Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Use it or lose it: A New Year's plea

If I could make New Year’s resolutions for other writers, this one would head the list: Don’t use a word and then tell your readers what a worthless word it is.

Don't do what New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott did in his April 2013 obituary for Roger Ebert: "He was platform agnostic long before that unfortunate bit of jargon was invented."

Or what Teddy Wayne did it in the the NYT's Future Tense column in February, writing about his holiday from technology: "I also briefly experienced the famous 'fear of missing out,' a.k.a, annoyingly, FOMO." 

Don't do as author Evgeny Morozov did when he complained, in a May NYT book review, of the ubiquity of  "the ugly, jargony name of Big Data." 

Or as columnist Maureen Dowd has twice done, using (while deploring) the political sense of "optics." In January 2013, she said the shortage of women in the Administration was "more than an 'optics' problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment." In October 2014, she wrote that "the White House thought [a female Secret Service head] would be good optics  -- that most egregious word." (But not egregious enough to omit.)

Why the desperate need to distance themselves from neologisms? Maybe these writers -- all, as it happens, from the pages of the New York Times -- were trying to head off criticism from Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s usage watchdog. By preemptively criticizing the jargon, they can have it both ways: They get to use a trendy expression and simultaneously disavow it. (Pro tip: If you really don’t think a word should exist, don’t give it currency in the New York Times.)

But I think there’s anxiety, not just distaste, behind these disavowals. If language is your expertise, you don’t want to be the last one to notice a lexical fad has run its course. Hence the preemptive apologies: Just in case this is old hat, I already hate it!

Scott, in fact, has waffled on "platform agnostic." He used it without comment in 2007, when he was quoting the New Yorker. And seven months after he called it "unfortunate jargon," it was back in  his good graces: In fall 2013, he wrote of filmmakers determined "to figure out, in a post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era, what the art of cinema might be."

MoDo, meanwhile, used "optics" without apology in 2009 ("what his aide Anita Dunn calls 'the optics'"), again in 2010 ("Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some …wince" ), and in 2012 (Dominique Strauss-Kahn "ignored the bad optics"). But three times was her limit: Only months later, "optics" had become that "irritating cliche."

This looks suspiciously like journalistic FOMO -- fear of missing out on the moment a popular term turns has-been. But there's a simple remedy: Call the word passé whenever you use it, and nobody can beat you to the punch. 

This isn't just a journalistic worry. Lists of peeves, like the annual banned words list from Lake Superior State University, always include slang and jargon with plenty of miles left on them (curate, anyone? Or takeaway?). The word-banning enthusiasts, though, are always ready to tell us our favorite phrases are so over, if only we laggards had the wit to see it. 

But grownup journalists shouldn't be playing that game. If  "optics" or "FOMO" offends your sensibilities, it's usually simple enough to skip it, rather than make it an occasion to flaunt your taste. There are enough people out there who pride themselves on their language peevery. They don’t need encouragement from professionals.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You say cannoli, I say cannolis

I'm posting this 17-year-old Word column (now paywalled in the Boston Globe's archives) in response to Mark Allen (@EditorMark on Twitter), who just tweeted about panini, which I somehow overlooked when writing about similar Italian plurals. It appeared on Sept. 14, 1997, just a couple of weeks after Princess Diana died in a Paris car that was being pursued by paparazzi. I haven't updated the usage research, except to verify that we (the English-speaking public) remain far more comfortable with the double plural cannolis than with biscottis

Do paparazzi prefer cannoli?
The paparazzi are under a cloud these days, scorned around the world for their unsavory trade and its role in Princess Diana's death. But for the word paparazzi, there's a silver lining: All that attention is reawakening English speakers to the fact that paparazzi is a plural, with a very presentable Italian singular form.

The word, as we all heard during the post-crash coverage, was coined by Federico Fellini, who gave the name Paparazzo to the celebrity-chasing photographer of "La Dolce Vita." What inspired the choice is more mysterious: Some accounts mention an annoying childhood friend of Fellini's by that name; one suspects the influence of pappataci, a sand-fly. "It translates literally as Daddy Rocket, though it may owe something to the verb razzolare, meaning to scrape or scratch around in debris," ventures a New Zealand newspaper columnist.

As the paparazzi furor burned on, our collective mastery of the word improved. There were a few three-p papparazzis and at least one reference to a paparazzi -- as well as an Internet mourner's poporatizee and a newspaper's unfortunate contraction, paps -- but most writers got it right.

Still, the paparazzi variations are a reminder of the general lawlessness of our language in the matter of adopted plurals. We can choose seraphs or seraphim, tableaux or tableaus, depending on our taste and our dictionary. We've kept alumni and alumnae in their Latin forms, but we've domesticated stadiums and forums.

When the language is Latin, of course, there are no current speakers to object to the anglicizing process. English plurals also form rapidly on words in less familiar languages, since we can't hear anything amiss when we add -s to words like the Bantu marimba or Swahili safari -- two nice examples from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.

But Italian plurals are all around us, in movies about mafiosi, in music lovers' concerti and libretti, and most of all, in our diet -- in the restaurants and cookbooks where we find penne and tagliatelle and risotto con funghi.

Even these well-known words aren't easy to master: We still haven't agreed on lasagne vs. lasagna. The pastas alone would have defeated English speakers long ago, if they hadn't been so cooperative about functioning as collective nouns. So our noodles are plural, but our spaghetti is construed as a singular, and we never give a thought to a raviolo or a gnocco.

And on the dessert menu, there's some delicious evidence of the pluralizing process caught in the act, with all its cultural baggage on display.

When we order cannoli and biscotti, we generally use the same word whether we want one or half a dozen -- a cannoli, we say, but most of us feel enough of the plural force that we also say three biscotti. Some people, however, make the plural even more so, ordering six cannolis.

"We are used to it," said Enza Merola of Maria's Pastry [in Boston's North End], admitting that she has adopted the usage she hears and dropped the Italian singulars: "I would never say to a customer, 'one cannolo?' "

In print, however, cannoli and biscotti meet different fates. A search of the Globe archives, though not exactly rigorous science, shows that the plural cannolis is 20 times as likely to be used in a cannoli connection as is the plural biscottis in a similar spot.

Why the gap? I suspect it's a matter of cultural context. Both desserts are old favorites, but biscotti made a comeback as a trendy treat over the past couple of decades, while cannoli remained the ultimate in creamy, messy indulgence.

The new biscotti are clearly cookies for grown-ups -- dry, brittle, sophisticated. And the new biscotti people notice things like singulars and plurals in their favorite food languages. Hence biscotti holds on to its plural feeling, while cannoli cheerfully drops the distinction.

All conjecture, yes. But there's support for it in a new catalog from J. Peterman, who's now hawking not just clothes but rugs and china -- including a floral biscotti jar for $150.

The jar itself is labeled Biscotti. The ad copy calls it a biscotti jar. But in the headline, it's a Biscotto Jar. And the reason for that, you can bet your chocolate cannolo, is to let readers know that J. Peterman, il principe of pretentious prose, is one of them -- a master of the singular of biscotti

A year later, in August 1998, I finally caught up with a footnote from The Economist that revealed the probable source of  papparazzo. 

The first of the paparazzi died last month, less than a year after the crash that killed Princess Diana and set off a worldwide debate on the hit-and-run photographers' ethics -- and the origins of their name.

Tazio Secchiaroli, a Roman "street photographer," had been Federico Fellini's model for the celebrity-chasing character in 1960's "La Dolce Vita," everyone agreed. But why had Fellini named his character Paparazzo? Was it related to razzolare, to scratch around in trash? Influenced by pappataci, an annoying sand-fly? Was it, as one reader of this column suggested, a Riminese dialect word for the part of the chicken sometimes known as the pope's nose?

While the rest of us were scratching our heads, some amazingly well-read source tipped off The Economist that the true Paparazzo could be found in a 1902 travel book; thus, the London weekly's post-crash coverage included a footnote informing us that Fellini's scriptwriter "took the name from `By the Ionian Sea,' a book by George Gissing. Coriolano Paparazzo was the proprietor of the hotel in Catanzaro where the British poet had stayed." Gissing was in fact a novelist, and the magazine gave the wrong date for his trip, but the squib was still a coup -- especially the smug last line, which noted that "Gissing's book is still on sale in Calabria, in an excellent Italian translation."

To mark Secchiaroli's departure for the great darkroom in the sky, Michael Quinion, proprietor of the World Wide Words Web site, revisits the history of paparazzo in his most recent newsletter. His account looks like the last word on the word, if not on the subject. Concludes Quinion: "I can only wonder at what the late Signore Paparazzo, the keeper of that hotel in Catanzaro, would make of the coincidences that led through an English writer’s recording of a brief stay there, and the accidental encounter with it by an Italian scriptwriter, to the borrowing of his name as one of the more pejorative in the English language."*

Skeptics who'd like to meet this Signore Paparazzo can find him via the Internet, too. Among the surprisingly numerous Gissing-related Web sites -- even discounting those that use him only as a limerick rhyme -- there's one with the full text of "By the Ionian Sea." In the original English, of course, not the excellent Italian translation.

*The language in this paragraph has been altered slightly, reflecting updates to Quinion's blog post since the original publication.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In memory of Tom, gimme a "dope slap" source

Tom and Ray Magliozzi's long run on public radio has included lots of language fun, as remembrances of Tom, who died last Monday, do not neglect to mention. I'm a longtime fan, and back in 2000, in a Boston Globe column and a follow-up note, I looked into one of their favorite terms -- "dope slap" -- but I didn't get very far.

My searches this week haven't improved my results, but I'll bet there are "Car Talk" fans out there with better skills (and access to better corpora) than mine. If you're among them, help us out here: Do Tom and Ray (and their parents) get the credit for dope slap?  (If you need inspiration, Ray's tribute show has plenty of laughs, plus the peerless Elizabeth Magliozzi.)

Meanwhile, here's what I dug up about dope slap 14 years ago, as printed in the Boston Sunday Globe.

Doping out the truth
June 4, 2000

A few months ago, in a story about Tony Blair's parental-leave dilemma, the Globe's Kevin Cullen wrote that the English prime minister "may feel the urge to give a dope slap to his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen," whose decision to take paternity leave had stepped up the pressure on Blair.

The article prompted a call from a friend asking, "What's a dope slap?" This was a mild shock: In the hometown of WBUR, the public radio station where "Car Talk" first revved its engines 23 years ago, it takes some doing to avoid hearing "dope slap." The car guys, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, have managed to spread the word not only throughout, but beyond, the English-speaking world. 

 The dope slap, officially -- you can click on [, the current address] for further discussion -- is a sudden but not very painful smack to the back of the head,* a humane form of the two-by-four blow that gets the proverbial mule's attention. As a slang expression, though, dope slap's origins are murky. Ray Magliozzi says that his mother used both the term and the dope slap liberally (and "at lightning speed") when he and his brother were young and stupid.

"I think it may be an Italian-American thing," adds Magliozzi, a Cambridge native. "Go to the North End, and I'll bet four out of five people know it."

But do they know where it came from? The evidence so far suggests that dope slap has been disseminated largely by "Car Talk" itself. The first mention in the Lexis/Nexis database, in 1992, comes in a transcript of the radio show (the guys are prescribing "a dope slap for driving home after the oil light came on"). Since then, the term has been popping up all over -- on a German website, in a Berkeley PhD thesis on Aesop, and in Malaysia's New Straits Times, which runs the car guys' syndicated column. But the Boston Herald leads the nation in non-Magliozzi-generated uses of dope slap, perhaps supporting the theory of local origin.

Further data are needed, though -- so if you too were dope-slapped, deservedly or not, please send particulars. Most valuable would be written evidence earlier than 1992; the truth must be out there, if Tom and Ray were getting cuffed around at midcentury. Me, I'm hoping to see the late Elizabeth Magliozzi enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the coiner of the term; but let's get the straight dope, whatever it is.

Slapped around
June 18, 2000

My recent speculations about the origin of dope slap drew a verbal buffeting from one correspondent, who demanded how I could be ignorant of this "old boxing term." He remembers it from the '50s, he says, "when boxing in general was not as regulated and as full of show business. . . . to dope slap someone was to strike them when and where the opponent least expected it," usually in the head, stunning the recipient so that he acted dopey or intoxicated.

This sounds perfectly plausible, but I haven't been able to find corroboration anywhere in print. That doesn't mean it's wrong, though -- and if anyone can find a citation that links boxing to dope slap, this is the place to send it.

David Chirlin of Nashua, N.H., had a different hypothesis: "I believe that the 'Car Talk' bros did society a favor by cleaning up the expression bitch slap, popularized in the counterculture years by such comedians as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. In context, if a woman nagged or verbally annoyed a man beyond a certain point, he would . . . hit her upside the head with what was referred to as a bitch slap. Well, you had to ask."

Yeah, I did. And the friend who originally asked about dope slap had also wondered if it was a benign variant of bitch slap. Again, the evidence is scanty, though bitch slap does make it into print in 1991, a year before dope slap. It's not published as often, for obvious reasons,* but it's still with us -- though, as my friend also told me, it's been adopted (or coopted) for jocular unisex use in certain circles.

But bitch slap wasn't the inspiration for the Magliozzi brothers' dope slap, by their own testimony -- and though I haven't yet asked, I doubt that their mom was an Eddie Murphy fan. So the jury is still out on the dope slap derivation. Keep those cards and e-mails coming.

*Update: Some sources also use dope slap to mean a slap to one's own forehead.

**Editing note: I've removed a superfluous phrase, both unnecessary and ungrammatical, that was stealthily added here by a misguided editor back in 2000. Nobody else cares, but I'm ridiculously happy I can make the correction.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mattress mysteries baffle NY Times

(This post is off topic, and kind of cranky, too. Feel free to skip it.)

I admit it – I’m a consumer journalism junkie. When I got Consumer Reports’ print edition, I read reviews of things I will never, ever own: wine chillers, leaf blowers, Cadillacs, backpacks. I like knowing how things are supposed to work, even if they’re not things I want.

So if the New York Times promises to help me shop for "the best mattress," I’m expecting to learn a little something I didn't already know. But no: Apparently the subject of today’s Home section lead was so soporific that the assigning editor, the writer, and the copy editor all fell asleep on the job.

The assigning editor accepted the piece; enough said. As for the author, given his innocence about mattresses, I’m wondering if he’s still in the bed Mom and Dad bought him. Buying is confusing, he tells us, because “most major brand names inexplicably seem to begin with the letter 's'." And then there are all those hard words! “Viscoelastic foam,” “pocketed coil technology,” and worst of all, "Talalay latex? C’mon, mattress people. Now it sounds as if you’re just making stuff up." (Gee, if only there were an easy way to look up those obscure terms, so you could explain them to readers.*)

There follow many paragraphs of filler -- quotes from mattress people, descriptions of various products -- before the payoff, delivered by a Consumer Reports mattress writer: Most of the tech and the specs don’t matter at all. The $5,000 Dux mattress did about as well in CU’s tests as the $540 Original Mattress Factory product. In other words, ignore the article, read Consumer Reports, and buy a mattress that feels good.

By this point the copy editor was dozing, so we are told that Hastens, a high-end seller, uses "horsehair that is sterilized for up to a year before going into the mattress." Up to a year? What's the minimum time, and how do you do it? And why raise these questions when "sterilized horsehair" would suffice? (A related sign of sleepiness all round pops up in a sidebar: "Mattress prices can be reduced by as much as 50 percent and more.")

Meanwhile, the story ignores the main reason frustrated consumers can't just go out buy a mattress like their last one. For years now, the big mattress makers have offered only one-sided mattresses -- the underside is not a sleep surface. No more flipping the mattress for extra wear; you couldn’t flip it anyway, because it’s thicker and heavier -- 12 or 15 inches deep instead of 8 or 9. Also, it requires new, deeper fitted sheets; they’re flabbily sized, for mattresses up to 15 or 20 inches, so they don’t fit any very well, but at least you’re stimulating the economy.

Now, finally, this fad is waning, and in my book, that’s the big news. After years of waiting, I recently found (and bought) a flippable mattress (though fitted sheets remain a problem).

Commenters on the NYT piece have echoed, and expanded on, my complaints. Why nothing on these heavy, non-flippable mattresses? Why no mention of Ikea’s (normal-thickness, inexpensive) mattresses? What about futons, local manufacturers, flameproofing chemicals, offgassing foam? The comments, in fact, are probably more useful than the article itself.

And best of all, in the mattress quest category, is Donald Antrim’s 2002 New Yorker piece, "I Bought a Bed."  As someone who once tried out a Dux bed at a local inn -- and ended up sleeping on the floor -- I was the bullseye of his target audience. But even if you're not, it will put your bed-shopping troubles -- and the Times's, too -- into perspective.

*Talalay is the name of the guys who invented one particular latex-foaming process.