Monthly Archives: April 2013


You prob’ly know this word arredy, but if’n y’don’t, I guess I should tell ya that you almos’ allus see it in th’ same phrase: all the fixin’s. Sometimes they spell it with the apostrophe, sometimes not.

I jes’ thought I should tell ya that cuz maybe you mighta thought it was some kinda possessive or somethin’. But now, knowin’ that it’s a plural, d’ya think it’s wrong ta have that apostrophe? I mean, it’s not right to put “I deep fried two turkey’s,” cuz we don’t use apostrophes in plurals. But we do use apostrophes to indicate that somethin’s missin’. An’ here in this word it’s the g. One fixin’, or as many fixin’s as you can fit on yer plate. So there.

Cuz that’s what fixin’s are, right? All the side things you eat with the main thing. If I go to Bob Evans and get me some good country style steak (you may know it as chicken-fried steak), it comes with fixin’s like mash potatoes an’ white gravy an’ some carrots ’n’ peas ’n’ stuff. If’n you deep fry yourself a turkey, your fixin’s’re gonna be stuffin’ an’ mash an’ gravy an’ maybe some slaw an’ who knows, why not some grits too. Look, it’s alright, it’s recommended by the USDA, you kin read it right here. A dish jes’ ain’t right without some fixin’s next to it.

Now, fixin’s aren’t jus’ food things, you understand. Not originally. Why, they was all sorts of any kind of thing that was attached or made ready or accessorized to. You know, fixed up, fixed on, fixin’ to be. That’s how it was in the early 1800s. But now a lot of you won’t see this word at all except in some place where they want to be all homestyle an’ folksy ’n’ everything. You won’t see about the fixin’s of clothing cuz that’s not how they sell it. What’s homestyle? Why, comfort food, that’s what. That good ol’ home food made by honest folk who appreciate the good things in life like fat ’n’ starch. None o’ this fancy city folks stuff that ain’t even cooked an’ leaves you hungry.

And when you serve up some marketin’ text to tell people all about your country style food, you don’t just want the names of the things an’ some description. You want all the fixin’s. You want text that has jes’ as much backwoods southern homestyle as you kin manage ta git away with. So you kin go with the eye dialect – words spelled the way they’re said even though they’re said the same way everyone sez ’em, jes’ ta make it clear that these isn’t fancy edjicated folks. You know, ta an’ sez an’ kin an’ edjicated an’ so on. You might add some infixes, like abso-goldarn-lutely.  And you surely go with the apostrophes.

Funny thing, them apostrophes. They’re supposed ta indicate missin’ things. Well, in somethin’ like an’ or o’ they surely do. But when you write fixin’ and doin’ an’ so on, well, sure, the spellin’ is missin’ a g, but there ain’t no g when you say those words ever in th’ firs’ place. Nosiree, they jus’ have a velar nasal. An’ then, when you move it up to th’ front like even literate people an’ well-respected authors did into th’ early 1800s before the spelling pronunciation took back over, it doesn’t lose a g, right, it jes’ becomes a alveolar nasal. But we still put that apostrophe there. It’s sorta like that little [sic] that people put in quotes to show they know better.

You know what it is? I’ll show ya what it is. Ya see this? ; ) That’s a winky smile, right? OK, mister, so what’s this: ’ ? Why, it’s just a little wink. Every time you see that apostrophe there in fixin’s or anythin’ else like that, it’s a little wink that says, “Yessir, I’m homstyle, ah yep, I am.” An’ authentic as all get out. By which I mean you kin all get out if you think it’s authentic.

So but why not jes’ write it fixings? Well, goodness gracious me. You must be kidding. If we write it that way, we hear that velar nasal clear as day. Sounds like something some British chappy might say. Like this: “She was undeniably an eyeful, being slim, svelte and bountifully equipped with golden hair and all the fixings.” You know who wrote that? P.G. Wodehouse, that’s who. A man surely a complete stranger to grits.

any more, anymore

Dear word sommelier: When should I use “any more,” and when should I use “anymore”?

If you’re not Canadian or American, you can pretty much avoid this issue and use any more everywhere. But in Canada and the US, we have a merged form, anymore, that has taken on one specific sense and left the others to the old two-word version.

First let’s start with the parts. They’re good old Germanic parts, not borrowed from anywhere else. They’re so old and basic that they have multiple uses. Any can be an adjective (Do you have any idea?) or a pronoun (I don’t have any), but it can also be an adverb, modifying an adjective, and that’s what it is in any more and anymore. More can be a noun (I want more) or an adjective (I want more food) or an adverb (Could you be more specific?). In any more, it can be any of them; in anymore, it’s an adverb.

There are three general areas of meaning that you can use any more in, and anymore is used for just the last one:

Quantity. I don’t want any more. I want fifty dollars, and not any more than that.

Degree. I don’t like this any more than you do. I couldn’t possibly love you any more [than I already do].

Time. I don’t want you anymore. I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore. Do you do it anymore?

You may notice that the examples all have one important thing in common: they’re all negative phrases or negative-option questions. Actually, you can use any more in a positive phrase: Any more than this and we’re in trouble. But in standard English, anymore is always in a negative phrase or a question with a negative option. Not anymore can be paraphrased as not any longer or as no more or no longer.

Note that I said standard English. There are areas where it’s not so uncommon to hear positive anymore in ordinary speech: Anymore, we hold the parties indoors. We can see that for these speakers it has moved out of its place in a whole limiting phrase and has become a synonym for these days or now: We don’t do that anymore > We don’t do that these days; These days we do this > Anymore, we do this. I am not endorsing this usage for standard written English, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see it more mainstream some decades hence. But you should know that it exists. At least for some speakers, anymore is not a one-valence word anymore.

When you are considering serving this word in a sentence, you should pay attention to the rhythm – it trips quickly, not quite as long as any longer but less staid than no more or no longer. It’s a more common and casual usage, too, and is less likely to be seen in formal documents, where you may see wording using phrases such as in previous years and until recent times and prior to the current situation and so forth. There are really many ways to describe the aspect of time, and some of them take quite a bit of time themselves. Probably the most formal – and obviously poetically referential – alternative to not anymore would be nevermore. To get a sense of the difference, imagine Poe writing, “Quoth the raven, ‘Not anymore.’”

Thanks to my colleagues in the Editors’ Association who brought up this issue and helped me clarify my thinking on it.


In the April 23, 2013, Toronto Star (the local daily broadsheet), columnist Royson James, in an article about the possibility of a casino being built in central Toronto, wrote this:

Riding a backlash against centuries of Puritanism and uptight strictures, we’ve turned nullifidian, consumers of everything to the exclusion of nothing.

Ya gotta love newspaper columnists. They are the one place in daily journalism where you get not only considered opinion unburdened by the albatross of faux-impartiality but also decently used twenty-dollar words.

Nullifidian. The context may not give a perfect clue to the meaning. But if you happen to know your Latin roots, you know just what it means. Null, ‘nothing, none’; fid, ‘faith’ (as in fidelity and infidel), from fides (as in bona fides): together, ‘faithless, of no faith, disbelieving, believing in nothing, etc.’ Add connective tissue and an adjectival suffix and you get an eleven-letter, ten-phoneme, five-syllable word with a rhythm right out of Dave Brubeck (accent on the middle syllable), a veritable forest of ascenders and dots in the middle seven letters (bookended by nu and an, phonemically mirrors: /nə/ /ən/) with the twin steeples ll disintegrating into i and i and i with the bent f and bumped d.

So there it is. The church towers ll fall apart into the image of the self i i i and are bent and distorted and we fall out of the righteous quaternity of 4/4 time into the supersaturated metric quincunx. All is relative. We are tossing out rules and instituting an “anything goes” approach. It’s appalling and Sardanapalian. Take away the pillars and everything collapses.

Just the sort of thing I am occasionally accused of. When I point out that a certain “rule” of grammar has no real basis and no utility in communication other than that of excluding and condemning (you’d think we we would grow out of that after our adolescence), I am told I am saying there are no rules and that anything goes and am promulgating the destruction of the language. Which assumes the point at issue: that the “rule” is actually a rule, and a beneficial one. If I say that people need to consider the effect and utility of the rules they follow, I am branded nullifidian, relativist, wallowing fecklessly in the utter degradation of the language.

Funny thing, relativity. Motion is relative and yet we can still speak coherently about it and measure it usefully. Direction is relative and yet we can still find our way around. But somehow if one proclaims relativity of any prescriptive rule one is seen as being a nihilist. I find this view lacking in important understandings.

The equation that Royson James’s paragraph makes is a common one: that faith equals restriction, and openness equals lack of faith. If you are a free thinker, you are an unbeliever, which means you are faithless. Faith is unquestioning acceptance of a set of strictures and structures: have faith in the source that has given them to you. This maps to acceptance of rules, often arbitrary, for language as for other behaviours. In practice, this “faith” becomes enforcement of a set of rules that render a sphere controllable and predictable.

How much faith do you need when things are controlled and predictable? Tell me this: which is a greater act of faith, cultivating a bonsai tree with daily attention or planting an acorn and coming back after twenty years? Driving to work on the same route every day or sailing a ship into uncharted waters? Forcing a language into unchanging conformity or participating in its somewhat guided, somewhat channeled, but never entirely regulated or stifled development over time?

Yes, holding to a dogma is an act of faith; certainly, you are taking it on trust that these principles are valuable and their source reliable. But one does best to choose one’s sources of principles wisely and thoughtfully. And dogma can be a means of minimizing the faith necessary: what faith and trust is there in Procrusteanizing everything into preset categories? Not adhering to a dogma, on the other hand, does not mean lacking in faith; one may still have desiderata, principles, aims, experience, and a faith that this approach will produce good results and that one’s data and reasoning are sufficient. One may even believe in some “greater power” (or what have you) without believing that that greater power has imposed a set of restrictions that we are to enforce so as to limit the possibilities of the world.

So the historical use of the word nullifidian is a bit of question-begging, in that it assumes that if you don’t have faith in a specific religious position you thus have no faith in anything at all. And its association of nullifidianism (or nullifidy, I suppose) with a sybaritic, thelemite position is even more question-begging, because it assumes that if one believes in something it must be rules that prohibit such hedonism – and the converse implication is that if one does not hold truck with wanton oral-retentiveness, one is a person of their particular kind of faith.

All of these observations may seem to have nullified the validity of nullifidian as a word to use anywhere. But no. They have simply unshackled it, or at the very least pulled the drapes open on it. And you may always feel free to say nullifidian, allowing its delicious flow over the tip of your tongue and your teeth and lips: whether or not you believe it when you say it, you can still give it lip service.

100% of these usages is wrong

I have just seen an infographic (heaven help us, yes, an infographic – generally now not actual charts but just text tarted up) with the following statements:

46% of all U.S. workers claims that they are less productive without coffee.

61% of the workers who need coffee to get through their day drinks 2 cups or more each day.

49% admits to needing coffee while on the job in the Northeast where the workday coffee ritual is the strongest.

Let’s ignore all the other issues in those sentences and just focus on the most egregious, unnatural usages: 49% of workers claims; 61% of the workers drinks; 49% admits. Ick. Just ick.

This is a classic overthink error. I see it mainly in newspapers and similar places where the writers are trying to enforce their understanding of “proper” grammar and are going against their normal speech instincts in doing so.

Percentages can apply to unitary or mass entities and they can apply to populations of entities. When you’re talking about mass or unitary entities, it’s right to use the singular: “50% of this cake is chocolate”; “50% of this collection is action figures.” Moreover, when you’re talking about average (or consistent) percentage of each individual in a set, you may use the singular, though it can sometimes be awkward to phrase it thus: “40% of her cupcakes is sugar.”

But when you’re talking about the portion of the individuals in a set of individual entities, percents are plural quantifiers. You don’t say “46% of the people here drinks coffee” unless somehow each employee has a body 46% of which (perhaps on average) drinks coffee and the other 54% of which abstains. Would you say “Half of the employees here drinks coffee”? How about “A lot of the people here drinks coffee”? Hey, a lot is singular, you know!

Which is just the point. A lot may be singular, and 46% may be a discrete quantity, but their effect on the nouns they describe is a plural quantification. Remember that a dozen is also a singular construction and a discrete quantity, and a hundred likewise, and yet you don’t invariably conjugate verbs in the singular after them: “A dozen people is coming over”? No. (But you can say “A dozen eggs sits in the basket” because you know that’s a carton.) You can say “A bunch of flowers sits by the window” because in that case a bunch is a unitary object; if you say “A bunch of people sit by the window” it means that the people may or may not be together as a unit, but there are a fair few of them in any event. (And “A bunch of people sits by the window” is an almost amusing image of a set of people so together in their grouping that they even sit as a single unit.)

It’s easy enough to see how people can get confused. Many of these things can take singular or plural depending on what are sometimes very fine nuances of meaning. I can say “100% of these usages is wrong” and mean that each usage is 100% wrong, and I can say “100% of these usages are wrong” and mean that every last one of them is wrong. But there are cases where your ear just screams: “46% of workers claims”?! No. Just no. A percentage of a population of individuals is a plural.

And really, if your analysis of grammar leads you to write something that sounds staggeringly wrong, stop and reconsider your analysis.

Famous quotes that break “rules”

I expected my latest article for to generate some reaction in the comments, and I was not disappointed. Not that I wrote it just to troll people, but when you venture into certain territory…

The idea behind the article was to look at some famous quotes – sayings that are well known and often said – that break rules that are often learned in schools at about the same time as the quotes are. And then, of course, to look at whether those rules are really rules or not. But I didn’t explain that in an introduction. I just dove right in (or, if you’re a hoary prescriptivist, dived right in). Which may not have been the best idea, since – in combination with an eye-catching but slightly misleading headline (I don’t write the headlines, by the way, but I do get to see them in advance and could always suggest a change) – this approach provoked a variety of reactions in the comments section.

Here, for better or worse, is a link to the article:

9 famous quotes that are (technically) grammatically incorrect

And feel free to tell me what you think!

This business of verbing

I was just reading a post on a web forum wherein the author is griping about his boss emailing him the following treat: “My concern is that the … team might consens on something that the operations … people think is a bad idea.”

Consens. I’m sure, like the author of the post, you’re thinking, “Yikes! My thoughts are that ‘consensus’ is not a verb, no way Jose!” It’s so egregious, he declares, that “it puts ‘contact’ to shame.” He then asks people to send him real-life examples of misuse of nouns as verbs. “I don’t know why it fascinates me,” he says; “I guess it’s like rubbernecking at a fatal car wreck.”

Well, if you like to rubberneck at such things, you don’t need to wait for someone to email or phone you; you can Google all the examples you want as easily as skipping a rope (or roping a skip). Or, uh, you could start with that sentence you just read. Rubberneck, email, phone, Google: all are recent verbings (well, rubberneck has been around for a century). Other conversions such as rope have been around for centuries longer. (Oh, and contact? In the modern verb use, about a century.)

In fact, the English language is full of conversions (that’s a more proper linguistic term for it) – noun to verb, noun to adjective, adjective to verb, adjective to adverb, verb to noun – and the great majority of them are well established and pass unremarked. They’re very easy to do in modern English, with its minimal use of inflections (just an s here and there, some eds and ings, a few other little bits and pieces) – you don’t need to change anything about a word’s basic form to use the same form in another word class. One might well argue that our conversions epitomize the flexibility that has helped English be so successful.

But perhaps looking at all the verbings that have been handed down over the centuries clouds the matter, distances us from the real issue, perhaps even silences concerns unduly. (Yes, all those italicized words are verbs that were converted from nouns at one time or another.) There are some conversions that don’t really seem to bother us, and there are some that bother some of us but not others, but there are some that are almost universally loathed among language nerds. There must be a reason for that, yes?

I think it has a lot to do with the attitudes they bespeak and the milieu they represent. Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And, I would say, the verbings we loathe most impact us most (ouch!) because they come from business-speak.

Business-speak really is a special genre. It is as susceptible to fads as teenage slang, but its fad usages show not how cool you are but how conversant you are with the latest popular ideas in the business literature. It makes more use of overt metaphor than just about any other genre (at the end of the day, touch base, low-hanging fruit…). It often uses noun-heavy structures to sound important, but is also known for converting all sorts of things to verbs in order to sound active – or just to save effort while still accessing impressive-sounding vocabulary (consensus is more important-sounding than agree, but build a consensus takes three words, so why not use consens). It tends, perhaps even more than undergraduate essays, to try to use hifalutin locutions to impress. As a result of that, it has quite a lot of what linguists might gently call “variant usages” – and everyone else would call misuse, errors, bad English. Above all – and this is surely its primary sin – it’s self-important.

Why else, after all, would anyone use leverage as a verb? “We will leverage our core competencies to innovate bleeding-edge solutions.” Look, that whole sentence is obnoxious, not just the verbing. What are core competencies? Their strongest or most basic skills. Why bleeding-edge? Because leading-edge used to be good enough but then someone started using this version (actually borrowed from the printing industry and not really all that exciting in the original) and it sounds so, um, edgy. Why solutions? Because that is what everyone, everyone, everyone in business is now in the business of providing: the customer has a problem and you’re in business to provide the solution. (The only solutions I go to stores for are aqueous solutions of ethanol.) And why leverage? The term showed up in business originally in reference to using borrowed capital to produce profits greater than the interest, and it spread from there; now people use it because they like the image it presents of a lever, which allows a small person to move a big rock, and the age ending sounds so, you know, technical and financial and important.

The remaining word in that sentence is also fad-popular but is a time-honoured usage (borrowed from Latin centuries ago), and is the only really useful word in the sentence other than “We will.” Strip it all out and say “We will innovate” and you have it nicely. But that doesn’t jangle the ring full of keys to membership in the corporate in-group.

And that is why certain verbings impact us so much (sorry!): they’re self-important and in-groupy and they pretend to have much more substance than they really do. It’s not that they’re verbings. Sure, some people are uncomfortable seeing a word used in a way that doesn’t match its entry in their mental dictionary. But they may only really stop and fuss about that if something else draws their attention to the word – something like its reeking of business-speak. I’m sure you can consens with me on that…


Visual: Two dull, staring eyes, perhaps: oo. What’s the g? A nose? Off to the side? Naw. Maybe if it were ogon. But then the n? An ear? Who knows. The oo is the dominant feature; it shows up also in kook and loon and goof and tool but also in moon and book and look.

In the mouth: This is a hollow, echoing back-of-the-mouth word that closes off at the tip of the tongue. It has no crispness to it – no /k/ as in cool and coon; just the dull voiced stop /g/, and the resonant /n/ at the end making it sound much like a beat on a big drum.

Echoes: The above-mentioned oo words, such as goof and loon and kook and noodle perhaps, oh, and goose. Maybe go on. There’s no significant taste of good that I can find, but perhaps of gun. And lagoon, though that’s a very different image.

Etymology: It may be a shortened form of goney ‘booby, simpleton; albatross’, which has become gooney bird. Goney may be related to gawney ‘simpleton’; that seems connected with gane, noun, ‘ugly face’; that is likely related to gane, verb, ‘gape, yawn’, which is related to yawn. That’s a bit of a goose chase! But what we know for sure is that our modern use of it traces to Alice the Goon, a character in the comic strip Thimble Theatre, drawn by E.C. Segar and later named after its chiefest character: Popeye. Alice the Goon was a giant, not-exactly-human, thug-like being. You can see a couple of cartoons with her at A View from a Goon.

Collocations: It shows up in the comedy show The Goon Show (featuring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe; the name was inspired by Alice the Goon). The most common collocation in normal usage is goon squad. As Edward Banatt (@ArmaVirumque) has reminded me, there’s a line in “Fashion” by David Bowie that goes “We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town. Beep beep!” There’s also a novel by Jennifer Egan titled A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

Overtones: The word is unavoidably insulting (unless the person described knows it’s a reference to The Goon Show, and maybe even then) and carries something of an implication of low intelligence and perhaps subhuman nature. Goons are often seen as subservient lackeys, as in “Call off your goons.” And generally they’re huge and muscular.

Semantics: A goon is a stupid individual, probably violent, probably subservient. Thug is sometimes synonymous. For the rest, see above.

Where to find it: I suspect you’ll find it most often in crime fiction, but that’s just a guess on the basis of the types of people who are in such works – not just the goons but the people who are calling them goons as opposed to anything else. You wouldn’t find goon in a news article except in a quote, but it is the sort of word likely to be quoted. In other words, it’s provocative.

lockdown, lockup

All Friday, as Boston and surrounding towns and cities were under a “shelter in place” order, everyone on the news kept referring to it as a lockdown, or as being on lockdown.

Lockdown? As though Boston were some kind of lockup?

I used to live in Boston (or actually in Medford and then Somerville, but part of the same melted-together urbanity), and I can tell you it’s not a prison, even if it does have many institutions (among which a striking number of good universities and colleges). So it’s interesting to see a term applied there that came into being to refer to prisoners being confined to cells, as though citizens were at liberty only at discretion of their warders, the police.

But, then, what other term works? Curfew communicates an overnight confinement (and comes from French couvre-feu, ‘cover fire’). Stay-inside orders or similar terms – or the official shelter in place – may be descriptive, but lockdown simply has an impact the others lack. Lock: a word that conveys a constrained freezing of movement, and in sound moves from a flowing liquid to the hardest stop we have, /k/. It’s like a river locked up with ice. Down: in place, fixed. You can easily see a bolt sliding down to fix a door firmly in place, and the occupant of a cell (or house) being held confined like a butterfly with a cup clapped down over it.

And there lies the difference between lockdown and lockup (and their associated verbs lock down and lock up). What’s up? A hand help up to stop you. A wall thrown up in front of your face. The stoppage of motion: we run up to an obstacle and end up at a place when our time is up. We fill up a tank, of course, and we look up a word in the dictionary. Up in these senses conveys motion that culminates or is blocked (like a sink stopped up or your nose stuffed up) or simply unable to continue (because full, like a container – your nose stuffed up again). It can be a containment, as with something walled up. It can even be a constrainment that might yet be broken free of, as if you’re tied up today but your schedule is free tomorrow. So when you are locked up, you are in a containment or cessation of motion, a point of at least temporary culmination. Like how the sound in your mouth is abruptly contained with the /p/ in up. (Which is not to say that the sound is responsible for the meaning.)

And what’s down? Not something stopped in motion, but something fixed at a point, anchored. Held down, nailed down, tied down. Down actually has a few different isotopes: it can communicate a motion in direction without specific endpoint (settle down), or a motion that moves downward and comes to a fixed point (set down, tie down), or – in adjectives made with past participles – fixity in a place without specific reference to prior motion. If you are cooped up you may still be able to move within confines, but if you are pinned down you can’t move at all. Interestingly, the word down starts with a stop /d/ and then fades off with a nasal /n/ – not quite so iconic – but it does have that closing-in diphtong in the middle.

In short, the difference between up and down in these words is that up is like putting your hands forward and up, palms outward, as against a wall, and down is like driving your index finger downward to a stopping point. Locked up: nope, stop, not getting out, kept in. Locked down: staying put, going nowhere. Up is to stop as down is to done, perhaps.

Well, anyway, Bostonians were kept in but they have now been let out; they were confined but now they are free again. The suspect was hiding in a boat, but no one knew that; because he could have been anywhere, everyone in Boston was in the same boat. Once the police got a lock on his location, everyone else could unlock: his number was up, and they could let their guards down.

surreal, unreal, hyperreal

Today, as Boston and suburbs were under “lockdown” (more technically “shelter in place”), after one gun battle last night and another to come this evening, Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster (@KoryStamper) observed on Twitter that surreal was one of the top lookups, and that it “always spikes during times of inexplicable tragedy.” Robert Lane Greene (@lanegreene) noted that “This is awful, but not exactly droopy clocks hanging over trees,” and reckoned, “‘surreal’ is coming to mean ‘intense’, and we’ll have to explain the original meaning to art students one day.”

Or more likely art students are the only ones who will still know the original meaning. Kory Stamper speculated that “people who use it are connecting with the connotation of intense or dreamlike irrationality.” There may be some of that, but I suspect that it’s also because unreal somehow doesn’t seem quite right anymore. Unreal is a widely used word, but it’s also a little semantically bleached – it’s used for too many things that are not all that out of the normal – and it’s sometimes used with a strong positive tone: “The way that kid plays the guitar is unreal!” It feels wrong to carry that tone into seeing SWAT teams crawling over your neighbourhood.

The reason, I think, that all these things seem not simply awful, horrible, shocking, etc., but something beyond, is that they seem so much like things you normally see only on TV or movies. Jordan Fifer, @JordanFifer, tweeted, “No, the #Boston #manhunt is not ‘like something straight out of a movie.’ Movies are like something straight out of life.” Which is true in that movies are based on life, but they generally heighten things somewhat, and, more to the point, most people have no experience of such things from real life, only from movies and TV. For distrurbances of a slightly lesser order, people sometimes say it’s like something from the evening news. The evening news is from life, of course, but not from your life.

So when people are saying something is surreal in these circumstances, what they mean, I would say, is that it’s something they associate only with the subjunctive worlds of fiction and the dissociated worlds of the news. It is to reality as whiskey is to beer or brandy is to wine: an intense distillate of mainly the same basic materials. It is a rupture in their normal schema of life and they have not assimilated it fully yet. It doesn’t have an exactly dreamlike quality; it looks like real reality but going by a different script, one not associated with the reality one actually experiences. So it’s not exactly unreal, though it just doesn’t feel like real reality. But it’s not really actually surreal.

We don’t know precisely when and where unreal came into being, but an early sighting is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Hence horrible shadow, Unreal mock’ry hence.” Milton used it, too; here’s from Paradise Lost: “Th’ unreal, vast, unbounded deep Of horrible confusion.” I like T.S. Eliot’s “Unreal city, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,” from The Waste Land. All of these describe things that seem not quite part of reality – perhaps eerie, eldritch, or unrealized, or from art.

Surreal did in fact come from art. But a surreal thing is a thing that has the qualities of dreams. We know just when surreal and surrealism came into the language. The art movement Surrealism began in France around 1920, guided chiefly by André Breton; the term surréaliste appeared first in the preface to Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, written in 1903 but first performed in 1917. The word, had it been invented by an anglophone, would have been superreal; the sur means ‘on top of’ or ‘above’ and is the sanded-down French descendant of Latin super, which English borrows undigested. The surrealists wanted to go above the merely quotidian real; they sought to access the unconscious; they believed in the value of automatic writing and sought to unlock the associations of dreams and the unconscious without being suppressed by reason and use them to revolutionize the way of seeing and acting in the world.

So if you were to see a fish dance past your window with a blowpipe in its paws, that would be surreal. But most events now described by people on news shows as surreal are not, in the original (and, in the 1920s, strictly enforced) sense surreal. But is unreal the best word?

There is another word that comes to mind. It has also been given to us by a Frenchman (they do do this sort of thing well and by habit). It is hyperreal. This word is actually macaronic: it mixes bits from two languages. The real is the same real as in the others, from Latin realis, but the hyper is from Greek. And, as it happens, hyper comes from the same Indo-European root as Latin super, and means about the same thing: ‘above, beyond’. It has also come to be used to mean ‘extremely’. But where surreal aims beyond the real by going into the mind and the unconscious, hyperreal goes into the subjunctive world of the media, the representations of reality, the distillations, the representations of a reality as envisioned conditioned by representations that are envisioned conditioned by representations that are envisioned conditioned by… The hyperreal, as Jean Baudrillard explained in Simulations, is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.” It is a map that precedes the territory and survives the territory. In the world of semiotic reference, it is a hall of mirrors, it is turtles all the way down. Life looks like television, but television has not based itself on life. Our reality, as conditioned by these simulations, becomes them: “It is a hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” (Read that as many times as you need or want. Baudrillard’s philosophy is a form of drug, I think.)

It is tempting to say that this is what people were experiencing today: a sense that what they were seeing was not a reality, not a dream, but a version of life based on the simulations of life seen in TV and movies.

But no. It may have seemed hyperreal, but when real bullets fly, and people and property are really hurt, and real human minds feel real torsions and vortices and myriad motivations, this is not simulation. And it is not a dream. It’s real. Exceptional, yes, and difficult to assimilate as a result. Hard to believe. Comparable to a simulation. But inescapable in its actuality. In the end, no un, sur, super, hyper. Just real.

Incomplete sentences? Sure! Why not?

My latest article for is up, and it’s on the oft-maligned “sentence fragments”:

It’s totally okay to write incomplete sentences

A few readers have pointed out, as I rather thought someone might, that Shakespeare isn’t really the best example. This is true, but I needed an example that I could be confident readers would be familiar with and would not dismiss as too modern, and I also had a length limit. So there it is. The compromises always get you in the end.

You can also see this article on, and I don’t even know where else.