Today’s Bit of Linguistic Amusement

From Texas Monthly online, a discussion of the phrase “fair to middlin’” (as in, “How’re you doin’?” “Oh, fair to middlin’ – can’t complain”), which wanders through the Texas cotton patch, the Texas oil patch, cotton-grading systems in Liverpool and cotton mills in Lancashire, the rivalry between Midland and Odessa, and the transatlantic popularity of country music.

This sort of thing is, as they say, my jam.

Vocabulary Expansion Through Homeownership, and Other Lexical Consequences of Choosing to Settle in Northern New Engand.

Let us consider, for example, “soffit.” Until I ended up living in a 19th-century wooden house in deep snow country, I had no idea what a soffit was. I may have been in the vicinity of soffits from time to time, but they had by no means impinged upon my consciousness.

But now I know. Per Wikipedia, “in popular use, soffit most often…refers to the material forming a ceiling from the top of an exterior house wall to the outer edge of the roof, i.e., bridging the gap between a home’s siding and the roofline, otherwise known as the eaves.”

Per my own experience, soffits are those rotted bits under the roof of the upstairs gable windows that I’m going to have to get replaced this spring, right after I get the plumbing fixed and the north side of the roof reshingled.

(Old houses always need the plumbing fixed. I think it’s a rule.)

Winter weather up here provides other items of interest for word nuts, as well. Like this idiomatic tidbit, picked up from listening to the local road crews on the radio scanner: “Be careful up on Titus Hill. It’s getting greasy out there.” Translated out of the north woods accent, what this means is that the previously snow-plowed roads, having been lightly rained on for a few hours, are now in the process of freezing again, and have reached a particularly nasty and treacherous state of slickness.

Good weather for staying in and updating one’s blog, in fact.

A Brace of Peeves

Because sometimes they come in matched sets.

Peeve One:  Criteria is a plural, dammit.  The singular is criterion.  (The word is Greek in origin – the –on ending is a clue.)

Peeve Two: Data is also a plural.  The singular is datum.  (This one is Latin.  Again, the ending is a clue – the –um is a neuter singular ending.)

Both of these words are, as is the way of language, in the process of slowly morphing into singular nouns, but they aren’t there yet, and until they get there, some people, like me, are going to bristle up at the usage.

(In principle, I’m a descriptivist.  In practice . . . well, in practice, I get peevish sometimes.)

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

I keep reading bits of narrative lately where a character who’s walking around aimlessly or randomly is described as “milling about.”


Milling about is not something one person does, or even two people.  Milling about requires at least a small crowd.  The “mill” part of the verb comes from the idea that the random circular motion of such a crowd resembles the rotary action of a mill wheel.

One person alone might pace, or might wander about, but they aren’t going to be milling, even if they’re doing it with a friend.

Peeve of the Day

Listen up, people.

Flare is not the same as flair, so don’t use one when you mean the other.

A flare is a sudden burst of flame or light:

A solar flare will cause the aurora borealis to be visible (except for wherever I happen to be at the time, which will be clouded over.)

Or it’s something that starts out narrow and ends up wide:

The sleeve of the gown was a graceful flare, trimmed with gold embroidery at the open end.

A flair is a knack for doing something stylishly and/or particularly well:

Janet has a flair for mathematical puzzles.

Flair without the definite or indefinite article refers to a quality of stylishness, élan, and panache:

The final entry in the show was presented with even more flair than the ones that preceded it.

Highway flares, of course, are related to the first definition, since they spring into light with a sudden burst when struck.  (They also give us the technical term flare out – as in, the first EMT to respond to the accident flared out the scene, meaning that they lit flares and placed them on the roadway to warn drivers of the obstruction.  I love technical jargon and specialized lingo; they do fascinating things to the language.)

Peeve Plus

Today’s peeve, because I haven’t been peevish for a while:

Listen up, people.  The phrase you’re aiming for isn’t “make due.”  It’s “make do.”

I know that homonyms are tricky, and “do” and “due” are homonyms in some dialects of English.†  (My own native dialect isn’t one of them; the vowel sounds are different enough that I’m not likely to confuse the two.  On the other hand, if I don’t specify either a fountain pen or a safety pin, a listener with no context to help out won’t know which one I’m talking about.)

Still, that’s no excuse for not getting it right in your prose. It’s the sort of mistake that puts off discriminating readers, and you don’t want to do that.

And now the “plus” part of this post, or, I discover a tasty new thing to do with cabbage.

The thing is, I like cabbage.  I once – no lie – cut a class when I was an undergrad, purely because the college cafeteria that fed my dorm was going to be serving braised cabbage that day, and I wanted to get there when the dining hall opened so that I could have it fresh instead of after it had been sitting on a steam table for an hour and a half.  (The class was Eighteenth Century English Lit, and Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts – the work assigned for that session – simply couldn’t compete.  The eighteenth century was a great time for English prose, but for poetry, not so much, at least not until the Romantics came along.)

Anyhow, I like cabbage, but after steaming it, and braising it with kielbasa, and chopping it up and putting it into slaw, I thought I’d run out of ways to cook it.  Then I read online about roasted cabbage, and I said to myself, Self, you need to try this one.

It’s one of those dead simple recipes:  Take a head of cabbage, a cutting board, and a nice heavy knife.  Slice the cabbage longitudinally into one-inch thick slices – cabbage steaks, if you will – leaving in the core.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400° F.

Then take a sheet pan and line it with tinfoil (another lovely word – tinfoil hasn’t been made of tin since the middle of the last century).  Spread a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over the bottom of the pan.  Put the cabbage slices on the sheet pan in a single layer, and brush them with more olive oil.  Then sprinkle the slices with fresh ground pepper and kosher salt.

Put the sheet pan in the oven, and cook the cabbage for 40 minutes, turning them over carefully at the 20-minute mark.

Serve as a vegetable with grilled sausage or whatever pleases you.

†Everybody speaks a dialect of some sort.  It’s just that some dialects are more privileged than others, and get to be called “Standard.”

Peeve of a Summer’s Day

The air is thick with humidity and allergens, and I am peevish.

Listen to me, O People, when I say unto you, the phrase is not “mother load”, it is “mother lode.”

The term comes from mining, specifically gold and silver mining, where it refers to a principle vein or group of veins of ore.  The Mother Lode, in the United States, is an area of hard-rock gold deposits in California’s Sierra Nevada, running through a zone 120 miles long and in some places almost 4 miles wide.  (It was, unsurprisingly, discovered during the California Gold Rush.)

A mother lode of something, then, is an abundant source or principle supply of that thing.  The “mother” part comes from the use of “mother” to refer to a source or origin:  “Mother of pearl” refers to the substance known as nacre, with which a mollusk encases the bit of irritant which forms the center of a pearl; “mother of vinegar” is the naturally-occurring bacterial culture which, when added to wine or other substances, causes them to ferment into vinegar; and “mother” or “mother dough” is a term sometimes used in baking to refer to a naturally-cultivated yeast starter.

And the “lode” part?  That’s from the Old English lād, meaning “a way” or “a course” – usually a watercourse of some sort.  So a lode is a way or course that ore runs through, like water runs in a stream.

Summertime, and the Living Is Sneezy….

We’re now well into the time of hot, oppressive days and high pollen counts.  The cats, instead of sitting like little furry meatloafs with tails and paws neatly tucked in, are stretched out into longcats, and can be reliably used to find the spots with the best cooling cross-drafts.

Which are no good to the rest of us, because the cats own them.

Summer is not the most enjoyable time for doing work, but work nevertheless must be done (this is where I point, in a discreet parenthesis, to the “Editorial and Critique Services” link up at the top of the page), so I’ll leave you with a handful of links to amuse or interest you during the days when you’re not on vacation at the beach, or in a mountaintop cabin, or in a hermetically sealed and thoroughly air-conditioned hotel room, if such is your pleasure:

First, a clip of Jim Macdonald, my co-author, in his other role as a magician (complete with top hat!)

Next, a good (and funny) explanation of the context rules for the use of bad language, and a report on the discovery of the earliest known use of the f-word in written English.

And finally, a video demonstrating how to put on a set of late 14th-century armor.

Stay cool, and enjoy.

Sometimes the Transmission Gets a Bit Fuzzy

As a tool for getting ideas out of one person’s head and into another’s, language (whether spoken or written) is a poor substitute for telepathy . . . but it’s the only tool we’ve got.

It’s not surprising, then, that writers often have an ambiguous relationship with language.  It’s both the tool we use and the medium we work in, and we admire its beauties and cherish its quirks at the same time as we curse at it for its limitations – not least because we can never really be certain that the worlds and characters which we use language to create are being re-created as we intended in the minds of our readers.  (Who, after all, speak their own personal  subsets of our common language, which of necessity are not the same as ours.)

For an interesting example of this phenomenon, consider this post on the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog, which discusses J. R. R. Tolkien’s description, in the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, of Lúthien dancing in “a mist of hemlocks.” The blogger points out that English and American readers may well visualize that scene differently, since the English “hemlock” is a flowering plant and the North American “hemlock” is most commonly a tall coniferous tree.

Really, given the different word-hoards and world-views that we all carry around inside our head, it’s amazing that language works as well as it does.

A Source of Amusement and Some Good Advice

I first encountered Wolcott Gibbs’s “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” in James Thurber’s The Years With Ross, Thurber’s memoir of the early days of the New Yorker magazine.

In many ways, it’s a relic of its moment in time (1937, to be precise); it was an internal memo, intended to bring new fiction editors up to speed on the magazine’s general style and tone.  Unlike most such documents, though, it’s fun to read.  A few samples:

Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There s obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.

Mr. Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. “A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.” Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.

Among other things, The New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as “little” and writing about them, as Mr. Maxwell says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.

The piece is available in its entirety here, and I highly recommend it.