Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Journalese’ Category

Here here, snow, and a wasted opportunity

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unxftitledThe other day, while *cough* accidentally reading an article in the Guardian about the X Factor (a TV competition for wannabee singers that I never watch except for sometimes every week), I noticed that the comments thread had segued into a discussion about spelling and punctuation.

It began because someone had written ‘here here’ in response to a previous comment. Someone else said this should be either ‘here hear’ or  ‘hear here’, while a third said it should be ‘hear, hear’, contracted from ‘hear him, hear him’.KyoZG

Well, how interesting. (Although not to another commenter who pointed out that people who spend their time correcting others’ spelling are a bit sad.)

I (sadly) turned to the trusty Oxford Dictionaries site which informed me that the correct spelling and punctuation is: ‘hear! hear!’. It doesn’t bother with the derivation, though Wikipedia confirms that it’s a shortened form of ‘hear him’ (its punctuation is a bit dodgy).

Note that there isn’t universal agreement about this. Cambridge Dictionaries online says it should be punctuated ‘hear, hear!’. Which does, I admit, look a little less intrusive on the page.

Feefle and flindrikin

snowuntitledWhich brings me rather neatly (ahem) onto snow. Just a quick note of interest: did you know that our Scottish friends in the north of the UK have 421 words for snow?

One of my favourites is ‘skelf’ meaning a large snowflake. Every language should have a word for a large snowflake. 🙂

Wasted opportunity

133924Finally, while in a newsagent’s the other day, I caught sight of the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The cover picture was of blues musician Robert Johnson who is supposed to have made a pact with the devil. The words next to the pic read:

Paying the devil his blues

‘Paying the devil his blues’ is based on the common proverb ‘give the devil his due’ (scroll down).  So, of course, the play on words in this MUSICAL example should have been:

Playing the devil his blues

Subeditors, eh? *sigh* Fings ain’t what they used to be.

That’s quite enough from me for now. I probably need to lie down.

Butler: ‘Hear, hear!’ (He prefers the single exclamation mark.)

This is just to say…

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

… that ‘ensorcelled’ means ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’. See Oxford Dictionaries. You can see from the word that its derivation is linked to the word ‘sorcerer’ (which I just had to check how to spell). I kind of like all of that, but is it a good choice in this article in the Guardian? The first paragraph includes the following sentence:

I was immediately ensorcelled by the singularity of the Shrigley worldview: here were pictures that had a bewilderingly complex naivete about them – it was as if a preternaturally intelligent child were rendering the attempts of a smart-aleck adult to draw like a kid.

Ensorcelled? Really? Why send your readers away (probably never to return) to consult a dictionary when ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’ would work just as well (probably better) there? Yes, I learnt a new word, no, I didn’t go back to read the rest of the article (I wrote this post instead). And is the writer just showing off? Oh, I don’t know. Sunday morning tea and toast calls.

The brain of a pea … hen

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Peacock in Portugal

A peacock. Not prone to distraction. Obviously.

This morning, a story about peahens made me angry. (Did I just write that?) Or rather, the reporting of it did. It was the BBC, too. Shame on them.

You know that thing – how descriptions and interpretations can differ, depending on whether the person being referred to is female or male?

If you missed that meeting, catch up here:

Trilling and shrieking
Excitable and bubbly

Anyways, I was half-listening to the BBC’s flagship news programme on the radio this morning when a ‘scientists have found’ story came on. Apparently, according to the BBC, ‘scientists have found’ that peahens are ‘prone to distraction and easily lose attention’.

Really??

That noise is an alarm going off. The Wordwatch Towers butler just checked and has confirmed it’s the ‘women being undermined via descriptions of the animal kingdom to avoid accusations of blatant sexism’ alarm. Thought so.

I checked. In fact, the scientific study has found – no surprise – that the female of the species in Peacock World, the maligned peahen, is actually a multi-tasker: Dr Jessica Yorzinski explains (on the BBC’s news website, ironically) that peahens have to stay alert, shifting their focus between potential mates and their immediate surroundings to avoid being eaten by a predator. The exact opposite of being prone to distraction and easily losing attention, I would have thought. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a cheap (sexist) jibe?

I’m willing to bet an extensive amount of chocolate, two wildlife DVDs that I’ve never watched, and my ticket to see Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse (this Saturday: very excited), that similar findings about peacocks would not have been deliberately misinterpreted in this way.

You might also like: The female of the species.

People are too complicated…

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Only You Can Define Yourself

Ricky Gervais’ latest series, Derek, is currently airing on UK television. Gervais plays Derek, a care worker in a residential home for older people. Reaction in the papers today prompted me to watch it. Here’s a link to the first episode. (Probably available in the UK only.)

The programme raises a number of interesting issues, but I’ll stick to the language-related ones.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, a common error: Derek is described in the Guardian as ‘a 50-year-old man with an undiagnosed mental health problem’. Now it’s safe to say that Derek is depicted as having some kind of learning difficulty or disability. This is not the same as having mental health problems. Journalists should ensure their terminology is correct.

More interesting to consider is the following, written by a different critic in the same newspaper:

Gervais insisted that the character is not intended to represent a specific disability; he is simply naive and gullible….Personally, I accept that Gervais is not portraying someone living with an identifiable syndrome. But, for me, this is a weakness of the series…The drawback of Derek is not that it is cruel about disability but that it is often soft on a character whose identity remains too vague.

A critic in The Independent newspaper is similarly reductive, asking, What if there’s a label for this kind of dimness? But doesn’t provide an answer. (And such an interesting use of the word ‘label’ there.)

We shouldn’t feel this need to place people in neatly labelled boxes; their individual identity is not defined by a diagnosis. And it should be noted that Derek’s identity as portrayed by Gervais is anything but vague.

Tellingly, none of the other characters portrayed in the programme have been criticised by TV critics for not having been assigned a label. Even though none of them have one.

As Derek says in response to an official’s offer to have him ‘tested for autism’, if being ‘tistic’ doesn’t mean that he’ll die and won’t change him, then he doesn’t need to find out, thanks. And neither do we. The words, the labels, would get in the way of the person.

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People are too complicated to have simple labels.
Philip Pullman,  The Amber Spyglass

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(To be clear, I’m not saying that individuals and those who care for them should not have the right to obtain a clear diagnosis in order to receive the advice, treatment and services to which they are entitled.)

Photo credit: mtsofan

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness

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