5.04.2016

Not an Earth-Shaking Epiphany

A couple of days ago Tom Sumner and I recorded a Common Errors in English Usage podcast with Chris Waigl, founder of the Eggcorn database. She is also studying geophysics in Fairbanks, Alaska; so I asked her what she thought of the common misuse of the word “epicenter” by journalists.

Although she tries to be tolerant of popular shifts in the meaning of words she admitted this is one of her pet peeves.

Here’s my entry on the term from Common Errors in English Usage (p. 106).
The precise location where the earth slips beneath the surface in an earthquake is its hypocenter (or focus) and the spot up on the surface where people feel the quake is its epicenter. Geologists get upset when people use the latter word, designating a point rather removed from the main action, as if it were a synonym of “epitome” and meant something like “most important center.” The British spell it “epicentre.”
 No sooner was our podcast mounted than I ran across this sentence in May 2 issue of The New Yorker:
Epigeneticists, once a subcaste of biologist nudged to the far peripheries of the discipline, now find themselves firmly at its epicenter.
Here are some other recent examples in which “epicenter” is used to mean “center”:
Iowa Offers Tax Incentives In Bid To Become An Epicenter For Innovation In Bio-based MaterialsForbes
How North Carolina became the epicenter of the voting rights battleWashington Post 
Epicenter of bad drivingSun Sentinal
Although it is not the center of an earthquake the epicenter is the spot at which the greatest damage to structures and people on the surface is likely to occur, so the last example makes a sort of sense. But the first example uses “epicenter” in a positive sense, possibly influenced by the current fad for describing desirable innovation as “disruptive.”

The prefix “epi-” is derived from a Greek preposition meaning “upon,” “over,” “attached to,” etc. In the English word “epidermis” refers to the outermost layer of the skin.  An epilog is the bit that comes after the main body of a work. An epigram an even more succinct form of writing.

Not all “epi-” words describe something less central or essential. “Epitome” keeps good company with the popular meaning of “epicenter”: very essence (but see p. 106 to learn how to pronounce the former),  It could even be that the first word is influencing contemporary use of the second.

The use of scientific terms in nonscientific contexts is often sloppy and misleading. (Another prime example—also mentioned by Waigl in the podcast—is “quantum leap,” discussed in my book on pp. 237-8.) However, since the “epicenter” in its journalistic sense is written and read far more commonly than in its scientific one, there’s not much use complaining about this. When The New Yorker's notoriously picky copy editors cave before the irresistible play on words “epigeneticists”/“epicenter” the rest of us should probably not get all shook up.


3.04.2016

A Maddening Crowd of Errors

John Sitter, a Notre Dame English professor, recently wrote this to me:

     I've just recently discovered your very useful site on usage and have recommended it highly to my students.  I wish I'd found it much sooner.

    I think there is an error in regard to “madding,” which is not an archaic form of “maddening” but a different word, meaning something like “running mad” or “behaving madly.”  E.g., in his Episte to Dr. Arbuthnot, Pope imagines being beset by bad writers who, “Fire in each eye, papers in each hand, / Rave, recite, and madden round the land.”

    Of course, it's often the case that those who madden are also maddening, Lord knows.   But I think Gray's direct comment is about the behavior of the crowd rather than on its effect on him.

     Again, many thanks for your good work(s).

                   With all best wishes,


                            John

I knew that “maddding” in modern contexts was usually an allusion to the title of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd,” but I didn't realize that his title was itself an allusion to a line in Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” when the word “madding” was more commonly used. Hardy revived and perpetuated the word, but modern writers rarely understand what he meant by it.

Here's what I replied to Prof. Sitter:

The Oxford English Dictionary supplies two meanings for the adjective “madding.”

 1. Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied. Now chiefly in far from the madding crowd  [in allusion to Gray's and Hardy's uses (see quots. 1751, 1874)] : (of a place) secluded, removed from public notice; also in other phrases modelled on this.

2. That makes a person mad; maddening. Obs.

The second one is the meaning you object to, and the first example given is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1592), but as you see the OED considers it obsolete.

I think you’re right that most people derive it from Gray via Hardy and get it wrong, but it’s often difficult to guess which meaning is intended.

Only recently has the media madding crowd come around to some kind of consensus about it just being racist as hell.http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/24/donald-trump-victory-nevada-caucus-voter-anger

With March sweeps coming up, I plan to retreat to the oasis of PBS, far from the madding crowd of screaming pundits, tasteless sitcoms, and disturbing crime shows—not to mention commercials. http://wvpublic.org/post/too-many-tv-choices-watch-pbs-and-chill

Most journalists seem to intend the word to mean “noisy, teaming, busy,” which doesn’t exactly match either of these definitions.

The sole definition offered by Webster’s online seem to reflect this usage:

 acting in a frenzied manner —usually used in the phrase madding crowd to denote especially the crowded world of human activity and strife <built his home far from the madding crowd

I wonder how many writers even know about Hardy’s novel. I’m sure hardly any of them know about Gray. Hardy used the term when it had already become antiquated, and without a context that would provide the reader with his intended meaning unless they already knew Gray. It’s not surprising that the word has drifted.

1.25.2016

Word Salad, Part Two

James Evans, a fan of my site, sent me this today:
The lunch menu in the cafeteria at work is advertising “Mescaline Salad” today. I think a “mesclun vs. mescaline” entry may be warranted. A quick search of Google indicates that our cafeteria is not the only one making that mistake.
Indeed. 

Here are some examples that pop up:
A recipe: Strawberry - Mango Mescaline Salad 
A salad label 
A photo: Mescaline salad field 
Here's a cartoon on this subject: Mesclun or Mescaline Salad

Mesclun is a French word literally meaning “mixture,” used to describe a mixture of various greens. The term is popular on pretentious menus, where it may designate a mixture of any number of different greens. Since it has no precise definition, I prefer the simple English “mixed greens.”

This mix-up isn’t common enough to qualify for my Web site, but I liked it so much I thought it was worth a blog post.

1.15.2016

Word Salad

The comic strip “Frank & Ernest” often touches on mangled language. Today’s alludes to the common misspelling of “Caesar salad,” which is discussed on p. 52 of my book. Remember that the book lists words under their misspellings.

1.12.2016

Hiding in Plain Sight

The Washington Post recently published an article about the 2011 Powerball scandal which involved a lottery official secretly buying what was later claimed to be a winning ticket.

This paragraph from the piece puzzled me at first:
Investigators never gave up on the curious case and, three years later, released surveillance footage of a hooded man buying the winning ticket in the hopes that someone would recognize him.
If he was hoping someone would identify him, why wear a hood?

It took three readings before I realized that the phrase “in the hopes that someone would recognize him” belonged earlier in the sentence, after the word “footage.” It was the investigators who were hoping someone would recognize him.

When you’re writing a long, complex sentence it’s easy to make this sort of mistake, known as a “dangling modifier.” After all, you know what you mean. Most of us find it difficult to spot problems of this kind in our own writing. It’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your work before publishing it.

But in this case, whoever edited this piece at the Post missed the problem.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are covered on p. 75.