7.21.2015

Unhip Ranker Rankles

I just saw on FaceBook one of those annoying click-bait surveys asking "How Hippie Are You?" in which one of the result comments used the misspelling "tie die."

If you can't spell "tie-dye" you're not hip enough to write a survey about hippieness. Everybody knows "tie die" is what happens when you get strangled by your neckwear.

At least it didn't use the misspelling “hippy” (see p. 143 of Common Errors in English Usage),

7.16.2015

Life and Death on the Farm

Reading this Crankshaft strip this morning I was reminded that I've been meaning to look up the origin of the phrase “bought the farm” meaning “be killed.” It certainly isn’t obvious.

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang offers this rather strained explanation:
orig. US Air Force use. Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damage done to his farm by the crash, and the amount demanded is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and then buy the farm outright. Since this type of crash (i.e. in a jet fighter) is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.
How common could such crashes be? Unless farm buildings were hit, it seems as if most farms would recover fairly easily from a plane crash.

In this instance I like the explanation by Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com better:
This term has been part of the English lexicon since at least 1955, but its origins are unclear. Some theorize that an American soldier’s G.I. insurance was sufficient to enable his family to settle the mortgage back home, thus a death in battle was succinctly described as “He bought the farm.”
The problem with this etymology is that it has yet to prove out. Though “buying the farm” did become a way of saying “he died” (in battle or otherwise, soldier or anyone else), the connection between G.I.s’ death benefits and swarms of families paying off mortgages with those sadly-gained funds is tenuous at best. 
Others postulate the term derived from wistful statements uttered by aviators who later met the Grim Reaper in dogfights; each making a statement to the effect that after the war was over, he’d like to settle down and buy a farm. “He bought the farm” thus became a way of saying “His war is now over.” 
Another theory leaves out soldiers entirely: according to it, farmers whose buildings were hit by crashing fighter planes would sue the government for damages, and those damages were often enough to pay off all outstanding mortgages on the property. Since very few pilots would survive such a crash, the pilot was said to have “bought the farm” with his life. 
These are charming tales filled with imagery and romance, but nothing other than our desire to believe supports any of them. Moreover, “to buy it” (meaning “to die”) existed in the language long before “to buy the farm” did. It’s more reasonable to suppose the one is an extension of the other, with “the farm” substituting for (the often unstated) “it.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of “buy”:
To suffer some mishap or reverse, specifically to be wounded; to get killed, to die; (of an airman) to be shot down.
The earliest use of “buy” in this sense dates to 1825, more than a century before the earliest appearance of “buy the farm.”
Lexicographer Dave Wilton concludes “the farm” is a slang reference to a burial plot (i.e., a piece of ground). “Buy a plot” appeared around the time of “buy the farm” (both mean the same thing), but it’s a particular snippet of World War I slang that ties it all together: “Become a landowner” thus means “to inhabit a cemetery plot.”
This expression reminds me of the popular culture trope whereby parents lie about the death of a family pet by telling their kids that the animal has gone to live “on a nice farm upstate.”

The reference to “upstate” would point to a New York origin, but I would love to know how and when this notion was first popularized. I have been unable to trace how far back this expression goes, but it pops up frequently.

References to this supposed practice rarely if ever refer to the actual death of a pet or to literal death. There has recently been a spate of uses of the expression referring to changes on various talk shows.

Here is a sample headline about the change of hosts on The Tonight Show
Jimmy Fallon Will Send Jay Leno To Live On A Farm Upstate. 
The same expression was used of Stephen Colbert leaving his show on the Comedy Network:
a few weeks before Colbert was sent to live on a farm upstate (sorry, kids) 
Another reference is used in connection with the disposal of the David Letterman Late Show set:
This is what it felt like when your mother, bereft because your father had left for cigarettes and disappeared for 40 years, told you your pet squirrel had gone to live on a farm upstate, and then you walked in on her cuddling with Sgt. Squirms, only for her to insist this wasn't the same squirrel.
Another writer uses this trope to refer to dismissing an idea for a blog post:
I’m starting to write a post here on Palestra Back (a post which has been sent off to live on a farm upstate with other mediocre post ideas).
I began this blog post with reference to the deaths of pilots. Let’s put this discussion out to pasture with this instance in which “pilot” has a different meaning:
On a list of failed shows where Peter Boyle plays a talking police dog, Poochinski owns the number one spot. And it’s not for lack of trying either. Poochinski earned the position by undershooting even the lowest aspirations of its premise with a cascade of exhausting jokes, arduous exposition, and animatronics straight from the nightmare dog park of the uncanny valley. Then it does us one better. Remove the whole “dog can talk and operate stereo equipment” vehicle, and Poochinski is still a confusing, toneless mess. The show’s bizarre place in network television history — coupled with its equally bizarre spot in four writers’ “good idea” book — makes Poochinski one of the worst pilots to ever go live on a farm upstate somewhere.

6.14.2015

A Passage to Bainbridge Island

When I tell people we live on Bainbridge Island, they often assume we have to take a ferry to get anywhere on the mainland. It’s true that we often take the ferry to Seattle, but since 1950 there has been a bridge spanning Agate Passage at the Island’s northern tip.

I have long puzzled over the fact that the locals usually refer to this as the “Agate Pass bridge.” Indeed, according to Google Maps the Agate Pass Bridge crosses over Agate Passage.

The term “pass” has historically more often designated a passable way through mountains or other obstacles. In former times it could be used to designated a crossing over a body of water, or even a bridge (the Oxford English Dictionary calls this usage “now rare”).

In modern usage, this is the most common OED definition of “pass” in its geographical sense:
A way through or across an area where passage is limited by natural impediments, such as trees, marshes, or hills. Chiefly spec.: a route over or through a mountainous region; a narrow passage between mountains. 
But a pass can also be a channel within a body of water:
A navigable channel, esp. at a river's mouth or in a delta; spec. one in the Mississippi delta.
But it a pass is usually not the name for the narrow body of water separating two land masses—a strait. So why do most neighbors of Agate Passage refer to it as “Agate Pass”?

Is it just a handy abbreviation? Maybe, but we also have Rich Passage to the west, and nobody ever calls it ”Rich Pass.”

But on Agate Point we have an “Agate Pass Road.”

In the wider area, there’s the wonderful Agate Pass Cafe in Suquamish, Agate Pass Crossfit in Poulsbo, and Fabrik Agate Pass Stoneware made in Seattle by Jim McBride in the 70s and 80s.

On the other hand, we have right here Agate Passage Psychological Services. In this era of personal “journeys” it makes sense that a psychotherapy clinic would choose “passage” over “pass.” Similarly, local Quakers have formed the “Agate Passage Friends Meeting.”

By now you may wondering: are there agates in Agate Passage? Not so far as I know. Surely if there any existed, genuine Agate Passage agates would be choice souvenirs in the many local shops serving tourists.

In fact the name has nothing to do with the gemstone.

In 1841 Captain Charles Wilkes was leading a US Navy expedition to scout  navigable waters to the west, including Puget Sound. He was the first explorer of European descent to discover that Bainbridge was indeed an island, when he found the strait separating what is now called “Agate Point” from the Kitsap Peninsula. He named it “Agate’s Passage” after the expedition’s distinguished artist, Alfred Thomas Agate (1812–1846)—a significant fact in that although the Island is poor in agates it now abounds in artists.

Agate created the first known depiction of nearby Mount Rainier, where there are many agates.

Agate Island in Fiji was also named in Alfred Agate’s honor because of the usefulness of his drawings he made in that area years earlier.

As for “Bainbridge,” that was a considerably more arbitrary name assigned to the Island by Capt. Wilkes in honor of American Naval hero William Bainbridge, captain of the USS Constitution in a string of victories of which the Navy was extremely proud.

Finally, why do residents capitalize “Island” when referring to their home land mass, even when the word  is not preceded by “Bainbridge”?

They just do. “Bainbridge” is understood.



6.04.2015

Slippery Discs

In my entry on “disc/disk” (p. 85) I mention that the inventors of the compact disc chose the “C” spelling, so it makes sense to follow them. The invention was developed by Philips and Sony, and the logo they designed has appeared on millions of recordings. Its frequent appearance in this form made publications which adhered to the “disk” spelling seem arbitrarily stodgy.

The New York Times used “compact disk” for decades, but finally caved in. I noticed in a recent issue of The New Yorker that the magazine, famous for its adherence to older traditions in spelling and punctuation, is still using the spelling “disk.”

Discussions of the SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) format often refer to its having become obsolete with the decline in its use, but those of us who still collect classical music on European labels know better. There are many recording companies using the format for new releases, and a few release all their recordings as SACDs.

For a while CD player manufacturers failed to support the format, but the higher-end ones have now realized that SACD is very much alive. I bought my current Oppo player partly because it plays SACDs in full high-resolution surround-sound mode.

The manufacturers of high-resolution video discs chose the awkward spelling “Blu-ray Disc” with “ray” treated as if it were part of a hyphenated word instead of the second word in a hyphenated phrase: with a lower-case “r.” The official abbreviation for this format is “BD” but I’ve never heard that form in speech.

Some predict the premature death of BDs because high-def streaming over the Internet is now available from sources like Netflix and Amazon, but for critical viewers with high-end equipment, Blu-ray delivers noticeably superior image quality. It can also deliver true surround sound, which streamed recordings often do not. However some studios have begun pressing special Blu-rays for the rental market which lack surround sound and some of the extras one gets on a direct-to-consumer discs. Very annoying.

Truly cutting-edge videophiles are looking forward to the arrival of super high-definition 4K Blu-ray Discs. Even experts debate whether the improvement provided is truly visible; but whether or not the new format catches on you can be sure the recordings will still be “discs,” not “disks.”


5.05.2015

Y not Y?

I used to frequently walk by a sign advertising  the “Slush Puppie” brand of crushed-ice drinks. The odd spelling bothered me partly because the corporate symbol is a dog—a puppy—and partly because the name is a pun on hushpuppy: both of them with with Y endings. In these and many other words the Y changes to IE only when pluralized: puppies and hushpuppies.

Was the brand name influenced by the fact that the generic term for the drink is a slushie rather than a slushy? Even its more sophisticated relative is a smoothie—not a smoothy (a smooth-talking guy) .

Of course brand names often use nonstandard cutesy spellings such as “Krispy Kreme,” but notice that even in this famous instance the -Y suffix from crispy remains. The spelling only changes to -IE when pluralized, as in Rice Krispies.

There are other instances in which the two suffixes have different meanings. Although usage varies, usually a caddie carries your golf clubs and a Caddy is a car. Cadillac doesn’t make golf carts. A fish caught in polluted water might be a crappy crappie.

Common Errors in English Usage has this entry for hippy vs. hippie on page 143:
A long-haired 60s flower child was a “hippie.” “Hippy” is an adjective describing someone with wide hips. The IE is not caused by a Y changing to IE in the plural as in “puppy” and “puppies.” It is rather a dismissive diminutive, invented by older, more sophisticated hipsters looking down on the new kids as mere “hippies.” Confusing these two is definitely unhip.
Both suffixes are used in people’s names, with -y more common in men’s names and -ie more common in women’s: Bobby vs. Bobbie, Terry vs. Terrie,  Cary vs. Carrie, etc. (To check which spelling is used for a specific gender, type a name into Google and choose “Images,” but don’t search for “carie” unless you want to be grossed out by multiple images of gum disease.)

Female names often use the Y ending too. There is Lucie and Lucy, Katie and Katy, Tracie and Tracy. 

There are variations in adjectives associated with femininity: Bonnie may be bonny or slinky, but also a pixie—a real cutie.

Of course there are many ways to make a traditional masculine name feminine besides changing the suffix (the reverse process is rare) Sometimes they are just appropriated unchanged, as in Daryl, Ashley, Blake, Tristan, Dylan, Nikita, Madison, Lindsay, Ryan, Taylor—the list goes on and on. In other cases names are feminized with alternative spellings: Alex becomes Alix, Joe becomes Jo, and Tony becomes Toni.

I used to have to explain to my literature students that Virgil’s Second Eclogue is a homosexual love poem—they didn’t realize that Alexis had always been a male name until very recently.

But to return to our topic, the Guardian and Observer style guide provides these useful guidelines:
As a general rule: -y is an English suffix, whose function is to create an adjective (usually from a noun, eg creamy); -ie was originally a Scottish suffix, whose function is to add the meaning of "diminutive" (usually from a noun, eg beastie).  
So in most cases, where there is dispute over whether a noun takes a -y or an -ie ending, the correct answer is -ie: she's a girly girl, but she's no helpless girlie. Think also scrunchie, beanie, nightie, meanie ... There are exceptions (a hippy, an indie band), but where specific examples are not given, use -ie for nouns and -y for adjectives.
For a detailed scholarly article on the origins of the -y suffix, see this article.

4.20.2015

Engrench and Franglais

Although I strive for clarity in my “Common Errors” writing, I sometimes amuse myself by inserting somewhat obscure jokes in an entry. A example is the article on the spelling of “connoisseur,” which some French people object to because the modern spelling in their language is “connaisseur.”

In the early 19th century (specifically in the 6th edition of the official Dictionnaire de l'Académie française), the spelling of many older words containing an OI was changed to AI. But “connoisseur” entered English before this change took place: it reflects the perfectly correct older spelling.

Spoiler alert: unfunny explanation of joke follows.

I reply to the objections of these French critics: “let ’em eat bifteck.” The latter word is the weird French spelling of the English word “beefsteak.” The sentence of course alludes to the comment famously attributed to Marie Antoinette, who when told that the masses could not get enough bread is supposed to have said “let them eat cake” (actually brioche in the original French). For a detailed discussion of this totally bogus story, see the relevant Wikipedia article.

In my Common Errors in English Usage I discuss many English manglings of French words, but the French are equally prone to play havoc with English words and expressions.

One of the first I ran into when studying French was the word “shampooing” which is used in French where we would use “shampoo,” and pronounced “shampwang.”

There’s an interesting page on French words of English origin in the French Wikitionary from which I’ve taken the following examples, listing the French version first, followed by the English source.

babyfoot
a made-up pseudo-English word for Foosball, table football

bouledogue
bulldog

camping
campsite

footing
jogging

hold-up
military attack

magnat
magnate

overbooké
overbooked

parking
parking lot

pin's
badges

planning (noun)
schedule

poney
pony

pull-over
sweater

record man
record holder

redingote
riding coat

slip
panties

smoking
tuxedo

string
string bikini

talkie-walkie
walkie-talkie

When English or pseudo-English words and expressions are mixed with French the result is called franglais (français + anglais), so I figure its complement should be Engrench.

More amusing examples are included in in a Global Post article “A Beginner’s Guide to Franglais” along with a helpful list of French phrases misused by English speakers.