Opening Pedals

I’m a big fan of Consumer Reports, but they made a lamentable linguistic mistake in the current issue (April 2015). The inside of the back cover of the magazine mocks ads and packaging that contain self-contradictory claims, wildly confusing illustrations, and other amusing blunders.

The first example this month features a photo of a storefront sign reading "Axion Auto & Bodyparts." The accompanying text reads: “Commuting Zombies Rejoice! This sign, spotted by Sandy Green of Lansdale, Pa, hints that the auto body shop is pedaling merchandise far more sinister than spark plugs.”

My first reaction was to think: “is ‘bodyparts’ even a word? Isn’t it “body parts” in both meanings? Neither Merriam-Webster nor the comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the one-word form.

But then I noticed “pedaling,” This word is confused with “peddling” often enough that I cover it in Common Errors in English Usage:
If you are delivering newspapers from a bike you can pedal it around the neighborhood (perhaps wearing “pedal-pushers”), but when you sell them from a newsstand you peddle them.
I realize that my example is rather dated: papers are now usually delivered by adults in cars before dawn, not by kids on bikes after school. Beginning in seventh grade I delivered papers on a hilly five-mile rural route until I was a sophomore in high school. Toward the end of my route I had to pedal a full mile and climb a steep hill to reach one isolated farm subscriber. I earned a whopping $20 a month.

We were constantly pressured to sell new subscriptions. I was fine with pedaling, but not with peddling. We were sometimes dumped off in neighborhoods and told to ask at every house whether the occupants subscribed to our paper or would like to. Since there was an altogether superior paper published in a larger town nearby, the answer to both questions was usually “no.”

I hated it.

I am often reminded of my career in newspaper delivery by one of my favorite comic strips: “Red and Rover” by Seattle cartoonist Brian Bassett. The strip is set in the early ’60s and lovingly reflects many aspects of that era, including the fact that Red delivers papers from his bike accompanied by his dog, Rover.

And that in turn reminds me of the old dismissive expression “go peddle your papers.” The entry in the online Free Dictionary, citing McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, reads: 

[get out of my face and] stop annoying me like an aggressive paper boy. Get out of here and go peddle your papers!

This sort of paper boy, rather than delivering papers to subscribers, hawked them on the street, as romanticized in the Disney musical Newsies

Then I began to wonder whether people often confuse “pedal” with “petal.”

It’s not hard to find Web pages offering such items as a “flower peddle plant stand,” a “flower peddle style baby link bracelet,” or a “flower peddle printed cotton scarf”; but I also found a number of amusingly named businesses such as “Petal Pusher” (a floral designer) and “Petal by Pedal,” (a bike-powered flower-delivery service).

Puns work only if your audience knows the usual definitions of the words involved, of course. Now that copyediting is frequently neglected in publishing, readers are less and less likely to be reminded of the correct spelling of words even if they are among the minority that still gets a daily newspaper.

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