Hyphenating Dilemmas (and Nothing about Baseball)

A front office change over at Fangraphs: Meg Rowley has taken over as managing editor and podcast host at the popular baseball site. Carson Cistulli, who was managing editor and podcast host for years, is moving on to work for the Toronto Blue Jays.

I'm interested in the podcast because I like baseball, but what I've always appreciated is Cistulli's approach to the project. The podcast has never been only about baseball; there has been a fair amount of French philosophy and pop culture in the mix, for example (and trash culture, too, as you could count on professional wrestling to come up now and then).

In the handoff episode, where outgoing host Cistulli played guest to incoming host Rowley, they talked a bit about their disagreements on hyphenation:

I've written about hyphenating previously, but that was an unusual circumstance. Rowley and Cistulli are talking about a traditional rule of hyphenation, one that says you need to insert a hyphen into a compound adjective when placed before a noun, so you're good to go with "grass-fed cows" and "cows that are grass fed."

The case of "front-office decision" vs. "front office decision" is trickier, if you are open to the idea that the matter is open to interpretation. The Chicago Manual of Style has, in recent editions, backed off from their stance that the hyphen rule applies across the board. They now promote leaving out a hyphen if the reader will not be confused. This introduces ambiguity, to be sure, but dropping the hyphen can reduce clutter.

Cistulli makes his case that hyphens can clarify things (is it an office decision that has a front, back and sides, perhaps?), while Rawley believes dropping the hyphen would not cause confusion, so this is a case where it could be dropped.

It's subtle, and most often you just have to go with the traditional rule. Where do I stand on "front-office decision" vs. "front office decision"? Please refer to the first sentence of this post to see.


You will find a good summary of basic hyphenation rules in the Common Errors in English Usage book and on the Web site. You will find interesting discussion on bending and even breaking rules responsibly in Far from the Madding Gerund. Both books are on sale this month—$15 with free shipping.

https://wmjasco.com/william-james-co/8-common-errors-in-english-usage-3rd-ed-9781590282632.html                  https://wmjasco.com/william-james-co/55-far-from-the-madding-gerund-9781590280553.html


Hacking the Etymology of “Hack”

Everybody’s talking about “life hacks” lately.  This is not something that’s really grabbed my interest until recently, but today when I read this Betty comic strip contrasting positive and negative meanings of the word “hack” I decided to investigate it further.

Merriam-Webster online defines “life hack” as “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” The citation of the first use of the phrase in this sense is dated 2004.

How did a word traditionally associated with crude and destructive behavior come to connote ingenuity and efficiency?

The earliest meaning of the word in English cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is “To cut or chop with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion; to mangle or mutilate, esp. with jagged cuts, so as to damage or destroy.”

The first citation puzzled me a bit at first until I realized bad is a variant spelling of “bade,” the past tense of the word “bid.”
A maiden bad te kinge his heued, and he hit bad of acken.
So this means "A maiden asked the king for his head, and he asked for it to be hacked off.” This is from a early 13th century collection of sayings, so there’s no context given; but it sounds like an excerpt from the story of Salome, King Herod, and John the Baptist.

The other earliest citation, from the Ancrene Riwle, also denotes decapitation, with a very different spelling:
Hahackede of his heaued [hacked off his head]
Hacking is mostly associated with rough, crude cutting, as in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, where the cowardly Falstaff falsely claims to have fought ferociously: “My sworde hackt like a handsaw.” (He had actually deliberately damaged it by hacking at a stone in order to create evidence of his courage.)

Certain sounds have been associated with hacking: chattering teeth, stuttering, quibbling—but the one that persists is referred to in the phrase “a hacking cough.”

People could also hack unwanted trees and weeds, and hack through brush to get somewhere, leading to a whole tradition of positive meanings having to do with working one’s way through obstacles to reach a goal. By the 1930s, Americans were using the term to mean “manage,” “accomplish,” “cope with,” or “tolerate,” especially in negative contexts: “I don’t know if I can hack it.”

Some speculate that this may be a variation on the earlier expression “to cut it” as in “cut the mustard” (see my comments on this on p. 74 of Common Errors in English Usage  “cut the muster/cut the mustard”).

"Hacking" became a computer term in the mid-1970s. The OED cites three successive meanings which are still current:
 To engage in writing computer programmes or software, esp. purely for personal satisfaction. 
To modify (computer software, code, hardware components, etc.), esp. in order to provide a (typically inelegant) solution or workaround to a problem, to provide (a solution or workaround) by doing this. 
To gain unauthorized access to or control over a computer system, network, a person's telephone communications, etc., typically remotely. 
It is this last definition that has stuck in the popular mind: computer hacking is seen as definitely a bad thing, whereas hackers themselves often have more complex attitudes toward the word. They often insist on using the word in positive senses. They tend to view hacking not as crude and destructive, but as creative and elegant, which leads by analogy to the expression “life hacking.”

Those unfamiliar with any of these positive connotations for the word are mostly likely to use it negatively. People are always announcing on Facebook that their account may have been hacked because people they are already friends with are receiving fake friend requests. It doesn’t take advanced computer skills to set up a fraudulent FB account with your picture and name and send notices out to all your friends.

“Hack” can have a host of other meanings.

For instance, in American slang to hack someone off is to annoy them.

But how about “hackneyed”?

To understand this word we have to go back to an unrelated meaning of the word “hack” as traced in the OED. In the renaissance a hack was “a horse used for hire. Also: an inferior or worn out horse, a nag.”

But the word was modestly upgraded in the 18th Century:
A horse, esp. one of a calm disposition, used for general riding on a road, path, etc., as distinct from cross-country, military, or other kind of riding; a road horse. In later use also: a ridden show horse of any of several breeds and sizes, with a pleasing appearance and excellent manners. 
So a carriage horse, particularly one pulling a vehicle for hire, could be a hack, as could the driver, and he could drive a hackney coach. Hackney cabriolets (two-wheeled carriages with a folding roof, drawn by a single horse) were commonly used for paid transportation: hence the word “cab” for such a vehicle. After the invention of the automobile, the term was transferred to taxis and their drivers, both being called “hacks.”

But another variation of the word’s etymology branched off around 1700:
Originally: a person who may be hired to do any kind of work as required; a drudge, a lackey . In later use: spec. a person who hires himself or herself out to do any kind of literary work; (hence) a writer producing dull, unoriginal work, esp. to order.
Journalists, sometimes considered an inferior species of writer, also began to be called “hacks” and their writing “hackneyed.”

Wondering whether  I had any life hacks to share, I thought about my technique for preparing green beans for cooking, but a quick search demonstrated that it’s pretty common knowledge, if not yet hackneyed.

I can hack this disappointment—not really hacked off at all.


Stuck on Macs

Recently I was stuck on the tarmac at JFK in New York for about forty minutes waiting for my plane to take off and began musing on the word “tarmac.”

It’s an abbreviation of “tarmacadam”: a mixture of tar and crushed stones originally used for paving roads. It was invented by Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836), but very early on the spelling mutated to “tar macadam” and other variants using the spelling “macadam” rather than the original “McAdam.”

The French adopted the word with the same spelling of the inventor’s name: "Mac Adam" and “Mac-Adam.” It looks as if non-Scots were reluctant to use the original “Mc” form and resorted to the more phonetic spelling (though both spellings are common in Scotland).

When you are “immortalized” by having your name misspelled it’s a mixed blessing.

Newscasters love to use the word “tarmac” when discussing flight delays, though the airlines themselves are more prone to say “runway”; but the press did not invent this usage. By the second decade of the 20th century airport runways were commonly referred to as “tarmacs.”

Even when runways began to be made principally of concrete, they continued to be called “tarmacs” in both the US and UK. However, in Britain “tarmac” is commonly used to denote ordinary road surfaces as well, whereas in the US the word has become restricted to airports and used almost entirely in the context of flight delays.

Feeling stuck on my plane with the minutes ticking by, I felt a bit like Br’er Rabbit stuck to the tar baby in the 1880 Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus story. Harris may well have collected the tale from authentic African-American sources. Wikipedia notes that variants of this story occur in many cultures, including West African, Native American, South American, and even Indian tales.

Further musing on UK uses of “mac” I remembered that  raincoats are commonly called “mackintoshes”—abbreviated “mac” or “mack” in Britain. The process by which such waterproof coats were originally made was invented by Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), according to the Oxford English Dictionary “consisting of two or more layers of cloth cemented together with India rubber dissolved in naphtha.”

”Mac” became an informal name for any random Scot in England and was adopted in the US in the early 20th century as a generic term for any man whose name was unknown by the speaker, usually in an insulting or threatening context, often with the spelling slightly altered: “What’s it to you, Mack?” (Compare with “Bud,” used similarly.)

I’m typing this on a Macintosh computer, commonly referred to as a “Mac.” You can always tell non-Mac users when they spell the word in all caps: “MAC.” (See my entry on MAC/Mac for more details.)

Steve Jobs originally wanted to name the successor to the Apple II computer “McIntosh” after the apple thus named, but that spelling was already being used by the McIntosh Laboratory which built high-end audio equipment. The company refused to give him  a release to use the name, so the spelling was changed before the computer was marketed.

Well, I've been stuck on my Mac for long enough and I need to think about lunch—maybe a tasty bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese?


A Bunch of Baloney

Huffington Post writer Caroline Bologna reached out to me recently for a piece she was doing relating to her last name. She wound up quoting an excerpt from my entry on Baloney/Bologna: Common Errors in English Usage. It appeared today.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:
When it comes to the bullshit or nonsense definition, both Liberman and Zimmer agree that people should use the standard spelling “baloney” rather than “bologna.” Paul Brians, the author of Common Errors in English Usage, echoed that sentiment, writing on his website, “People who write ‘bunch of bologna’ are making a pun or are just being pretentious.”
And here’s the entire entry.


Getting Down with “Uppers”

Recently I was reading a Latin American novel in a British translation and ran across the expression “on his uppers.” I’ve seen variations of this phrase before, always in negative contexts. It makes little intuitive sense to an American for whom “uppers” are usually stimulants or otherwise elevating experiences. The common contexts for this expression suggest something more like what we call “downers.”

This time I decided to check it out.

It does turn out that “uppers” is British public school slang for students of “upper schools,” sort of like our “secondary schools.” But that can’t be the meaning here.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms provides a clear explanation:
Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in . . . The Smiths try to hide the fact that they're on their uppers. First recorded in 1886, this metaphoric term alludes to having worn out the soles of one’s shoes so badly that only the top portions remain.
So it means roughly the same thing as British “skint” (US “broke”}.

Other sources provide the fuller but seemingly paradoxical form of the expression “down on one’s uppers.”

Having recently discovered a hole in the sole of my expensive Ecco shoes, I can understand continuing to use worn footwear; but one wouldn’t continue to wear uppers if the soles were completely gone, so this has to be a joking exaggeration enhanced by the addition of “down to.”

The expression is so widespread in UK English that I wonder whether all speakers realize the allusion to worn shoes embodied in it.

I also found that in my copy of the 1997 American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the  proofreaders had missed a slip-up in their definition. The reason I inserted the ellipsis in my quotation is that the actual sentence begins: “Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in as in. . . ” Repetitions like this are notoriously hard to spot, but still—what a downer.


Taking Care

Last night at the Emmy awards, the director of Game of Thrones told author George R. R. Martin, “Thank you for letting us take care of your people.”

Given the low survival rate of characters in the series, I take it this is the same form of the expression as when a Mafia hitman says, “Don’t worry about those guys any more, boss. I took care of them.”