Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Spelling tips and tricks’ Category

Anchors, beech trees and boks

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Anchors and beech trees. I know, how come I’ve not covered these already? Anyway, the first bit of this will be a confession about how thick I can be, and the second bit is designed to take your mind off the first bit.

Until very recently I thought that ‘anchors aweigh’ was spelt ‘anchors away’. Well, in my defence, I’ve never had to actually write the phrase down and the ‘away’ spelling that was vaguely lodged in my mind does kind of make sense; after all, the anchor is pulled away from the seabed when the ship has to start off (or whatever the nautical phrase is for a ship starting off).

So why ‘anchors aweigh’? Well, here’s a pretty good explanation from the US Navy website:

The word ‘weigh’ in this sense comes from the archaic word meaning to heave, hoist or raise. ‘Aweigh’ means that the action has been completed. The anchor is aweigh when it is pulled from the bottom. This event is duly noted in the ship’s log.

However, the soup thickens. Apparently, says Oxford Dictionaries, nautical types are allowed to spell ‘under way’ (as when something is in progress) as ‘under weigh’. Who knew?

Root and branch investigation

So, we’ve established that I shouldn’t be editing the next edition of The Big Book of Nautical Words, but what about the beech trees?

515rbud1rl__sx362_bo1204203200_This is from the enchanting Tree Wisdom by Jaqueline Memory Paterson. She explains that the beech tree has a unique place in European legend due to the belief that thin slices of beech wood were used to create the first book, as well as surfaces for writing on.

These stories, says the author, are backed by etymology, as the Anglo-Saxon for ‘beech’ was ‘boc’ which became our word, ‘book’. ‘Buche’ is the German for ‘beech’ and ‘buch’ the German for ‘book’, and the Swedish word ‘bok’ means both ‘book’ and ‘beech’.

See, now you’ve forgotten all about the anchors aweigh fiasco. Although I will be including the phrase in future spelling tests, so be warned.

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.)

In praise of flackery

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The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...

Image via Wikipedia

I have just  read the After Deadline corrections column in The New York Times and, following some sound advice to be found in my last post, did so within easy reach of narrowed, glinty eyes and  big books with ‘Oxford’ in their title. 

Here’s what I read:  

Mr. Chaffetz said he took a fair amount of flack from other Republicans over his friendship with Mr. Weiner but found it easy to defend. 

If we indeed wanted to use a colloquialism here, the one we wanted was “flak.” 

Or, indeed, ‘flack’. ‘Flack’ being a variant spelling of ‘flak’ which means anti-aircraft fire, or, as used above, strong or annoying criticism or opposition. See Oxford Dictionaries. 

I wondered if maybe Americans are stricter about the flak/flack thing. However, although Garner’s Modern American Usage says ‘flak’ should not be spelt ‘flack’, Merriam-Webster does allow both spellings. 

In addition, I didn’t know that ‘flack’ is also a North American term for a ‘publicity agent’. It can be used as a verb, ‘flacking’, and the noun ‘flackery’ can also be derived from it. Hmm — could be more useful to use as a swear word when your mum is within earshot. 


Spelling tips and tricks.

Avoiding a tiny spelling error

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Very British Mini

Image by skithund via Flickr

Spot the very common spelling error in the following extracts:

The chances of those (i.e. poorer students) going to university are miniscule compared to those who are privately educated. (Telegraph online)

Ian McCartney, the miniscule, Scottish-born former chairman of the Labour Party, donned a kilt this week… (Independent online)

We can say this with confidence because aid to these countries is miniscule as a percentage of their GDP… (Guardian online)

Yes, isn’t it. (Tricky.)

The error is ‘miniscule’. And you’ll see it spelt wrongly but everywhere. The correct spelling is:


An easy mistake to make…

It’s an easy mistake to make because of the obvious analogy with the word ‘mini’. But ‘minuscule’  is not etymologically related to the word ‘mini’.

‘Mini’ derives from ‘miniature’. This is based on the Italian ‘miniatura’ via the earlier Latin ‘miniare’ and ‘minium’.

‘Minuscule’ derives from the Latin ‘minuscula’ meaning ‘somewhat smaller’.

Memory aid

I remember the spelling of minuscule by thinking of the word ‘minus’ rather than ‘mini’.

Spelling tips and tricks.