misspelling. One that dropped an entire syllable. Then, on that same line, a first missing comma.

Disappointment. The devil is in the details, as they say.
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Following-up this post, I've now listened to both instances again in light of my giddy aunt, and concluded that is, indeed, what both speakers were saying. (I'm not alone in the mishearing, obviously, or I wouldn't have found the cricket clip by searchcing for "my Guinea aunt." If you say "Guinea, giddy" repeatedly while paying attention to your mouth and tongue, you'll see how they really are closer to one-another than you'd think.)
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A post in a friend's LJ just reminded me of a mild exclamation (yes, I realize that is arguably an oxymoron) I haven't heard in 20 years: Lord, love a duck. I used to hear it in my twenties, mostly from people in their fifties or older, in response to strange news. For instance, sitting in the Last Exit one day (the late lamented Seattle coffeehouse that was my livingroom through most of my 20s), a woman who was smart, beautiful, and an elegant dresser came in holding hands with a guy who was generally considered a bit of a slob and a stoner. Tex Grove (a master ship's carpenter in his 50s who read Kant) looked up, kept looking for just long enough for the rest of us at the table to start to turn to see what he was looking at, and said "Lord, love a duck."



I heard another odd exclamation for the first time in my life the other day, which I'm going to ask you to wait to learn while I provide a little background. British television has a category of programs I suppose you could call Living History Reality Shows.: A house and its surroundings are restored to some historical period, and a group of people move in, trying to live as their ancestors did. There are two subgenres: In one, people with no particular qualifications other than a desire to be on television move in and proceed to make fools of themselves and/or whine. (My description perhaps reveals how much I dislike this approach.) In the other, which I enjoy far more, people with some historical expertise, enthusiasm for the period, and at least an intellectual grasp of historical skills are brought in, giving them a chance to live what they had previously only studied. Early this year the BBC ran one of the latter type called Victorian Farm (which I have not yet watched all of), and this month they ran a three part addendum, Victorian Farm Christmas, in which the cast return to the farm to put on a Victorian Christmas celebration. A woman in the cast, Ruth Goodman, is a historian who specializes in domestic history and is an enthusiastic advocate of experimental history. She had just been picked up in a horsecart for the ride back to the farm, and on the ride she was told how many people they — which to a large extent means she — would be preparing a Victorian Christmas feast (in a Victorian kitchen with Victorian tools and techniques) for. To which she replied, with what I believe to have been unfeigned surprise, Oh my Guinea Aunt.

I can only assume it's an actual Victorian exclamation that's all but entirely died out (Google currently finds only one instance of it*), but that she's so thoroughly immersed herself in the period that it's become an entirely natural thing for her to say, at least when in costume.

(Edit: It occurred to me while I was trying to figure out what it might mean that perhaps, in spite of being said with a hard G, it was ginny rather than Guinea. But I only just now got around to Googling that. There are a few more hits, including one with a cricket video in which the announcer uses it when what I can only assume was an amazing play happend.)



Do you have a favorite odd exclamation? I'd love to hear it.



* Though I wonder how long it will take after I post this for it to find two.
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I think there is no English word in common use that annoys me more, as regards its written form, than resumé. I try to be consistent about writing it with the accent in my own use, but I'm not happy about it. It's pedantic and it looks weird on the page in any context other than a book. But i've reluctantly decided that is less bad than using resume, which I as a reader (even of my own writing) always trip over, hearing it in my head as the verb pertaining to continuation. It's a no-win situation.

A question for my British readers: I get the sense that in your division of our common language, the brief written summary of your employment history that you submit with your application for a job is more commonly referred to as your vitae. Am I correct in that? It would certainly solve my problem. (In American usage, curriculum vitae or cv is a longer and more complete summary, and for the most part only university professors have one.)
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I was just reading the about page for Tiny Showcase, a website with what seems to be a really cool premise: They make high-quality small-format limited edition prints of original artwork and sell them via the net for far less than you'd pay for pretty much any other original art work. Their artist friends get some exposure and some money; part of the proceeds also go to a charity of the artist's choice, and the customer gets something ... well, not quite unique, but certainly unusual.

So there I was, thinking about posting about the site, when I was distracted by this sentence:
This raises the print price slightly, but now the artist, as well as their favorite charity, benefit from each piece sold.
(Yes, even a scrawny, mangy kitten can sometimes trigger my Look! a kitten! reflex.)

How do you read that sentence? What's the status quo ante? Before the event that raised prices slightly, who, the artists or the charities, was benefitting from sales, and who was not? Am I the only one who's bugged when someone places the objects on either side of as well as in the wrong order? Or perhaps am I the only one who thinks there is an order: does the rest of the world think as well as is commutative?

To me, the entire purpose of that idiom is to assert that the novel or unexpected works as well as the established or expected. People only seem to have trouble understanding this with the as well as idiom, not with the general case of as <property> as. Consider
  • Tom is as strong as an ox.
  • His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad.
  • Bill Gates as rich as Croesus.
Now consider their inverses:
  • An ox is as strong as Tom.
  • A fresh pickled toad is as green as his eyes.
  • Croesus is as rich as Bill Gates.
You might use any of those phrases ironically, but they are not equivalent to the preceding set. The insurgent encroaches upon the entrenched, the novel upon the established  — not the other way around.

</flame>
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I often use Google when I'm not sure how a word is spelled, especially when I have two alternative spellings in mind, on the theory that if the number of hits differs by an order of magnitude or more, the one with more hits is probably correct. Today I tried this in a way I quickly realized was subtly sloppy, with misleading results:

  • 4,660,000 for hermann miller
  • 806,000 for herman miller

Two "n"s beats one by better than five to one, that's straightforward enough. But I can't help but notice that the top four hits for both searches (i.e. the ones I can see without scrolling) all conspicuously say "Herman Miller", with one "n". What's up with that?

What it is, of course, is that I'd constructed my search sloppily. I was interested in how Herman[n] is spelled when conjoined to "Miller", but what I had searched for was how it is spelled when the two words happen to appear on the same web page. A situation in which, for whatever reason, Hermann vastly outnumbers Herman. Putting a dot between the two words* yields:

  • 28,900 for hermann.miller
  • 2,080,000 for herman.miller

One hundred to one. Now that's more like it....

* Googling miserable.failure and "miserable failure" are equivalent; I prefer the former because it's less typing and I'm lazy.

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I came across this while Googling for info pertaining to the post I'll be making in a few minutes. It didn't really fit there, not even in a footnote, but I wanted to share it.

Banning of books was unknown in India before the Britishers imported the concept to serve and protect their imperial hegemony. Even though mostly Christians by faith, they signally failed to learn from the life of Jesus Christ that crucifixion of the Messenger could not annihilate the message but made it more efficaciously vibrant and effulgently operative. You can kill the thinker, burn his writings, but not his thought or expressions.  —A.M. Bhattacharjee, in The Hindu.

...crucifixion of the Messenger could not annihilate the message but made it more efficaciously vibrant and effulgently operative. What American or Briton since the nineteenth century would have the balls to write that sentence? For a newspaper column? And expect the editor to let it pass? And be right?

I love clean, simple prose. But in my fairly random (though admittedly limited) encounters with English prose written by Indians, they demonstrate a relish for the entire range of the English vocabulary that I find wonderfully invigorating — in rather the same way a nice curry would be after a week or two of sandwiches.

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I've been busier than a one-armed paper-hanger since about last thursday; that's pretty much done & I'll probably post about that tomorrow or the next day. And then I'll try to catch up on my friends' LJs.

In the mean time, I thought I'd share this. Today, in desperate need of caffeine, I went through the drive-through at a Dunkin' Donuts. Just past the order-placing box was this sign:

Please Have Exact Change Ready
For Pick-Up Window To Help Us
Service You Quickly


I always wondered what took some people so long at those pick-up windows....

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Every geek has had the experience of saying a word aloud that they learned from reading &mdash and discovering that they pronounce it wrong. It's rather a rite of passage for young adult geeks1. It's been a few years since I experienced this phenomenon from the speaker's side. But yesterday I found myself using the word "fecund" in a sentence — and just as the F sound started passing my lips, realized I did not know how to pronounce it. Which isn't to say I didn't have a pronunciation all loaded up and ready to emerge from my lips. But I had no idea whether it was, in fact, the normal pronunciation2. This tangential thought caused me to screw up the bit of mental arithmetic necessary for the rest of the sentence, such that I said "August" when I meant "May".

(Perhaps the threat lies not in a large vocabulary, but in the meta-state of observing yourself stumbling over your own vocabulary and thereby menacing your arithmetic skills.)


1  I do wonder, with the advent of computer dictionaries that will pronounce a word for you at the click of a mouse, whether we may be the last generation of nerds to share this common experience. It is both vastly quicker to look up a word online than in a paper dictionary, and much less work to click your mouse than to figure out your dictionary's pronunciation key. I'm sure if I were a kid today I would use an online dictionary far more than I in fact used paper ones when I was little. (I was always very fond of dictionaries, but it was nevertheless rare that I wouldn't try to puzzle out a new word from context first, and only turn to a dictionary if I couldn't. Or — rarely — when eiher zero or two obvious pronunciations occurred to me.) This is, of course, not an unmixed blessing: We may also be the last generation discover the pleasure of browsing the dictionary.
2  According to thefreedictionary.com I in fact mangled it rather badly.

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I've unscreened the comments on my last entry; everyone who tried got it. For the winner, see my followup comment there. So, I have a question: were none of you taught those spellings as kids? I'm pretty sure hiccough was a spelling drill word for me, maybe in 4th grade.
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Vacation, what a concept. Still haven't found time for the big update on my life LJ entry, but have been doing some recreational reading. From Hendrik Hertzberg's review of Bill Clinton's book, in the Aug. 2 New Yorker:

Clinton .... is already a kind of folkloric character, the larger-than-life protagonist of a great American tall tale. Bill Clinton is to politics what Paul Bunyan was to lumberjacking, and "My Life" is his big blue ox—very big. And very bovine.

How big is "My Life"? It weighs in at three pounds, five ounces. According to Knopf, 2.6 million copies are in print, which puts the over-all tonnage, so far, at four thousand three hundred—the equivalent, in sheer mass, of a ten-mile-long motorcade of Lincoln Town Cars.

There's more of the same ilk. President Clinton has "been looking trim lately, but he still hadn't licked that weight problem—he's just put it between hard covers", for instance. But I just about fell out of my chair at "bovine", and had to share it.


Pedantic grammar aside: In the sentence >>How big is "My Life"?<<, I am quoting the New Yorker literally. So at least one major American magazine has gone over to hackish usage in quoting punctuation: don't if it's not in the original. This is promising: Maybe in another hundred years, American school teachers will have stopped insisting you should put your own punctuation inside the closing quotation mark of a quotation.

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I've just caught up on Live Journal after a very busy month, and have yet to put together the events of my own life in that period. And that will have to wait a little while longer; this entry is a reaction to a discussion in [livejournal.com profile] siderea's journal, at the conclusion of which she decided that she should write her research paper in the passive voice. I was appalled by some of the comments on this thread. "Acadmia [sic] is all about the passive voice." True — for second raters:

[T]hese days, the use of the passive voice in a research paper is the hallmark of second-rate work.... In the long run, more authority is conferred by the direct approach than by the pedantic pretence that some impersonal force is performing the research.
—Lord May, President of the Royal Society, quoted in a commentary in the New Scientist, 21 July 2001. (I happen to have a copy of the original article in my MIT homedir.)

You may have heard of the Royal Society. Guy name of Newton used to hang out there.


This is what first-rate scientific writing sounded like 150 years ago:

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
Charles Darwin, Introduction to The Origin of Species.

But perhaps the introductory matter is a special case — Darwin does, after all, apologize for being so personal. Picking a random paragraph from the first page of a random chapter (Chapter 10, "On The Geological Succession of Organic Beings", paragraph three):

Species of different genera and classes have not changed at the same rate, or in the same degree. In the oldest tertiary beds a few living shells may still be found in the midst of a multitude of extinct forms. Falconer has given a striking instance of a similar fact, in an existing crocodile associated with many strange and lost mammals and reptiles in the sub-Himalayan deposits. The Silurian Lingula differs but little from the living species of this genus; whereas most of the other Silurian Molluscs and all the Crustaceans have changed greatly. The productions of the land seem to change at a quicker rate than those of the sea, of which a striking instance has lately been observed in Switzerland. There is some reason to believe that organisms, considered high in the scale of nature, change more quickly than those that are low: though there are exceptions to this rule. The amount of organic change, as Pictet has remarked, does not strictly correspond with the succession of our geological formations; so that between each two consecutive formations, the forms of life have seldom changed in exactly the same degree. Yet if we compare any but the most closely related formations, all the species will be found to have undergone some change. When a species has once disappeared from the face of the earth, we have reason to believe that the same identical form never reappears. The strongest apparent exception to this latter rule, is that of the so-called `colonies' of M. Barrande, which intrude for a period in the midst of an older formation, and then allow the pre-existing fauna to reappear; but Lyell's explanation, namely, that it is a case of temporary migration from a distinct geographical province, seems to me satisfactory.

Nope, no passive constructions there either — which actually surprised me; I expected a few, maybe as much as three sentences in ten. But Darwin's other talents aside, he was also a fine writer.


While Lord May, Darwin, and I may stand united in favor of the active voice, the way and the light is not yet firmly established. Even Purdue's generally excellent Online Writing Lab advocates the use of the passive voice — though only in scientific writing. Apparently only nonscientific writing is entitled to not suck (emphasis added):

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences.... Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences.... This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests....

In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally--though not always-- clearer and more direct than those in passive voice.

So [livejournal.com profile] siderea may very well have made the right decision, in context: if she is being taught by people who will mark her down for writing in the active voice, then by all means she should use the passive voice. (Unless, of course, she finds herself lacking windmills to tilt at.) But she should do it knowing it's wrong.

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