Skewed Comic Strip

I’m a big fan of newspaper comic strips and collect reprint volumes of classic ones from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Some of these old strips are still alive, most of them now far less interesting than their classic versions.

One of the exceptions is Prince Valiant, which has stayed true to the original vision of Hal Foster long after his death in 1982, despite having been shrunk drastically in size from the full-page original.

But Frank King’s original Gasoline Alley was much more interesting and thoughtful than the contemporary version. However, lately it’s been livening up the story by creating bit parts for characters from the distant past. One Sunday strip featured appearances by or allusions to Little Orphan Annie (also featured recently in Dick Tracy), Li’l AbnerLum and Abner, and—oldest of all—The Yellow Kid.

Jim Scancarelli'’s Gasoline Alley has introduced a truly obscure character: the obnoxious store clerk originally played by Frank Nelson who I remember vividly from his many appearances on Jack Benny’s show. He’s not nearly as obnoxious here as in his heyday.

The storyline involves an attempt to return a phone charger to a department store, and Walt asks him to look up the item by its “skew number.”

The correct term is of course “SKU number.” The abbreviation stands for “stock keeping unit.”

Since this is an expression more often printed than spoken, it’s not surprising that relatively few people use the wrong spelling, but it’s not hard to find examples on the Web.

Web example: “Just ordered an iphone4s on ATT and looked at the skew number or order number off iPhone is the same as the unlocked iPhone 4s apple sends out.”

Twitter example: “ How dont u know the skew number for the Louis Vuitton satchel i want for xmas.”

There are legitimate uses for “skew number”—most of them highly technical—involving skewing of one kind or another, but it’s a mistake to use this spelling for a store inventory number.

So why does Walt use the wrong spelling in the strip? Is it supposed to be a joke about his ignorance? But he’s speaking, and the two versions sound identical. Or is it Scancarelli who’s confused? The fact that so far no joke has been made about the mistake makes me suspect the latter.

To experience the original Gasoline Alley, check out these books:

Walt and Skeezix: Book One, 1921 & 1922 


Low How Arose Air Bloomer

I just ran across the remarkable bloomer “lone be hold” and decided to check to see whether this misspelling of “lo and behold” had made it into the Eggcorn Database. Evidently it wasn’t judged a proper eggcorn since it isn’t listed. To qualify, a nonstandard spelling has to make a kind of sense,  like “all goes well” (augurs well) or “cease the day” (“seize the day”), both of which are discussed in Common Errors in English Usage.

However, the affiliated Eggcorn Forum contains an abundance of goofs (in antiquated slang,“bloomers”) that haven’t qualified as proper eggcorns, but which are nevertheless interesting.

In the relevant discussion thread the following are discussed: “loan behold,” “lone behold,” and “low and behold.” It turns out the form I encountered is quite rare, but “lone behold” is more common. “Low and behold” is discussed on p. 181 of my book.

Here’s a good discussion of “lo” vs. “low.”

If you need to disentangle the tortured Christmas-related pun in my title, check out this link to YouTube.


Let’s Talk Turkey

Yesterday morning the annual Bainbridge Island Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Trot” went past our front yard. I took a short video of the scene and posted it on Facebook, then went back to preparing to roast our own brined, spatchcocked bird. 

After having cold leftovers for breakfast this morning (check out my recipe for homemade mincemeat) it seemed like a good time to discuss the word “turkey.” Turks sometimes object to our use of the same word to label the bird and their country. Turkish citizens spell the name “ Türkiye” and many of them wish we’d follow their lead.

I explained to a Turkish correspondent once that, regrettable as it may be, citizens do not get the last word on how their nation’s name is rendered in other languages.

English speakers don’t automatically think of cups and saucers when they refer to Zhong Guo as “China,” nor do they usually think of the roasted bird when using the English spelling to denote the Turkish nation. Even if you could get Americans to write “Turkiye” you’d never get them to include the umlaut. Except for the occasional accent aigu in a French word, most accent marks get stripped out of foreign words when they are translated into English.

Turkey gets better treatment in this regard than many other nations: in English Suomi becomes “Finland,” Deutschland is “Germany,” and Miṣr is “Egypt.” 

Cities, regions, and geographical features are often subjected to similar treatment: Firenze becomes “Florence,” Wien is “Vienna,” the Côte d’Azur is “the French Riviera,” and the Bodensee is “Lake Constance.”

Linguists call such renaming “exonyms.” Occasionally a country is successful in getting foreigners to adopt its preferred spelling. Most English writers now know not to refer to the nation of Ukraine as “The Ukraine,” a title which to Ukrainians suggests Russian claims to its territory are valid (see p. 287 of Common Errors in English Usage for a discussion of this point). 

Perhaps the most strikingly successful revision has been in the changing of the spelling from English “Peking” to “Beijing.” Neither spelling reflects the actual Chinese pronunciation, which is something like “pay-cheeng”; but the latter is the Chinese government’s preferred rendering, and we’ve followed their lead even though it leads us to mispronounce the name of their capital.

Such changes are often politically charged. An interesting scholarly volume on the subject is  Exonyms and the International Standardisation of Geographical Names: Approaches towards the Resolution of an Apparent Contradiction (published by LIT Verlag in 2007, available through Google Books).

Foreigners often assume that English speakers are the main offenders in misspelling nation names, but consider how others refer to the United States of America: Amerika (German), les Êtats-unis d’Amérique (French), and Měigu  (Chinese). 

Just as you can’t get your family to drop that annoying nickname your older sister gave you when you were five, you usually can’t persuade foreigners to refer to your nation’s place names in the way you prefer.

An interesting exception is the abolition of the peculiar English spelling of the name of the Italian city of Livorno as “Leghorn” which always reminded me of the chicken breed of that name. Which brings us back to the subject of poultry.

In contemporary English a Leghorn is a bird, but Turkey with a capital “T” is a country—one that we very much enjoyed visiting several years ago.


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.