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Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per yourdictionary.com.

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.

 

(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

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She covers the waterfront

17 Sep

We appear to have another case of that strange phenomenon, Ambitious Tabloid Verbing. Last time, we had “to marvel” meaning “to look marvellous” (“Elizabeth Olsen marvels in button-down maxi red dress at Comic-Con”). Now we have “to cover” meaning – apparently – “to be on the cover” (that is, of a magazine).

It’s in the Mail, of course:

This is not one of those “implied object” verbs that the Mail also loves (“Gwyneth stuns in taffeta dress” meaning “Gwyneth stuns onlookers in taffeta dress”). Nor is it an example of what are called unaccusative verbs – for example, “shimmer” – which lack an object of any kind and describe an involuntary state of the subject. (Indeed, “cover” in this new usage gives the impression of being transitive.)

In a sense, as described by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times, this is a denominal verb – that is, a noun turned into a verb. Just as, in sport, to win a medal has become “to medal” and to get on the podium has become “to podium”, here “to be on the cover” has become “to cover”. That perhaps makes it less ambitious than “marvel”, which was a verb created out of an adjective: many denominal verbs, although formally frowned upon, are easily understood.

But here “cover”, like “marvel”, does lead you astray. In both cases, a more natural sentence expressing the same thought might contain a stative verb, or verb of being: “She looks marvellous”; “she is on the cover”.  But these stative verbs have been replaced with dynamic verbs, or verbs of doing, which have the effect of spuriously increasing the sense of the subject’s agency, and send you hunting through the sentence in search of an object (or, to use a more grammatically precise term, a “patient” – that is, the thing on which the agent acts). In last time’s example, you were led to think that Olsen was “marvelling … at Comic-Con” – in other words, that the convention was the object of the intransitive verb “to marvel (at)”. In these new examples, “covers” in every case creates a slightly baffling direct object out of the magazine in question (“Zendaya covers the new issue”) in a way that makes you think the models might in some way be acting as reporters.

To be fair to the Mail, it hasn’t invented this usage. It has appeared before, largely in the fashion press, and the briefest Google search uncovers examples going back several years.

But my copy of Collins indicates that “cover”, as a verb, already has 23 meanings. I rather hope this doesn’t become the 24th. Unlike many of my fellow prescriptivist enforcers, I don’t necessarily believe that verbing weirds language. But constructions as ambitious as this certainly do.

Out and out

6 Aug

Oops, there’s a repeated word. This is why proofreading is so important, even close to deadline. Something always slips through.

Oh, wait, hang on: there’s a link.

Oh, wait, hang on: it’s a thing.

And it appears that “going out out” is only the mid-price option in a range of three:

To clarify: going out, tout court, is the simple dinner with mates: “think shiny fabric, a feather trim or, to really nod to the late 90s moment, a sequin cami and pair of wedge sandals”. Going out out “involves some preparation, an acceptance that best laid plans may go awry and a look that is both committed to the party without being too sensible” (in other words “go for something long and shimmery à la Bottega Veneta and whack a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath if you’re planning to go three parties deep”.) Going out out out – the big one is “a night out that may well turn into a lost weekend”, for which you will need “sequins, but with a polo neck underneath, sparkles, but on a low heel, hemlines below the knee and, the stealth secret weapon, sleeves”. (Not to mention, as the article wisely reminds us, a coat.)

It’s going to stay in, but I’m hyphenating it. It just looks like a mistake otherwise.

And to think I almost deleted it. I really am starting to get too old for this.

Thank you for the day is

23 Jul

Et tu, the Kinks?*

It looks like the apostrophe was faithfully reproduced in the slightly unimpressed NME review as well** but not in the sheet music (well done, the editor at Carlin Music). Is it a mistake, or a baffling artistic stroke? There are days when you can’t tell wrong from right.

Oh well. It’s still impossible not to sing along when it comes on the radio.

 

* I was state-educated, so I don’t have the Latin, but I have the nagging sense this should be “et vos”, rather than “et tu”. I’m leaving it as it is, though, in case it all gets a bit Romanes eunt domus.

** “Not one of their better efforts”? Come now! Although the reviewer redeems himself in the next paragraph by identifying Jefferson Airplane as a band to watch.

Flip-flop

9 Jul

Business section masthead puff as submitted to the production editor:

Business section masthead puff as returned from the production editor:

This is why senior management gets the big bucks. Perhaps the image was intended to create the impression of a carefree summer spirit, shoes and shades thrown down any old how as the sound of the waves grows irresistible … ?

No, you’re right.

Prescribed listening

11 Dec

I’ve always basically agreed with this position, but I’ve never heard it expressed so starkly as the BBC does here:

Years ago, the inaugural post on this blog was about precisely this problem: should you follow common prescriptivist norms when editing, for a quiet life and to save your writers from the peevers? Or should you assist in the debunking of language myths by allowing new or common usages into print?

I thought the decision was an uncomfortable one then and still do. But there’s no agonising about it here. Although there’s a certain amount of rhetorical loading – by “good English”, the writer means “formal English”, and “bad” means “informal” – this doesn’t seem to be an argument based on conservatism. Rather, it’s the raw pragmatism that’s so arresting. The argument is simple: “Some listeners are pedants. Some are not. Only pedants complain. So write for the pedants.” It even uses the word “appease”.

And if that were not clear enough on its own, the entry in the accompanying style guide for “enormity” removes all doubt:

It should be said that this is from a guide to writing radio news that dates back to 2002. It’s still on the BBC website, but it’s not clear that it’s still the current advice. The BBC Academy, where many resources for the corporation’s journalists are now held, appears to have no equivalent passage on tone, and the latest style guide, although still prohibiting “enormity” meaning “size”, contains no observations about pedantry.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC’s underlying approach to language was still just as cautious. For an organisation that gets trapped in the middle of every political and cultural row in Britain, it probably doesn’t take long to decide that there’s no point getting shouted at over “decimate” as well.

Like Donkey Kong

18 Sep

I left the word “on” in the copy when I sent it through, honest.

Our film reviewer was impressed when he saw a preview of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrous and inventive reimagining of life in the court of Queen Anne. When the two rivals for the queen’s affections, Abigail and Lady Sarah, first clash, he wrote, the contest is “on like the 18th-century equivalent of Donkey Kong”. An odd expression for a broadsheet cinema critic to use, you might well think, but I’d heard it before.

It seems the revise desk hadn’t, though. “It’s on like Donkey Kong” means something like “you’re on”, “the game’s afoot”, “your challenge is accepted”. The simile is euphonious but nonsensical, referring as it does to the eponymous gorilla villain in an old Nintendo video game. Wired and the Urban Dictionary date the phrase back to Ice Cube’s song “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” (1992), although the Denver alt-weekly Westword claims that it was invented by San Francisco video arcade owner Robert Mori in the 1980s, as one of a number of game-related near-rhymes (eg “turnin’ up the stereo like Mario”) that otherwise didn’t catch on.

Since then it has been printed in USA Today, uttered in films and reality shows, and sung in country songs, according to Peter Hartlaub’s detailed history of the phrase in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Nintendo itself launched an attempt to trademark it in 2010.

Saying that the court intrigue is “like Donkey Kong”, however, means that it resembles trying to climb a series of rickety ladders for love and advancement while an irascible figure above you strews obstacles in your path. Nothing like the last days of the House of Stuart at all.

Actually, come to think of it …

 

(Parish notice: Ten Minutes Past Deadline will be off on its annual short break soon, returning in October when the leaves are falling in earnest.)