Misfires

A Partial Boner

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in a press conference broadcast on January 5, 2015:

 “It’s just part and partial of the president’s goals…”

Uh-oh, Mr. Earnest. That would be part and parcel, an idiom on the wane but not yet on its deathbed. It is hardly unusual to come across this old phrase in print or hear it pop up in everyday speech – for instance, in a sentence like  “After-school practice sessions are part and parcel of playing high school football.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of parcel is “a part, portion, or division of anything (material or immaterial),” followed by several closely-related definitions of the word, one being “a package.” Other dictionaries follow suit, some adding to the package def “especially one sent by mail.” Josh, you’re probably thinking “What the hey? You mean the two P-words of the phrase essentially mean the same thing?” Yes, but only for the sake of emphasis, which puts part and parcel in the company of longstanding idioms such as each and every, hue and cry,* and cease and desist.

“Parcel” Then and Now

I’ll be honest, Earnest, and admit your malapropism isn’t all that surprising: The use of part and parcel has slowly declined since the nineteenth century… and as of this writing, you are only 37 years old. (The idiom itself is ancient by comparison, having originated in the early 1500s and peaked in the mid-eighteenth century.) Therefore, if the bonering/bloopering/botching of partial for parcel in both print and speech is any indication, you are in league with a great number of your peers.

Middle English speaker Geoffrey Chaucer used parcel in the sense of “portion” when he wrote in The Complaint Unto Pity (1368), “What nedeth to shewe parcel of my peyne?” (Translation: “What need to show a portion of my efforts?”). Today the “package” sense (first recorded use, 1562), has superseded the “portion” meaning. Yet the latter sense survives in a verb: parcel out, used when giving, sending, or delivering anything piecemeal rather than all at once.

*Only two meanings of hue made their way into the twenty-first century: 1) “a color, or a shade thereof”; and 2) “kind or type.” The three-letter word, from Old French hu (“outcry”), dates from the late 1500s and described the noise made by posses of ersatz town criers as they pursued criminals and raised the alarm. After the word fell from everyday use, it was revived in the 1700s as “a public outcry” — a meaning that lives on in the idiom hue and cry.

A Pretty Penny – NOT!

Reporter on ABC World News Tonight, January 3, 2015:

The meters may change in the future, but parking here in Sycamore will still cost only a pretty penny.

Many folks utter an oxymoron* and don’t realize it, nor probably care. Yet wild-eyed Wordies are waiting to jump all over ’em. For all that, journalists who have earned national exposure should know better – and a prime example follows.

The scene: Sycamore, Illinois, a town some 70 miles west of Chicago. The subject: Parking that costs the same as it did when Harry S. Truman was president: a penny for 12 minutes. (The parking meters themselves also date from way back when.) The perpetrator: a male broadcast journalist whose name I didn’t catch – and just as well, since his glaring misuse of a common idiom cost him a good bit of credibility. He assumed the adjective pretty in a pretty penny, a phrase dating back to the 1500s, takes the sense of “attractive” or “pleasant”… but it actually takes the sense of “substantially” or “considerably,” as in “He’s a pretty strong guy.” Therefore, the reporter unwittingly turned a pretty penny into an oxymoron, given that it is a synonym for expensive, pricey, and costly (think “That new dress must have cost her a pretty penny!”).

Or could I be making a mountain out of a molehill? (FYI, an idiom that has been around since the mid-1600s.) If you think there’s no reason for me to get my knickers in a knot (c.1968), please do not hesitate to let me know – or, to use another commonly used penny idiom, a penny for your thoughts (mid-1700s).

*Oxymoron = paired words whose meanings are contradictory – e.g., “true myth,” “apathetic interest,” and “serious joke.”

Hip(pie) Flip-Flop

Ari Melber, guest on All in with Chris Hayes, on June 10, 2014:

“They used to say, ’Don’t trust anyone over forty…’”

 Whoa, whippersnapper! You were ten years off. As someone who graduated from college on the cusp of the Summer of Love (1967, when the deliciously smoky notes of The Doors’ Light My Fire wafted from transistor radios), I recoil at the thought that we budding counter-culturists could’ve even imagined turning forty. Hence the real byword: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”

The Coiner

Though often credited to hippie prankster Abbie Hoffman, the phrase was coined by the lesser-known Jack Weinberg, a grad student at UC–Berkeley and a key figure in the incident that sparked the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The date was October 1, 1964, when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing and a ban of on-campus political activity at Berkeley was in place, But Weinberg took a chance: As head of the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he set up a tableful of pamphlets on the racial oppression he had recently observed in the Deep South.

In raced the campus cops, and Weinberg sat in a police car for 36 hours and watched as some 30,000 protesters listened to speeches and sang “We Shall Overcome.” (To no one’s surprise, the protestor-friendly police officers kept him fed and comfortable for the duration.) If the movement was a cause célèbre to some and an utter disgrace to others, it caught the nation’s attention and made the Berkeley protests a model for campus demonstrations countrywide.

But back to the “don’t trust” meme.* Years later, Weinberg revealed how he happened to come up with it:

I was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who kept asking me who was “really” behind the student action, implying we were being directed by Communists or some other sinister group. I told him we had a saying in the movement that we didn’t trust anyone over thirty—a way of telling the guy to back off, and that no one was pulling our strings.

A San Francisco Chronicle columnist was to first to publicize Weinberg’s coinage, and newspapers across the country were quick to pick up on what seemed a rallying cry for young Americans catching the hippie/pro-social justice/anti-war train. But time marched on, and by the 1980s the defiant phrase had fallen by the wayside. And Jack Weinberg? He moved from memberships (and advocacy for) labor unions to a job with Greenpeace to one with the Environmental Health Fund to environmental consulting in developing countries. And in April 2014 he entered his 75th year. (The math: 75 = 30 x 2.5.)

* The Free Speech Movement is older than the word meme, first seen in The Selfish Gene (1976), by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Said Dawkins, ‘We need a name for… a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’.” Today’s dictionaries define Dawkins’s word as “a term, idea, or element of social behavior passed on through a culture, especially by imitation.”

Two Ways to Fall

Alex Wagner on Alex Wagner NOW, MSNBC, on May 21, 2014:

What are some of the pratfalls for Republicans in these hearings?”

Sometimes more than a few members of the U.S. House of Representatives remind us of a bad vaudeville act, but we can be fairly certain that no more than a handful have had the misfortune to “slip and fall onto the buttocks” – the definition of pratfall. The word is applied metaphorically to a humiliating mishap or danger, but even this doesn’t excuse Ms. Witt from confusing it with the one she meant: pitfall. Malapropism* alert!

Pitfall has a good five centuries on pratfall, which came into use only in the 1930s. It orginally referred to an animal- or human-capturing pit flimsily covered or camouflaged (a kind of shoveled-out trap and snare.) Today we use pitfall to mean “a hidden or barely perceived problem or danger” And doesn’t that put it close enough to the metaphorical meaning of pratfall to let Ms. Wagner off the hook? Not really. Precision in word usage** is something anyone who strives to be well-spoken should take very seriously, and that goes twice for people in the broadcasting field.

 *See also Malapropisms: Here to Stay?

**See also To Be Precise…

An A-POPE-strophe, Please!

Headline in the May 5, 2014, edition of the Seattle Times:

Pope sex-abuse panel highlights accountability

A long stay in a mountain cabin has cut me off from world and national news. So it wasn’t surprising that when this visitor to the Pacific Northwest opened the Seattle Times, a headline on page A-5 stopped him (i.e., me) short. Did it mean Pope Francis had been sexually abused? Or, perhaps, that the panel’s focus was on the abuse of every Pope since St. Peter?

It meant nothing of the sort, of course. But the headline serves as a lesson in the vital importance of a certain punctuation mark: the apostrophe. When a fruit stand advertises Apple’s and Pear’s we know exactly what’s for sale. Not so with this apostropheless Pope. Insert ’s after the e, and it becomes clear that a panel assembled at the behest of Pope Francis “highlights accountability” – a blessed relief, so to speak, for yours truly and any other news junkies playing catch-up.

For Bettor or Worse

From a column by Gail Collins in The New York Times of March 6, 2014:

“…Adelson claims he’s propelled by a moral standard, which apparently involves saving betters from losing money…”

The word betters is a noun all right, one meaning “those more worthy than others in a particular group.” But people who place bets are bettors. And what’cha wanna bet this boner was the work of the electronic mosquito known as AutoCorrect, and not Ms. Collins’s fault? While it is likely that the word in question was written as betters back when spelling had yet to be standardized, bettors has taken the o in standard British (and later, American) English since the early 1600s.

Some similar nouns are spelled both ways, with either -er or -or as the suffix. One that comes to mind is adviser/adviser. Though no eyebrows will be raised when the two spellings are used interchangeably, as a rule an adviser merely gives advice on occasion: “Carl has been my friend and adviser for many years.” An advisor, on the other hand, generally makes her living by giving advice: “JoAnn was recently hired as Marketing Advisor for Buy and Large, Inc.”

A Momentary Slip

Remark by CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver, January 12, 2014:

Gates’s library is filled with military momentums.

All of us find ourselves uttering the wrong word on occasion, the kind of lapse frequently called a “brain fart” (a neologism that blew in around 1980). The estimable reporter Rita Braver’s turn came during an interview of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on the eve of the publication of his book Duty. The intended word was memento, and the only thing it has in common with momentum is the date of both words’ first recorded use in English – c. 1600.

Memento – defined as “something kept as a reminder of a person, place, or thing” – comes from Middle English by way of meminisse, the Latin word for “remember.” Momentum, meaning “movement,” is Latin through and through. Among the words derived from momentum is moment, and any notice of Ms. Braver’s mildly embarrassing moment (embarrassing only in that it was broadcast on national TV) was momentary at the most.

“Gentlemans”

Last portion of a sentence spoken by Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Texas:

“… is the only thing these gentlemans have laid out.”

The video capturing this error shows Cruz at a Congressional hearing and was aired on the MSNBC talkathon The Last Word on October 2, 2013. Granted, the senator’s use of gentlemans over of gentlemen could have been a slip of the tongue. But if reports that this Princeton graduate had his nose so high in the air at Harvard Law he refused to study with students from “lesser Ivies” such as Dartmouth and Brown are true, I (a lowly University of Texas-Austin graduate) will gladly point out any lapse by a junior senator who brings new meaning to the term “right-wing extremism.”  So there!

Greek Word Goof

Headline in the Dallas Morning News Letters to the Editor column, July 22, 1013:

Race baiting, guns, and a kudo for the media

Spot the error? Probably, since it sticks out like neon sign on a deserted desert road. And that’s because the headline writer failed to check a dictionary to see whether a kudo is or is not properly written as kudos.

Kudos, a singular (never plural) noun derived from the Greek kydos, entered the English language in the early nineteenth century. Nowadays the word’s original definition – “fame born of an act or achievement” – has been almost entirely superseded by its alternate meaning: “praise given for an achievement.”

It’s fairly easy to understand why kudos can be mistaken as a plural; the word didn’t take off in North America until the 1980s, and a final s on an unfamiliar word suggests something countable. Likewise, many of the synonyms of kudos are plurals, from congratulations and best wishes to felicitations and the non-synonymous but somewhat related thanks. (At the same time, when have you ever heard anyone say “Congratulation!”?)

Another reason to give the headline writer a break: Though kudo isn’t a word unto itself, it sounds as if it should be. IMHO it would be a fine name for a South American root vegetable, a martial art, or a new dance with “craze” written all over it.

Noun Runs for Office!

From a column by David Brooks in The New York Times of January 28, 2013:

“While losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the flaws of this mentality have become apparent.”

Read on its own, and with the understanding that an introductory clause modifies the subject of the sentence that follows, this wordage from the distinguished Mr. Brooks states that the loser of the popular vote isn’t a party or a person… instead, the loser is flaws, the noun that inadvertently becomes the subject. Yes, a Dangling Participle.

Brooks’s dangler really isn’t that big a deal, especially because the final sentence of his preceding paragraph – “The core American conflict, in this view, is between Big Government and Personal Freedom” – gives it context and makes the meaning of what he is saying clear. So let’s call this one a semi-boner.As a matter of fact. I could have easily slotted my semi-gripe into Run It By Fred’s WTF? category, devoted as it is to mystifying turns of phrase.

Myself: Word Run Wild

The fear of me that gripped us by the throat late last century begs for an explanation. Perhaps the anxiety is rooted in a failure of teachers to seal the deal when distinguishing an object pronoun (in this case, me) from a subject pronoun (the correlative I). Another theory holds that people fear that using me even occasionally may make them seem egotistical. Whatever the cause of the confusion, the “safe” alternative for me traditionally has been I, which is not only unsafe but wrong.

Here’s one quick, easy, and oft-used exercise for avoiding this mix-up: In a sentence like “Sue gave candy bars to Jimmy and I” just drop “Jimmy and” and voice the six remaining words in your head. Would you ever say, “Sue gave candy bars to I?” No, because it simply doesn’t sound right. (Sound, called “a matter of ear” by E.B. White in The Elements of Style, comes into play in good writing as well as speech, improving word placement, a sentence’s rhythm, and more.) Likewise, listening closely to what you say is easier than diving into a grammar guide to find “Object pronouns can be a direct object or an indirect object, the object of a verb, the object of a preposition, blah blah blah…”

If myself is today’s go-to safeguard against the increasingly intimidating me, it may be because it doesn’t sound quite so jarring as an errant I. But jarring it is, as in these three examples:

  • My wife and myself will be taking a Caribbean cruise.
  • Stephanie gave myself a pat on the back.
  • The waiter handed the check to myself instead of my boss.

Catching what’s wrong by ear can help, but so can knowing that myself is a reflexive pronoun, called so because it reflects back to something in the sentence, as do himself, itself, ourselves, yourself, and so on. And there’s more:

  • Reflexive pronouns are also called intensive pronouns because they’re sometimes added for emphasis. An example: “Ralph seemed to have had one too many, so I myself drove the car.”)
  • You also safely use this reflexive pronoun when you’re both the subject and object of a sentence. Two examples: “I see myself as thin as a rail by the end of the year” and “I’m going to do myself a favor.” You use it again when you wish to add emphasis to the single-letter word I, as in “I myself will reveal the secret code someday.”

The do’s and don’ts aren’t all that hard to grasp, are they? Writing this piece gave me a refresher course too. Now it’s up to ourselves us to pull in the reins on myself and help set me free.

College Grads Should Know Better

A locution that drives me up the (ivy covered?) wall is graduate college, with the preposition from ripped from its middle and discarded like an empty beer can. An equal opportunity offender, this truncated phrase also withholds from from graduating high school seniors and any other students lucky enough to receive a diploma.

What concerns grammarians doesn’t bother a great portion of the population in the least, but die-hard defenders of standard speech stand on very firm ground: the verb graduate has both a transitive (active) form and an intransitive (inactive) form, and it is the school acting to graduate a student, not the other way around.

Nevertheless, even the preferred graduate from college didn’t make the grade until well into the twentieth century; until then the standard (though fading) construction was “Clarence was graduated from college.” Again, it was understood that it was college administrators, rather than Clarence, who brought the graduation about.

Discarded prepositions are hardly habitual wreakers of havoc, but toying with these usually vital parts of speech is a bad idea. Indeed, dropping them indiscriminately could have us saying the exact opposite of what we mean. Admittedly, all three of the following examples venture into the extreme, but they still hold water (if only a few drops): “got the bus” for “got off the bus”; “developed sugar” for “developed from sugar”; “moving it” for “moving past it.” So isn’t the better course to move past graduate college and reinsert the requisite from?