Archive | August, 2018

Turn left at the crosshairs

21 Aug

Possible language-change alert:








“At the crossroads” means to be at a turning point. “In the crosshairs” means to be someone’s target. But it looks like these metaphors may be careering down different roads towards the same poorly lit intersection.

As to which direction things will go in after the collision, it’s not clear. The sense of numbers 1, 3 and 6 appears to be “in the crosshairs” (and to be fair to Hasan Minhaj, the speaker featured in the first example, that’s clearly what he says in the video: he’s  misquoted in the headline). But 2, 4, 5 and 7 clearly suggest the meaning “at the crossroads” (indeed, in number 7, The Good Bike Co of Prineville, Oregon, are literally describing a junction).

The newest example (the first one) appeared last week on the BBC website and the oldest ones date back to 2009; those were all I could find on Google for “at the crosshairs” as a metaphor. So it’s early days yet: there’s barely a flicker on the Ngram.

But still, there’s something worryingly plausible about it as a phrase: the easily overlooked malapropism, the fact that both metaphors express, broadly speaking, a sense of being in a tricky position. On the subs’ desk we’ll do our best to keep directing traffic, of course. But how often does language change obey a stop sign?


Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).