When I began editing the course catalog at the University of Arizona, the biennial catalog had just been printed. That meant that for the next two years, I had to confront, on a regular basis, the following solecism at the top of the first page of text:
An Historical Sketch
In American English, a few words—generally of French origin—begin with a silent H. They include hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb (but not herbicide). In most words beginning with H, however, the H is pronounced, as in handkerchief, her, him harass, height, heinous, helicopter, history, homage, house, hospital, hostile, house, huge, human, and hysteria.
Would you say “an house” or “an hat?” I hope not. No more would you say “an history.” When an indefinite article—a or an—is called for before historical, use a, as follows:
A Historical Sketch
In a heading, you might as well omit the indefinite article altogether:
* * *
Fairly recently, educated people who are otherwise well spoken have begun pronouncing the word homage as if they are writing a poem and they are desperate to find a word to rhyme, sort of, with garage, so they choose…
An alternative but also less-than-ideal pronunciation is…
“Careful” speakers—generally people like me who spend far too many hours squinting at dictionaries and style manuals—say homage like this:
In fact, the New York Times published an entire article on the topic, in which the author, Ben Zimmer, goes to bat for HOM-ij.
In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls [oh-MAZH]... a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury…. A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch.
I have a sneaking suspicion that people who Frenchify their vocabulary—seizing every opportunity to revert to the French pronunciations of English words that may have been in our language for hundreds of years—are putting on a little show. They want us to think they speak French, so they wrinkle their noses and elongate their vowels when saying French-based words and phrases such as hors d’oeuvre, entrepreneur, ambience, en route, and, yes, homage. Oh, well. It’s a harmless affectation. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?
According to Treehugger.com, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.
It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.
For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:
I am going to walk to the pharmacy
…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:
Amuna walk to the pharmacy.
Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said
I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy
…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.
Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”
Do you need an editor? A proofreader?
You tell me.
- Do you spell sleight of hand correctly?
- Do you properly use an en dash rather than a hyphen in phrases such as “pre–World War II”?
- Do you know when to set off an explanatory phrase with commas (as in “Claude Monet, the celebrated French Impressionist, was born in 1840”) and when not to (as in “Celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet was born in 1840”)?
- Do you know whether to insert quotation marks before or after semicolons?
- Do you know what’s wrong with the sentence “I only had chicken for dinner”?
- Do you know the difference between a podium and a lectern?
- Are you aware that if you have two sisters and one of them is named Susie you can refer to her as your “sister Susie” and no comma is needed, but if you have only one sister she’s your “sister, Susie”?
Do you even care?
Hardly anybody does, but there are self-confessed nerds in this world who care far too much. They lurk like trolls under bridges, waiting for a misplaced modifier or a sentence fragment to clump along so they can leap out of the gloom and exclaim, “Gotcha!” They are a miserable lot because they can hardly listen to a commercial without cringing, what with spokespersons’ announcing a sale on “select merchandise only” and “a savings of 50 percent.”
These nerds are called “proofreaders,” and their focus is on spelling, punctuation, typographical errors, and other mechanical problems with a manuscript. A good editor can do all that and more. His or her higher calling is to improve the style, tone, flow, and vocabulary of the piece. Editors also look for “fake facts” and inconsistent diction. They assess whether the work is appropriate for its intended audience, and they edit accordingly.
Even editors need editors. Serious writers put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and when they finish them, they don’t like people messing with them. They become wedded to every word, and an editor’s intrusion feels like betrayal. I speak from experience. I get cross with my spellchecker when it suggests a change, even when it’s right and I’m wrong—which is rare, but it happens.
A lot of writing goes on in this world, and most of it probably does well enough. Who really cares, or even notices, if someone mistakenly uses a hyphen instead of an en dash? I’d venture to say that en dash and em dash aren’t in the general public’s vocabulary. And that’s fine. They’re tools of the proofreader’s and editor’s trade. In fact, some editor probably made them up so that she’d have a reason to say, “You need an editor!”
So who does need an editor? You do, if you’re writing something…
- that’s going to be widely read
- that represents your company or organization
- that you hope to have published
- that for whatever reason needs to be perfect.
Your memoir, your annual report, your article on packrat middens, your speech to the alumni association—these are endeavors worth paying an editor to correct and polish.
P.S. One thing an editor probably can’t help you with is pronunciation, so if you’re giving a speech, read it to someone else first. Taking that step would have saved my good friend Tom McDonald from a lot of embarrassment. It was his job to introduce an emeritus professor to a large gathering of faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Tom was a smart guy—top of his class—but he pronounced emeritus as if it rhymed with hepatitis. I had to be the one to tell him. I still blush when I think of it.
I’m Changing My Name to Baba Ghanoush
If eggplant were the only food product available on the planet, I’d starve to death. It’s one of three or four comestibles I gag on. I can’t even tolerate the odor.
It’s a pity, because it deprives me of a reason to say baba ghanoush. What a wonderful phrase! It trips off the tongue like a small shower of pebbles falling on sand… baba ghanoush, of which the chief ingredient is eggplant. You also toss in some tahini—another pretty little word, much sweeter to say than its definition, which is “sesame-seed paste.”
Almost as much fun to pronounce as baba ghanoush are falafel and chickpeas—the former being composed of the latter along with onion, garlic, and a little flour. Sadly, I never met a chickpea I could swallow. As you might surmise, I don’t spend much time at west-Asian or eastern-European restaurants.
If my food-and-beverage choices were based entirely on vocabulary rather than flavor, I’d enjoy a preprandial Manhattan, or, possibly, an Old Fashioned. Whether or not approved by sommeliers, I’d order a glass of Moscato to drink with my baba ghanoush, my falafel, and other delectables.
Did you know that there is a word for continuing to eat when you’re full because the food is so good? That word, from the country (not the state) of Georgia, is shemomedjamo, translated as “I accidentally ate the whole thing,” according to wordnik.com. That same source gives us the German word kummerspeck—literally “grief bacon,” referring to “the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.” If I had the time, I would befriend recent divorcees solely for the opportunity to say, “Poor Brenda. Bless her heart, she’s put on thirty pounds of kummerspeck since Humphrey went off with Cruella. Too many sessions of shemomedjamo, I’m thinking.”
Here’s a small word with a large and complex meaning, having nothing to do with food but leaving one musing about the circumstances under which the need for such a word arose: It’s tingo, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, and it means “to borrow objects from a friend’s house, one by one, until there’s nothing left” (bbc.co.uk, ”Tingo, nakkele and other wonders”).
Questions pop up like crocuses in April: Is this a common occurrence on Easter Island? Does the borrowing occur surreptitiously or in the open, and doesn’t the borrowee notice that his or her possessions are melting away? Are Easter Islanders too polite to ask for the return of their vegetable peelers, their hiking boots, and their beds? It boggles the mind.
Back to food…. My favorite forms of bonne bouche (Americans pronounce this French phrase “bun boosh” when they want a fancy way to say “tasty morsel”) are not, alas, euphonious. Fudge is a case in point. The word is as unlovely as the candy is delicious, especially when homemade, with real butter—and how about that for a word? Margarine is nicer to say but butter is better in all the ways that count.
How Oxford Online Brought About My Demise
Five fewer ways to be a know-it-all. It’s lonely being right. I discussed this existential isolation recently with my articulate friend Eric Somers, an internationally respected sound designer and an expert in a number of other fields as well. (See Eric’s useful and entertaining blog at theaudiopenguin.com.)
We were talking about the pronunciation of music vocabulary and composers’ names, which challenges classical-music lovers in general and public-radio hosts in particular. We made cruel fun of people who say chy-KOW-skee for Tchaikovsky—”a rather easy word if you know Russian” according to violinist.com, but “the second syllable can be… tricky because there is a literal orchestra of grammar going on in these 3 short letters.” A literal orchestra, you ask? Seriously? Read on.
We expressed equal contempt for those who omit the final consonant in the surname of the French composer Saint-Saëns, an error committed by those who have enough French to know that, in general, the ess sound at the end of a word is pronounced only when immediately followed by a vowel sound: thus, Je suis [swee] française but Je suis [sweez] anglaise. For reasons that I don’t quite grasp, even after reading two entire blogs on this esoteric matter, the final s in Saint-Saëns is supposed to be given light sibilant attention. For a full discussion and a link to the spoken name, see the contemporary-music blog icareifyoulisten.com.
Inflammatory words. This morning, seeking confirmation of my view on the choice of that or which to introduce a relative clause, I happened on the blog post that would literally spell my doom: “5 Language Arguments You Can Stop Having.” It seems that nothing is certain in the rough-and-tumble progress of our language through time and space. Here is what I learned:
- Biweekly can properly mean “every other week” or “twice a week.”
- Nauseous can correctly describe the feeling of nausea in addition to “causing nausea.”
- Flammable is preferable to inflammable when referring to something that is easily set aflame. (This was not news to me, although I still fail to understand why anyone would interpret inflammable as “not flammable.” If a truck contains material that’s not likely to catch fire, why say so?)
- Further is acceptable when describing physical distance—that is, as a synonym for farther, although I will need to think further about whether to use it in an other-than-metaphorical context.
- Here’s the killer: It’s just fine to say literally when you mean “figuratively.” After all, “literary luminaries such as Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the word in this sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word has been used figuratively since the mid-18th century.”
Recalling all the manuscripts in which I have gleefully (and possibly literally) pounced upon this last misuse, I literally died of chagrin. Thus I will be unavailable for further comment.
For more on these no-longer-controversial usages, see the full story here. I’m going to go pound another nail in my coffin.