Posted tagged ‘Bill Walsh’

Open mic (mike?) night and other abbreviation silliness

November 12, 2013

Bill Walsh is back. He’s the Washington Post copyeditor who calls himself a copy editor and is now conducting his online chat once a month, apparently. This gives me a chance to comment on his comments on other people’s questions and comments about grammar.

Bill has had two chats since the last time I commented on his comments. The October one stayed put better than the November one, so I’ll look at that one first rather than conflate them.

He started off with “a case study from the world of language change and geekery and peevery”: the term “open mic night.” It’s annoying that the rude put-down for Irish ancestry has become the acceptable abbreviation for something else entirely. Would you ever see a sign announcing “Open ____ night” or “Open ______ night”? Is it just me who thinks this?

Anyway, Bill says the Post’s style for the slang term for “microphone” is “mike.” It is? Hooray for the Post! Here’s how he explains it: “That’s the way nicknames and short-form slang work: You spell them phonetically. You don’t just grab the letters f-r-i-g out of ‘refrigerator,’ because ‘frig’ is pronounced ‘frig.’ It’s a mild curse word; a fridge is a ‘fridge.’ A Bic is a pen; a bike is a ‘bike.’ Bic and sic and hic and Nic [all] rhyme with ‘mick,’ and so should ‘mic.’ ” Exactly.

Tape-recorder designers weren’t looking for a new form of “mike” so much as shortening the word the way they might shorten “Robert” to “Rbt.”—which is not the same as “Bob.” Yet people took “MIC” on those machines as the real short form, and it stuck. The AP Stylebook solidified this in 2010, and now “ ‘open mic night’ appears 12 times as often as ‘open mike night’ ” in the Nexis database, the reverse of the way it was until the 1990s. Ignorance, Bill declares—but as with so much of the way grammar changes, it’s he and I who look like fuddy-duddies rather than the ignorant who look mistaken.

Speaking of short forms or abbreviations, a chatter used the term “WaPo” for the name of the newspaper. Bill said that term made him cringe. I can see that. I once worked with an editor, a Montgomery County native who now lives a few miles from the border, who claimed not to have heard the terms “MoCo” and “MontCo.” At the time I think they were fairly new, but it seemed odd that he wasn’t tuned in enough to have seen them in headlines. Americans like abbreviations, and in the last decade-plus they’ve shoved celebrity names together slangily—“Brangelina,” for example, and “TomKat” and “Kimye.” I can see that, too, but wouldn’t mind if the fad faded out soon.

All grammar geeks cringe at different things, I suppose. Bill may cringe at “WaPo,” but I cringe at something Cosmo—short for Cosmopolitan—magazine has been doing for quite a while. (Not that I’m a regular reader, but in my business one is aware of a great many publications.) Sometime in the 1990s, I think, Cosmo started using “gyno” for “gynecologist” and later “vacay” for “vacation.” Ugh! And then I saw “vayjay,” which eventually I figured out is what a gyno looks into. Double ugh! Cosmo has never been known for either its taste or its sense, but if I hadn’t long since quit as a reader (after coming across the advice that a “girl” should attract a man’s attention by deliberately spilling a drink on herself), that would have done it.

In short (ha): Reader, be careful with abbreviations. The size of the word does not relate to the size of the grammar controversy that may accompany it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Literally, contranyms, and other grammar silliness

September 11, 2013

Did you know? Grammar can be funny.

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading just the titles of Bill Walsh’s books: Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and the new Yes, I Could Care Less. Walsh is a copyeditor at the Washington Post (I know! Who knew there were any? snark) who led a chat there recently about all kinds of grammatical questions, from new words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online to the contradictory meanings of “sanction.”

First, yay him and yay the Post for having such a chat at all. People care about this stuff, and not just those of us who attempt to make some sort of living at it. As I keep saying, words matter, especially in a wonky city like Washington. Second, yay him for being sensible. “New words can be annoying. Changes in the way people use old words can be especially jarring,” he says. “The good news is that even if ‘literally’ can mean that other thing, you and I and the Washington Post stylebook are not required to use the word that way.”

Random comments:

• In the spirit of parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway, one reader wondered why “sanction” means both to approve of and to punish. I admit I’d never thought about that. Likewise, “sanguine” means both bloody and bloodless, “cleave” means both divide and bring together, and “to dust” can mean either to add or to subtract dust. Walsh calls these contranyms—now there’s a cool word!—words that have two opposite meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online have now added “literally” to that number. (Ugh!)

• Walsh says, “To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.” Oh, boy. Now, if people don’t know the difference automatically, how are they supposed to remember that? Too bad the mnemonic is confusing.

• I always feel for immigrants trying to learn English. What a nutty language. Here’s an example: A reader asks about past participles, trying to understand “shone” versus “shined” (which “just sounds wrong to me”). Walsh replies, “So many past participles are irregular in this language, you’d have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It’s hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.”

• Editors aren’t perfect, even at grammar, and here’s an example: I’ve always had trouble with this sort of construction. Walsh writes, “By the way, I was thrilled to read ‘one of the people who get annoyed.’ Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say ‘I’m one of the people who GETS annoyed.’ Which would be dead wrong.” Eek!

• Circling back to the beginning: Several of Walsh’s readers commented on “literally” becoming not literal in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, a change that has made many people apoplectic. Okay, not literally, but close. One of those people was Gene Weingarten, frequent maker of poop jokes and—by the way—two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A week or so ago, he weighed in on the controversy. “I am not a language tyrant,” he wrote. “… But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.” Virtual panties, Gene!

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.