Daily Archives: December 4, 2008

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading

Help stop a word-lynching

Edit: When I wrote this back in 2008, I was less sensitized to the insistent racism and injustice experienced by black people in America, and so I did not take into account why the erroneous account might spread so readily, or the surrounding sentiments; I also used the word lynching too readily in a figurative sense, which can belittle the genuine life-and-death nature of its historical reality.

Nobody likes being called racist, of course, but the fact that it upset me so much is likely because to some extent I really did, in the back of my mind, belittle the concerns of blacks in America and Canada. When your life has been free of certain kinds of harassment, it’s far too easy to think those who complain of it are whiners. I’ve since learned better.

But I’m not going to revise this and pretend I didn’t write it as I wrote it. These are my words the way I wrote them, and I won’t duck and pretend I wasn’t so knee-jerk insensitive.

I still do not accept the inaccurate etymology offered for picnic; the historical data are well established. And I do think that phonetic profiling can have scurrilous effect. But the sounds of words also have effect regardless of etymology. For example, niggardly has nothing to do with the “n-word” etymologically, but it sounds so much like it, it’s more or less impossible to use it without bringing that worse word to mind. I am less convinced of this in regard to picnic, but I would like to know how others hear it (before they are told any accounts of its origins).

I do not, in any event, consider it fair to tell people they are being racist for using a word that has no actual history of racism and that, to them, has no racist overtones or implications. Especially when no one seems to be calling anyone out for using bulldoze, which has a truly awful history – but doesn’t sound like a taboo word.

But now that these stories have been spread, we have to be aware of them, and address them – and the sentiments and experiences behind them.


Spread the word and help stop another lynching of a perfectly guiltless word – and the family tradition it refers to. Tell your friends and colleagues that picnic is not a racist word.

You might think that this is a joke or a parody. Unfortunately, it’s not. People with influence over what students learn are maintaining that “picnic” is an offensive word, and that the origin of the “picnic” is in a happy outing to eat out on a lawn while watching a lynching (the term supposedly being from “pick a nic” – “nic,” in this account, is another version of the “n-word” – to string up). Continue reading


A word that sounds like a security alarm going off. It may have a reflection of a ground meat sandwich, and may even make one think of a bugler; the beginning echoes a German town and the end the glare of security spotlights; but most of us know it well enough… hopefully not by personal experience. Many people say it with three syllables rather than two, backforming a verb burgle (which does have a sort of jumble and tumble and jiggle and boggle sound of a person going through drawers and jewellery boxes looking for goodies) and then construing this as the agentive derivation of it. But the real story of this word is one as much of gain as of loss. It came in the 16th century from the Anglo-Latin burglator (an easy little pocketing of the to there), which in turn came from burgator – and how that l got there we don’t know; perhaps someone sidled in and, having marked the to for later theft, found when outside again that an instrument had been left behind. As to burgator, it is thought that the burg comes from burgh, “castle or fortification.” A man’s home is his castle, after all. Which is why so many install that most common collocation of of burglar: an alarm.