Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Straight talking (and cat-filled lowlifes)

with 26 comments

A straitjacket as seen from the rear.
Image via Wikipedia

The Guardian sometimes gets a little over-zealous in its corrections column:

An item in a collection of TV previews referred to a “world of nauseating puss-filled lowlifes” where a character called Mark is “the only straight-laced” human in sight. That should have been pus-filled and strait-laced.

Shame. I quite like the image of lowlifes* filled with cats. However, there was no need to ‘correct’ the spelling of ‘straight-laced’ as it is listed in the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) as a variant spelling of ‘strait-laced’. See Oxford Dictionaries.

Also…

Both of the following are correct:

  • Straitjacket
  • Straightjacket

The latter is listed in the ODE as a variant spelling.

However…

‘Straitened’ meaning ‘characterised by poverty’ or ‘restricted in range or scope’ (ODE definition) cannot be spelt ‘straightened’. And so the following examples are incorrect:

Despite the straightened circumstances caused by the recession the retired politician has argued that… (Telegraph online)

…(the prison system’s) already straightened capacity to affect rates of reoffending by training prisoners, educating them, giving them other choices. (Guardian online)

Derivation of ‘strait’

The ODE tells me that ‘strait’ is a shortened form of the Old French word ‘estreit’ meaning ‘tight’ or ‘narrow’, originally from the Latin ‘strictus’ meaning ‘drawn tight’. So it is a little strange that ‘straight-laced’ and ‘straightjacket’ are accepted as legitimate alternative spellings.

*Lowlifes

It’s interesting that the plural of ‘life’ is ‘lives’ but the plural of ‘lowlife’ is ‘lowlifes’. I’m sure some clever bod could explain that one.

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26 Responses

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  1. OK, accept ‘straight-laced’ and ‘straight jacket’ if you want to, but please by the same token also accept that it is acceptable for the millions of native English-speakers who say and write “I was sat”, “I was stood” and “I was laid” to do so.
    Originally ‘incorrect’ spellings, meanings, etc., based on whatever sort of misunderstanding, win their place by virtue of usage.

    Dai

    12/09/2010 at 5:32 pm

    • Hi, Dai — yes, I agree with your point about usage. That must be how ‘straight-laced’ and ‘straightjacket’ became acceptable alternative spellings, even though there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason why ‘straight’ should refer to either. Your other examples are interesting; I’ve never consciously thought about that type of construction before. I suppose prescriptivists would say they should always be ‘I was sitting’ or ‘I was standing’ etc. Thanks, Dai.

      Deborah

      12/09/2010 at 5:46 pm

      • Deborah, really? When did straight, in the context of strait, ever become anything but wrong?

        The ODE is way too fond of flagging errors as alternates. The meanings of both words are quite different.

        Common usage of an error never makes it right.

        Re Dai – people might well use those formations in speech – it would be wrong, though acceptable. Written, though, it would be wrong. Period.

        Ron

        12/09/2010 at 5:57 pm

        • Hi, Ron — those alternative spellings don’t bother me (although I thought they might bother you — and probably lots of other people!), even though they don’t seem to have any logical justification. Probably, as Dai says, just gradual acceptance through use. With regard to the other constructions, I think that would very much depend on how formal the piece of writing needs to be. No problem, for example, in an email. In a formal report for your boss when you’re hoping for promotion, maybe not so much. Thanks, Ron.

          Deborah

          12/09/2010 at 6:05 pm

          • Ouch!

            In dialogue, in a novel, I’d have no problem.

            Call me old fashioned, though, but why should standards be lower in email than they would be, for example, in a letter?

            I’m willing to wager you wouldn’t drop your standards just because you’d hit the Send button rather than licked a stamp. Just don’t get it the wrong way round . . .

            Ron

            12/09/2010 at 6:30 pm

            • Trust me. Some of my emails wouldn’t bear examination in daylight (but only those to friends). Although, as you say, I’m much fussier when writing a letter. I’m not sure why that should be. Emails just seem so much more casual and ephemeral, I suppose — often dashed off in a few seconds.

              Btw. Ouch? I wasn’t snippy, was I? I didn’t mean to be. Sos.

              Deborah

              12/09/2010 at 6:48 pm

              • No – Ouch at the gradual acceptance through use.

                By such avenues does the language decay – mutation, not evolution.

                Ron

                12/09/2010 at 7:00 pm

                • Oh, good. (That I wasn’t being snippy, not at the mutation). Thanks, Ron.

                  Deborah

                  12/09/2010 at 7:05 pm

      • Hmm…would it not be acceptable though to say, “I was sat down by the boss and given a good talking-to”? Or “I was stood up last night by my girlfriend”? I tend to agree with Dai (and not just because I don’t want to incur his wrath) 🙂

        Jo

        12/09/2010 at 6:26 pm

        • Actually, Jo, there’s nothing wrong with those examples that I, picky though I am, would seize on.

          Though you might say “The boss sat me down and gave me a good talking to.” Or “My girlfriend stood me up again last night.”

          Nothing to lose sleep over, though.

          Ron

          12/09/2010 at 6:34 pm

          • I absolutely agree Ron, there are far more for weighty issues to keep one awake at night, such as “Why would someone produce a television show full of pus-filled lowlifes”? and “What channel is it on”? By the way, you made me laugh out loud with the image of someone licking the send button, because I realized there is no real “send button”. You’d have to lick the monitor. I’ll be quiet now.

            Jo

            12/09/2010 at 7:06 pm

        • Hi, Jo — lovely to see you again. Thanks for those interesting examples. I agree with Ron — nothing wrong there.

          Deborah

          12/09/2010 at 6:59 pm

  2. Thank you Deborah – I’m very happy that you’re back!

    Jo

    12/09/2010 at 7:08 pm

    • Cheers, Jo – much appreciated. I hope you continue to enjoy Wordwatch. Obviously not as much as series three of Pus-Filled Lowlifes (tag line: They’ll never get caught. They’re on a mission from God.). But hey, who can compete with that? Btw, I’m sure that tag line is nicked from the film The Blues Brothers.

      Deborah

      12/09/2010 at 7:32 pm

  3. Perhaps ‘lowlife’ was originally a slang term,and somehow that’s why it’s ‘lowlifes.’
    I assumed straight-jacket b/c it sort of keeps the person straight, and straight-laced, laced upward straight. I hadn’t heard the use of ‘strait’ as confining before.
    I get was and were messed up often.
    Great post as always!

    Lisa

    12/09/2010 at 9:00 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — yes, you could very well be right about ‘lowlife’ being a slang term and that’s why it’s ‘lowlifes’. I like your interpretation of the use of the word ‘straight’ instead of ‘strait’; your description evokes an image of someone in a straightjacket being kept straight — with their arms confined. So perhaps it’s not so strange after all that they’re both acceptable alternative spellings. I’m glad you liked the post, and thanks, as always, for taking the time to comment and for your kind words.

      Deborah

      12/09/2010 at 9:14 pm

  4. Because lowlifes lead low lives.

    When MTV was new, I used to love Dire Straights.

    Michael Farrell

    13/09/2010 at 4:34 am

    • Great band, strait out of the late 1970s — I had to look that up, not being old enough to remember. Ahem.

      Funnily enough, I just checked on Merriam-Webster and ‘lowlives’ is given as an alternative plural to ‘lowlifes’. It doesn’t sound right to me, though. Thanks, Michael.

      Deborah

      13/09/2010 at 8:52 am

      • PS. Thanks, Michael, for pointing out this interesting incorrect use of ‘straightening’ in a review of John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, published in The Independent online:

        Anyone who has embarked on a writing project of any scale will recognise the mix of exhilaration and fear: “It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”

        This is apparently Steinbeck’s error as the book is a direct transcription of his handwritten notes. So even Pulitzer Prize winning authors get things wrong, although Steinbeck’s spelling was reportedly exceptionally good. However, he apparently habitually spelt it’s as its and vice versa, and consistently spelt rhythm without the first ‘h’. He also wrote of course as one word, and generally omitted the possessive apostrophe from phrases such as a day’s work.

        Deborah

        13/09/2010 at 9:12 am

      • Another interesting example is ‘still life’ meaning a type of painting. The plural is ‘still lifes’.

        Deborah

        17/09/2010 at 11:36 am

  5. Hi Deborah,

    The Guardian is now making up words, a la Palin:-

    “Refusal to disclose information regarding deaths in military custody raises concerns that interrogees may have been killed”

    My shiny, new electronic ODE comes up blank on “interrogees”.

    Ron.

    Ron

    14/09/2010 at 12:31 am

    • Hi, Ron — that’s a horrible word, and not one I’ve come across before. It’s not in my Oxford Dictionary of English, but I did find it on Merriam-Webster. However, it’s not included on the Oxford Dictionaries website.

      I think I’d avoid using it if possible. Thanks, Ron. Interesting!

      Deborah

      14/09/2010 at 8:22 am

      • Not too surprised to hear it’s in M-W – colonials have a lot to answer for! 😉

        I would have thought “Interrogatee” appropriate, but ODE isn’t having that either. Oh well . . .

        Ron

        14/09/2010 at 11:09 am

        • Yes, ‘interrogatee’ does sound better for some reason. Thanks, Ron.

          Deborah

          14/09/2010 at 1:12 pm

    • Sounds fairly common to my US ears. I bet it’s US military-speak. But it’s a neologism that briskly fills a void, in place of “some who have been [or, of those] interrogated.”

      Michael Farrell

      14/09/2010 at 4:36 pm

      • Yes, you’re probably right about it being a military word. I was thinking the same — that it’s good shorthand. I still don’t like the word, though. And I thought it might be more familiar to American ears. Thanks, Michael.

        Deborah

        14/09/2010 at 4:52 pm


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