We Haven’t Run Out of Steam Yet

The steam age is very much with us these days, notably via Steampunk: a sort of alternative history world view that combines Victorian costumes and settings with technology as it might have looked and functioned if modern inventions had been developed in the 19th century instead of later.

Fairly well known examples include the French film The City of Lost Children and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (don’t bother with the awful movie—see the original graphic novels by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill).

Many Steampunk fans make and wear elaborate costumes, and I recently saw an article about a couple who remodeled their house in steampunk style.

When we were in France recently I was delighted to discover that not only have works by Jules Verne been turned into graphic novels, there are many Verne-influenced steampunk books like the extraordinarily beautiful Le Voyage extraordinaire trilogy written by Denis-Pierre Filippi and drawn by Silvio Camboni. Amazon.fr says they are not available for shipping to the US, but it seems you can get them from Amazon.co.uk. Like many of Verne’s characters,  the protagonists are from England, birthplace of the industrial revolution.

Then of course there are the people who worry about their “low self-steam.”

But another way in which steam drifts around the contemporary world is in the vocabulary we use to label certain machines. We still tend to call big excavation rigs “steam shovels” even though they were replaced in the 1930s by diesel-powered scoopers. A number of modern names have been developed by those who make and use these items, but to the general public, they’re still “steam shovels.”

Steam rollers have had an even more robust afterlife. Although the generic term is “road roller,” that term is rarely used in the culture at large. Today’s children are introduced to steam rollers as characters in the worlds of Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder.

An interesting discussion of these steam age-derived terms took place back in 2004 on the Straight Dope Web site.

The one-word spellings “steamshovel” and “steamroller” are also common.

The figurative meaning of the verb “steamroll” has also helped keep “steamroller” alive. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “steamrolled” in a metaphorical sense dates from 1915. It most commonly occurs in writing about sports and politics to mean “defeated.”

Here are a couple of recent examples from The New York Times:

Betfair has established Minella as a 90-1 underdog, but that seems charitable considering the way Serena has steamrolled the women's field 
He was re-elected in 2005 and ran for governor in 2006, getting steamrolled by Eliot Spitzer. 

Other miscellaneous uses in the Times:

In this example “steamrolled” seems to mean “pushed aside” rather than “flattened”:

This sends a message to all the oil and gas drillers anxiously eyeing our borders: The people of New York will not be steamrolled

Another example describing pressing forcibly forward:

And beginning in the late 1990s, first Sony, then Microsoft steamrolled into the gaming market with new consoles

Here it seems to mean “taken over”:

The adrenal mass was an incidental finding, after all, but it had completely steamrolled our visit.

“Steamrolled” is with us for good, it seems. Like the verbs “dial” and “tape,” there just isn’t a widely accepted modern equivalent.

There's no reason to get all steamed up about it.


Opportunities Aren’t Always Convenient

I just called an office to get an appointment and was told by a recording that they would return my call “at our earliest convenience.”


I’m evidently not the only one who’s noticed this.

See a good discussion of this on Grammarphobia.


Hold Your Horses: Don’t Stop the Press!

David S. Reynolds, in his New York Times review of Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press writes that “Lincoln had to harness animosity against the press on the part of some of his generals. When Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside ordered that The Chicago Times ‘be padlocked and its gun-toting editor arrested,’ Lincoln revoked Burnside’s order, and the Newspaper resumed publication.”

I’m pretty sure Reynolds meant “rein in” (restrain) rather than “harness” (make use of). I have no idea whether anyone else ever gets this wrong, but it’s an interesting bit of confusion.


Rainy Day Woman: It’s Just a Joke

In my entry on colons and semicolons (p. 61), I use as an example of proper semicolon usage the following sentence: “Mary Moved to Seattle; she was sick of getting sunburned in Los Angeles.”

This rather feeble joke was my token acknowledgement of Seattle’s reputation as a  rainy city. I live on Bainbridge Island just a short ferry ride from Seattle, and we have much the same weather. In fact, it’s raining right now.

In “The Killing,” the detective series that started on AMC and has continued on Netflix, the skies are always gray and downpours are common. The series is actually filmed in Vancouver, BC, which has much the same climate.

Actually this year we've had long stretches of sunshine. While much of the rest of the country was having an unusually cold summer, we had an unusually warm one. Yesterday we went for a sunny walk in a shoreline park. Torrential downpours are much less common than prolonged drizzle.

Local writers often try to combat the stereotype; but it’s not going away any time soon.

That said, I’m heading for Seattle in a few hours, and I’ll be taking my umbrella.

If you’ve wondered where I’ve been for the past few weeks, check out my photos from sunny London and Paris on Facebook.


Stumbling Over Building Blocks

I recently received a request to discuss the use of “architect” as a verb. Here’s what I came up with:

Turning nouns into verbs is a normal process in English. Stabbed in the back? You’ve been knifed. Worked to the point of exhaustion? You’ve been hammered
 But when a noun gets verbed in a particular language community it’s also normal for outsiders to be annoyed or indignant. In the world of digital design “architected” has become a popular term. The example given by the Oxford Dictionaries Website is “an architected information interface.” 
 Various uses of “architect” as a verb have been around for a long time, but technical writers should be aware when writing for general audiences that many readers find this usage annoying. In such contexts, it’s better to use “designed” or “built” when those words convey the same meaning.
This Common Errors in English Usage entry illustrates my general attitude toward innovations in language. It’s not true that “architected” as a verb is “not a word.” Here’s the Oxford English Dictionaries‘ entry on the subject:

Etymology:  < architect n.
 To design (a building). Also transf. and fig. 
1890   Harper's Mag. Apr. 809/2   We would not give being the author of one of Mr. Aldrich's beautiful sonnets to be the author of many ‘Wyndham Towers’, however skilfully architected. 

1913   W. Raleigh Some Authors (1923) 3   He has come out of the prison-house of theological system, nobly and grimly architected.


  architected adj. designed by an architect.
1923   Public Opinion 29 June 622/3   A..vague notion that a building ought to be architected.

  architecting   n. and adj.1912   R. Macaulay Views & Vagabonds viii. 153,   I have no sort of interest in the architecting or building trades.
1818   Keats Let. July (1958) I. 350   This was architected thus By the great Oceanus. [But see architecture v.]

The OED entry also contains this warning in red: “This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1972)." We may expect the dictionary eventually to recognize the contemporary expanded use of “architected.” Others have already done so: Dictionary.com gives as an example “the house is well architected.” The Collins English Dictionary defines the verb as meaning “to plan or create (something, esp a computer system).” Even more liberal is Wiktionary: “to design, plan, or orchestrate. He architected the military coup against the government.” The usually trendy Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online has not yet recognized the verb form, nor has Apple’s Dictionary app. But the expression is firmly embedded in modern usage.

It is not architects who have popularized the contemporary technical use of “architected” as a verb. It probably originated among computer programmers, but it has spread widely in business contexts as well. No amount of objection will eliminate its use from these contexts, and it is pointless to label it flatly as an error. But it is useful for writers to know that this usage annoys some readers.

So what is it doing in Common Errors in English Usage? I was originally influenced by the title of a  small volume by a colleague: Correcting Common Errors in Writing. I had no idea in 1997 that my site would swell into a huge usage resource often dealing with words and patterns that are not strictly speaking errors. For a host of reasons, it’s not practical to change the title; but I've taken pains on both the Web site and in the printed book to explain my loose definition of “error” and am comfortable writing about usage which I do not consider erroneous although others may do so.


High-toned or Lowbrow Usage?

Last weekend I left my dough to rise too long and it produced tall, fluffy slices that I could conceivably call “high bread,” almost too flimsy for sturdy sandwiches. Then a correspondent alerted me to the misspelling “highbred,” which I at first assumed was not a legitimate word, but further research produced the following new entry.


 “Highbred”(often spelled “high-bred”) is occasionally used to label animals with superior ancestry. Snobs used to refer to members of the nobility as “highbred.”

 But this rare word is often confused with “hybrid,” which describes plants, animals, and people that are the product of mixed heritage. The offspring of a line of prize-winning dogs would be “highbred,” but a dog could be called “hybrid” if its ancestry were mixed. It might be a prizewinner, but it might also be a mutt.

Except in a context where “highbred” is routinely used in this technical context, stick with “hybrid.” It’s almost certain to be the word you need.