Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘journalese

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.)

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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.

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

Eclogues and shivering sizars

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Philip Larkin

Why do writers use words that many, if not most, readers won’t understand? And, more importantly, did you know that a sizar can shiver? I’ll come back to that.

Here’s the first word: eclogue

And here’s where I stubbed my toe against it (from Robert Macfarlane’s review of  the Edward Thomas biography, Now All Roads Lead to France, published in the Guardian):

Even as the plains of Belgium were being scorched … the poets were still living out their eclogue, with conversation the labour and poetry the harvest.

And the definition of ‘eclogue’? It simply means a short poem, especially, apparently, a ‘pastoral dialogue’ (whatever that is; I did google it, but got distracted by some shiny things). See Oxford Dictionaries. So, there you have it. Tempted to use it? No, nor me.

Next up, also in the Guardian: sizar. John Banville, writing a review of The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, suddenly and bizarrely asserts:

 …yet the wealth and profusion of detail within it would purblind Larkin’s own shivering sizar.

Here’s a quick quiz for you:

A sizar is:

a) Always cold, that’s why it shivers
b) A ration of bread or beer
c) An undergraduate at Cambridge University or at Trinity College, Dublin, receiving financial help from the college and formerly having certain menial duties

The answer is c, but the word derives from b which is an obsolete meaning of the word ‘size’. See Oxford Dictionaries.

Larkin went to Oxford University. He couldn’t have been a sizar, shivering or otherwise.

 Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘purblind’, which is an adjective. Not a verb.

More on journalistic writing 

Written by Wordwatch

01/02/2012 at 3:23 pm

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