Prescriptivist or descriptivist?

I’m once again serving as a guest expert for a friend’s copyediting course. The students in these courses often ask me interesting questions about points of grammar. But this time, one of them asked me a broader question – or, rather, two of them:

Would you describe yourself as more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist?

What value do you see in each of these approaches to language? 

Since you’re here reading this, you probably know what the difference is between prescriptivist and descriptivist: a prescriptivist is someone who believes in imposition of authoritative prescriptions on language usage – fans of Lynne Truss, for instance, and avid users of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – while a descriptivist is someone who believes in observing and describing how people actually use language and not holding stern judgmental positions on it. Most modern dictionaries are descriptivist: they include a word if it’s in common use – including, for instance, impactful and misunderestimate – and they try to include all senses that are in common use. Some people believe they should be prescriptivist and forbid certain words and senses of words.

Since I have a graduate degree in linguistics, it’s no surprise that by disposition I’m a descriptivist. I love language in all its forms, and I observe how it’s used in each context. But that doesn’t mean I have an “anything goes” approach in my work as an editor. After all, I’m editing a text that is part of a specific genre and is meant to have a particular effect on a certain audience. I use my observations about how people use language (and how they think about it, which is another important issue) to decide what choices of words and phrasing will work best. 

Generally, of course, there’s plenty of latitude – more than some people think. But we can recognize that, for instance, “Go ask your mommy” will have one effect in a children’s book and quite another in a political speech. Your elementary school teachers may have said “‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word,” but aside from being obviously false (the sentence would be incoherent if it weren’t a word; it would be like saying “‘Zzblgt’ zzblgt a word”), all that does is position ain’t as a very powerful mark of “bad” English (informal, nonstandard, folksy – which is also taken as frank and honest). So in an annual report, if you’re giving forecasts on projects, you would have “It isn’t coming by January” (or even “It is not coming by January”), but you may make use of “It ain’t coming by January” as a momentary excursion in style if you want to convey a particular (refreshing, informal) frankness, which might position the ostensible writer (e.g., the CEO) as a “regular guy.”

So, on the one hand, the idea that you must not ever use ain’t just ain’t true. But on the other hand, we can thank such teachers and others like them for maintaining that opprobrium, which gives the word such power. Likewise, you can have a huge effect by slipping in a vulgarity in the right context, and vulgarities maintain their power by having some people constantly treat them as the most awful things.

In that way, we need prescriptions to give us rules to push against, and to know where we stand; anyway, we will always have them, because some people just love rules (regarding rule-seeking behaviour, see “That old bad rule-seeking behaviour”). Beyond that, it’s useful to have prescriptions just to help us decide what to do where – I regularly look things up in the Chicago Manual of Style, thereby saving me from having to justify my choices on my own account and ensuring that my choices will be consistent with choices in other similar books, which also helps make the reading go smoother.

But many of the things that prescriptivists focus on the most have little to do with consistency or clarity. In fact, that’s probably why they focus on them so much. Someone once said “School board politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” and the same goes with grammatical and lexical prescriptions: the ones that people get the most exercised about are precisely ones that make the least difference in clarity or effectiveness – which frees them up to function almost entirely as social shibboleths, signifiers of who is “the right sort.” Grammar peevery is just using the rule-seeking instinct to license social aggression while giving a plausible excuse. One of my favourite articles that I’ve written goes into this: “Why all English speakers worry about slipping up.”

So, in short, while many linguists are simply hard-set against prescriptivists, I have a more complex position. In some ways, I am by profession a prescriptivist: I enforce prescriptions within specific contexts – though those prescriptions are often made on the basis of descriptive observation. On the other hand, I don’t correct people’s grammar unless they’re paying me to do it, and I don’t think grammar is a useful indicator of character or intelligence; some very magnanimous and insightful people are not too tidy with grammar, and some people who have perfect grammar are obtuse and obnoxious. I don’t enjoy the presence of outspoken prescriptivists, but I’m sure we will always have them; and they fill a role, modelling a specific idea of propriety that we can choose to flaunt or flout as we fancy.


“We’re sorry. Wait times are longer than usual. Please thulge.”

Pause. Long pause. Very long pause. Go-get-yourself-something pause.

“Thank you for thulging with us. How may we help you?”

OK, I agree, it’s not likely to catch on. In fact, it, uh, de-caught-on, or however you want to put it for something that has been left by the wayside. Thulge was a verb in English back when English was “English? … I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that name; do you have a reservation?” But on its way to fame, fortune, hegemony, and so on, it left a number of little words by the wayside, and this is one of them.

Or else it has just been patiently thulging its turn.

You get what it means, right? It has an intransitive sense – per the Oxford English Dictionary, “To be patient, have patience, bear or put up with” – and a transitive sense – “To wait for.” It seems to be related to an Old English root meaning ‘patient’. It shows up, for instance, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the original, not the movie version): “Þenne he þulged with hir þrepe, & þoled hir to speke, & ho … bede hit hym swyþe.” (In case you don’t know, in the English of the time – in this case circa 1400 – þ was a letter for a sound that has since been spelled th because of technology, specifically movable type imported from Europe that didn’t have þ.)

The OED does not have any citations since Sir Gawain.

Thulge does have the advantage of concision, as well as not having any conflicting other senses. “Please be patient with us” has a certain tone; “Please bear with us” has another tone; and I think “Please thulge us” or “Please thulge with us” would have yet another tone. We tend to be influenced in our interpretation of words by other words they sound like, and thulge brings, on the one hand, the same beginning as thump, thuck, thud, and similar dramatic (and generally onomatopoeic) words, and on the other hand the same ending as indulge, divulge, and bulge. So it might have some sense of being something dramatic and perhaps a bit shady that you’re being let in on. Or it might just feel like you’re digging a hole into your spare time.

Or, not being familiar with the word and not being able to guess from context, a person might guess something completely different. I mean, if you saw this word with no context, what would you think?

No, seriously. Tell me. I want to know. It’s OK – I’ll thulge.


54 has always seemed to me a somehow oddly significant number. It’s not my favourite multiple of nine by any means (it has a good run with 27, 36, and 45, and 72 is pretty nice, but I’ve always been iffy on 81, 18, and 54), but still, they all have some force, and… what are its other associations?

Well, there’s Studio 54, for one. I wasn’t in New York for the glam disco club’s heyday, and I would have been too young (and poor and unknown) to go if I had been, but even in distant Alberta I heard of it. And anyway, I have been there – when it was back to the building’s original role as a theatre. Aina and I saw Cabaret there with Brooke Shields. (I can’t remember now how we managed to get tickets when we were in town, but I’m sure it had to do with dedication to the task on Aina’s part.)

There’s also the Canadian band 54•40, who came out with (among many others) the song “Walk in Line.” They’re named after the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight!” from the Oregon boundary dispute of the 1840s, when some Americans wanted to push the US border west of the Rockies up to 54°40′north – which, if you don’t know, is just north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and just below the very southern tip of the panhandle of Alaska (which was owned by Russia at the time); it’s also a bit farther north than Edmonton, Alberta.

And then there’s this bottle that I’ve seen in liquor stores for I don’t know how many years, though not as often recently.

Stroh’s “54” spiced rum. So named because it’s 54% alcohol. I had never had it, but I decided, since I am now reaching 54 years of age, that I would buy it and see how it is. I looked on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario app and discovered that there was only one bottle for sale in the whole of downtown Toronto. I went to the store that was supposed to have it, and no one had bought it yet. I scanned the run section and found the bottle on the shelf, sitting there, just waiting for me; it looked lonely and hopeful. I brought it up to the cash, and the woman who rang it through informed me, as I put it in my bag, that they weren’t going to be ordering any more of it in that store.

Well. Just in time, I guess. I will decide that it was meant to be. I, too, will not be 54 any more after this one time. And it remains to be seen whether the bottle will last longer than my current age.

By the way, it tastes exactly as I expected (which is like most other spiced rums, but with a bit more alcohol). On the other hand, being 54 years old is weird so far. It feels normal, but my whole life I’d heard it was old. Oh well – clearly that’s not true.

bothsides, bothsidesing, bothsidesism

You’re probably familiar with bothsidesism, the activity of which is bothsidesing, which is when you bothsides something. It’s a common activity in the news media. 

The idea is that as a journalist, you need to have regard for the truth, which means that you need to be objective, which means that you need to be unbiased, which means that you need to be balanced, which means that you need to present both sides of an issue. The result is an approach whereby for any issue, you strive to present two sides equally, which leads to this sort of thing:

In Coyote-Road Runner Dispute, Negative Attitudes on Both Sides

Jurassic Park Opening Marred by Violence from Both Dinosaurs and Humans

News magazine shows will eagerly invite guests to face off from both sides of a dispute, even if the dispute is about something that 98% of researchers in a field consider settled fact. Well, it beats taking a position – no risk of being wrong if you don’t say anything’s right!

I think you can guess what I think of bothsidesism. Indeed, anyone who uses the word is sure to have the same view. It’s a deprecatory term. The only dispute among those who use it is whether it should be open (both sidesism), hyphenated (both-sides-ism or both-sidesism), or closed (bothsidesism). But since the trend in English is for any new compound word over time to progress to closed form (e.g., from e-mail to email), and since I prefer the closed form, and since this is my blog, I’m not inviting arguments on it. You can handle it as you wish; I’m handling it as I wish. In the end (and probably sooner), my preference will most likely prevail.

(There are, by the way, no two sides as to whether these are words. They’re already in use as words by many people, and their meanings are established and not problematic. Conversions of this kind are normal in English. The presence or absence of the verb bothsides in a dictionary does not decide whether it’s a word any more than the presence or absence of a bird in a field guide decides whether the bird is real.)

Why do I dislike bothsidesism so much? Do I have something against responsible journalism? I do not, which is why I dislike bothsidesism so much. Let me go over my reasons.

It may not be representative.

Let’s say there are two parties running in an election, and one of them gets 10% of the vote, and the other gets 90% of the vote. It wouldn’t be reasonable to give each of them half the seats just because there are two of them, would it? (No, it would not. I know that parties can sometimes win a majority of seats with a minority of the vote, and that sometimes the party that gets the most votes does not win. I do not endorse such outcomes.)

Likewise, if you have an issue where 98% of those with some claim to authority in the field agree, but there are a few contrarians taking an opposing position (one that, surely by coincidence, may be useful to some people with a lot of power and money), it may seem like balance to invite one person to speak for the 98% and another to speak for the 2%. I don’t know why it may seem like balance, but I keep seeing it. Giving half the time to someone who speaks for only 2% (and who, therefore, probably has at best a 1 in 50 chance of being right) is not unbiased; it’s strongly biased in favour of the one who’s getting time well out of proportion to the voices they represent. It’s informational gerrymandering.

The sides may not be equally viable.

I don’t know why this needs to be pointed out, but apparently it does. I’m going to get into this in more detail further below, but let’s set it down here. There are too many debates that are still being had in some quarters (some of them greatly aided by “balanced” news coverage) where, frankly, one side is completely out to lunch and off the planet. 

The fact that some people believe outlandish things does not make them inlandish. And every time some crank makes an attention-getting claim, you don’t need to give them the air time to make it and beleaguer some decent sensible person responding to it. Yes, it’s true, some great scientific insights sounded like crankery at first, but the vast majority of things that sound like crankery are indeed crankery. The fact that you often have to be a bit unreasonable to make bold progress doesn’t mean that every unreasonable person is making bold progress. Most of them are just unpleasant people you should not encourage.

And just because the two sides of a dispute are saying negative things about each other doesn’t mean both sides are equally wrong or equally right. If one person shouts a racial epithet at another person, and the other person shouts a swearword back, you might say they have both used offensive language, but if you can’t tell the difference between the two, you have some learning to do. The coyote and the roadrunner may taunt each other, but the roadrunner isn’t trying to eat the coyote. The technical term here is “false equivalence.” There’s usually also some argumentum ad passionem going with it.

It may not be just yes and no.

Bothsidesism tends to present things in two-value debate format. But there are plenty of topics where it’s nowhere near as simple as that. To use a nonpolitical example, in the world of running there is a question of whether it’s better to do more intense training over shorter distances or more moderate training over longer distances. But in reality, few runners who are training for races do all of one and none of the other; most of them will do some kind of mix. And with each option, there’s also the question of how much distance and how much intensity. It’s not like a light switch. 

To move over to a food example: Do you prefer your steak rare or well done? Or, like many people, something in between? 

Or… do you not prefer steak at all?

There may be more than two sides.

We may be used to Pepsi versus Coke and McDonald’s versus Burger King, but given a choice, I’d rather have sushi and a glass of Japanese lager (or, if at lunch, green tea). In many issues that are bothsidesed, the effect is to shut down the real consideration of the issue. If you can limit attention to a simple binary, all the other possibilities don’t even get air time.

Sometimes this is done deliberately, to present a simple narrative with an implied correct side (so much for impartiality, but we knew that, didn’t we). A news magazine show may get a calm, authoritative expert and an obvious nutcase to debate an issue, for instance. It’s like what designers in corporate environments often do: present the choice that they prefer, along with another option that no sensible person would ever go with. But eventually everyone who does this learns how many decision-makers are not sensible.

Part of it is that presenting a choice legitimizes it. If someone says “What kind of sushi would you like – salmon or fugu?” and you don’t know that eating fugu brings a significant risk of death from neurotoxins, you might be motivated to try the one you haven’t had before. More to the point, I have more than once seen a political candidate known (by those who knew) to be an utter disaster choice defeat a competent candidate because most voters didn’t know what an awful mess the person was, and the news media gave the person equal time and didn’t mention the person’s record so as not to seem biased. (And once support started to grow because of this legitimization, the news had another reason to treat the person as legitimate…)

But you need to get all the ideas out there and let people judge, right? Sunlight is the best disinfectant! In the marketplace of ideas, the truth will win!

Ha. I don’t know why anyone who has seen people buy anything would think that the best choice always prevails in a free marketplace. Good marketing can sell a lot of bad rubbish, and people buy things for reasons unrelated to the actual function of what they’re buying. Just look at the kinds of cars and trucks some people buy – and what they actually use them for.

Also consider that harmful but addictive substances can sell very well. Think about the kinds of things people would sell if they weren’t prevented from it. Before government food inspection, food poisoning was a lot more common. And have you seen the kinds of “medicines” that were being sold a century and a half ago? Any safe marketplace is regulated.

However, all of those analogies count for even less than you might think, because…

Facts are not consumer goods.

You may have had the experience of telling someone something that you know to be true, only to get the reply “I’m not buying it.” Well, my friends, facts are not for sale. It doesn’t matter if you’re “not buying” the idea of gravity; if you step off a balcony it will act on you free of charge. Telling tourists in the Rocky Mountains that bears are dangerous wild animals is not like advertising a restaurant, and you don’t need signs about how bears are cuddly and deserving of food placed “for balance” next to the ones telling you that they can kill you.

It is true that some of the things that get bothsidesed are not settled fact or even close. They can be complex matters with difficult-to-predict outcomes. But they are almost never like, say, buying toasters, where I buy the one I want, you buy the one you want, and we live with our own choices. Subjects of bothsidesing are generally matters of public policy, and the choice will affect all of us – and, very importantly, will affect people who didn’t want the choice they got stuck with. Imagine if you had to buy whichever toaster most people wanted to buy that day. Suddenly instead of a $30 one that’s basic but sturdy and works predictably, you’re having to buy a stylish $400 one that burns your toast half the time and underdoes it the other half – and you can’t take it back and you can’t get another one for several years. Oh – you were actually in the store to buy a vacuum cleaner? Too bad. Enjoy your toaster.

And even if you don’t have to “buy” a bad idea – even if it doesn’t win the election, say – that doesn’t mean it won’t affect you. The secondhand smoke of someone else’s mental tire fire can still make it hard for you to breathe. Giving air time to vicious groups can help them recruit and can encourage others to act viciously. (I say a lot more about the vicious effects of giving “equal time” to vicious positions in my article on censorcenser, and censure.)

What? You don’t want to appear biased on a matter that is clearly controversial? You’re afraid of compromising your objectivity? Well…

Objectivity has a pro-truth bias.

This, too, shouldn’t have to be said, but some people don’t seem to know it. In the world, there are some things that reliably correspond with observable reality, and it’s senseless to bothsides them. For example, if you hold an egg at arm’s length above a tile floor and let go of it, it will almost certainly fall to the floor and break messily; no debate is required. For another example, if you implement a public health measure that has repeatedly been shown to reduce the number of people who get sick or die of some identifiable cause – for example, appropriate testing for the public water supply – you can count on fewer people getting sick and dying. If you want to report the truth as objectively as possible, you need to say this, because it’s what’s consistent with objective reality. Balance doesn’t mean not tilting towards the preponderance of evidence; that’s putting your thumb on the scale, biasing in favour of the side that’s not supported by observed reality. 

But don’t think you can just dump facts on people and consider your job done. It’s a fact that grizzly bears like to eat berries. It’s a fact that brown bears don’t eat people. It’s a fact that black bears avoid people when they can. It’s a fact that bears have fur that feels nice if you run your hand on it. But the reality is, if you try to feed some berries to a grizzly so you can pet it, you’re going to have a very bad day. 

It’s true that you can’t ever present absolutely all the facts. I noticed, when I was studying linguistics, that about half of each course was just unlearning oversimplifications I had learned in a previous course. The rest of life is like that, too: learning is a gradual process of building understanding. At one time you learn 2 + 2 = 4; later, you learn that sometimes when you see 2 it’s really 2.4 rounded down, and sometimes when you see 5 it’s really 4.8 rounded up, so 2 + 2 = 5 for large values of 2 and small values of 5. But when you are presenting information, if your job is to help people understand reality, your job is to present facts in such a way, and with sufficient context, that the people you are presenting them to will be most likely to understand the truth as reliably as they can.

There’s no guarantee they’ll get it, to be sure. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. But you also shouldn’t present a horse one bucket of water and one bucket of poison just to be “unbiased” so the horse can “consider all the options.” Not even if the manufacturers of horse poison are buying ads on your channel.


We know what a haruspex is, right? Well, if you don’t, you can read my word tasting note on it (from 2009), but in short it’s someone who does divination by reading entrails. They sacrifice a bird or sheep or other critter, cut it open, and look at its guts, and somehow, by seeing the state of them, make determinations about something in the future: the weather, someone’s health, or some similar outcome.

And we know what harumph is, right? Originally it’s onomatopoeia for clearing the throat, but in established usage it is, as Wiktionary puts it, “an expression of disdain, disbelief, protest, or dismissal.” It’s most typically associated with stodgy old people.

Put them together and we get harumphspex: someone who makes harumphing statements about the future. Not just “Kids these days!” and “Get off my lawn!” but prescriptions for the proper education of the youth – which is to say, the education of the youth in the things the harumphspex thinks proper. 

Harumphspices (that’s the plural of harumphspex, by analogy with haruspices, and the spices is said not like “spices” but like “spissies”) believe that impressionable young minds need to be challenged by being taught the prejudices that their grandparents learned in their youth. They believe that it is crucial that children exposed to “modern,” “liberal” ideas also get the benefit of the “full spectrum” of viewpoints – though if the children are in fact being exposed principally to the same ideas the harumphspices grew up with, you will not see them insisting on bringing in “modern,” “liberal” ideas for the sake of exposure to the full spectrum. 

And of course along with these prescriptions are predictions: the degradation and ultimate destruction of society if their dire warnings are not heeded. But they get their view of the future not from the entrails of animals but from their own disgruntlements. They do not want to make sacrifices, so they just read their own gut feelings, the rumblings in their bellies, which are in reality a borborygmus caused by a dwindling ability to stomach anything new. 

We hear their erumpent harumphing quite often in the world of words; few things are subject to such petulant jeremiads as the supposed decline of grammar into barbarism. But society has many aspects, changing at various speeds, so harumphspices have ample avenues to practice their specious harumphspicy. They raise their noses and proclaim they smell the air of decay… but it’s always just the miasmal effusions of their own dyspepsia.


“Oh, get out.”

I stood in front of a door. It was not in a wall. It was in an open outdoor plaza. It was free-standing, supported by simple braces on its frame. You could open it and walk through it, or you could walk around it with equal effect. 

But that was not the cause of my comment. I was looking at the sign in front of it. There, standing independently on a post, was a large arrow, with the words “THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS.”

I turned to the artist: Marcus Brattle, my former mentee, now 24 years old and an art school graduate, and apparently no less fond of taking the piss than he ever was.

“It’s been done,” I said.

“Not this way it hasn’t!” he replied with a grin. “I’ve taken Barnum’s misdirection and made it a door not out of a building but into a Cage… John Cage!”

I walked around it to view it edge-on. “Looks the same on the other side,” I said. In fact, it had an identical sign on that side too.

“But it’s like Cage’s four minutes thirty-three seconds,” Marcus said. “It’s the door frame itself that frames perception. Wait…” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. As he tapped and scrolled on it, he said, “I got my inspiration from this article in The Mark Twain Annual by, uh,” he read off the screen, “Christine Brenner Dixon. Here!” He handed me the phone and I read the beginning of the abstract:

When P.T. Barnum needed to move dawdling spectators out of his museum, he posted signs over the exits that read, “This Way to the Egress.” Standing suddenly on the street, Barnum’s gullible patrons were left with two choices: pay for reentry or choose to see the world as the grand spectacle, the ultimate humbug.

“I see,” I said. “From huckster to Huxley.”

The Doors of Perception!” Marcus said. (He always was an especially sharp instrument – that’s why he was able to be so exquisitely annoying at will.) He started singing a line from The Doors: “Break on through to the other side! Break on through to the other side!” He paused. “But we digress.”

“Well, then,” said I, walking back around to his side of the door, “let us regress.”

“When I was a child,” Marcus said, “I thought an egress was something like an egret or a tigress. Or maybe a lepress. Like Kilimanjaro.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I would have thought you’d have been an early fan of P.T. Barnum.”

“I’m not the one who went to the school that was halfway founded by him,” Marcus said with a smirk. He knew I went to Tufts University and he knew that Barnum was a major early benefactor and even has a building named after him there – and its mascot (and namesake of its sports teams) is Jumbo, Barnum’s famous elephant.

“Well,” I said, “compared with him, or with a tigress, this barely seems to transgress.”

Marcus raised a finger. “I have another work in progress. It should be ready in time for the congress. It will be a door within a door within a door within a door… a sort of…” I laughed and joined him as he said “infinite egression!”

“Well,” I said, “that really is as funny as all get out.”

“Oh, it’s not just clever, though,” Marcus said. “It’s a cleaver. It divides and joins at the same time.”

“E pluribus unum?” I said, trusting Marcus would know that the e in egress is the same as the one in that phrase on American coins, and that the motto means “Out of many, one.”

“One ingredient, many egredients,” Marcus said. “Or vice versa.” Bonus points for that: an egredient is something that goes out, just as an ingredient is something that goes in (as in into a recipe).

“Well, I hope you can see it through,” I said, “and I hope the viewers can see through it. Or not.”

“And now,” Marcus said, “let me see you through.” He stepped up, opened the door, and gestured for me to proceed.

I remembered Marcus’s many practical jokes of his younger years. “I think I’ll pass,” I said.

“I think you’ll pass through,” Marcus said. “Even if I have to lift the door and pass it around you.” He started to grab the frame as if to move it.

“Oh, no, don’t make the effort,” I said. I stepped forward and boldly went through the doorway. “I don’t want to be needlessly passive-egressive.”

Editors’ anthems

A few days ago, Mark Allen of That Word Chat tweeted a request for an international editors’ anthem. So of course I made one.

No I didn’t. I made two. Because why not.

I decided that it should use a well-known existing tune, because otherwise it wouldn’t catch on. It’s not as though I can legislate it. And I decided that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” from the last movement of his ninth symphony, would work well. 

But I happen also to be fond of Parry’s “Jerusalem,” a setting of a poem by William Blake, and I couldn’t resist doing something on that too. Just as a back-up, you know. The words are a bit unusual, but it’s not exactly the only anthem to phrase itself as a series of questions (looking at you, “Star-Spangled Banner”). I originally wrote the second verse in “we” and “us” terms, but really, editing is a one-person-at-a-time job, so I switched it to “I” and “me” – which matches the original more closely anyway.

I would have posted them sooner, but of course I had to record them so you could sing along, and it was a few days before I had the chance. If you don’t like the sound of my voice (with tons of studio effects), just sing louder to drown me out.

Apologies for the key of the Beethoven one – it’s a bit high, I think. But that’s Beethoven’s fault.

Ode to Editing

(to the tune of “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven)

Joyful, joyful, we will edit,
Making language clear and clean,
Seeking virtue more than credit,
Helping you say what you mean.
We work magic with words and grammar,
Polishing sense and adding style,
Weaving gravitas and glamour,
Giving wisdom with a smile.

If you write it, we will read it,
Watching closely what you say,
Making fixes where you need it,
Working hard to earn our pay:
Paraphrasing, trimming and moving,
By paragraph and line by line,
Sense and sentences improving
So your words will truly shine!

The Manuscript

(to the tune of “Jerusalem” by Parry)

And did these hands, in limited time,
Trim twenty thousand words to five,
And did they fix a dodgy rhyme,
And did they keep weak prose alive,
And did the grammar and the words
Show marks of art and learnèd crafts,
And was a manuscript turned to gold
From all those dark and leaden drafts?

Bring me my pen, my laptop too,
Send me an email with the file,
Bring me a mug – no, bring me two –
Bring me my manual of style!
I will not cease from mental work,
My wit and wisdom still unbowed,
Till I have fully edited
Your manuscript to make you proud!

Backing track of “And Did Those Feet” is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Creator: Richard MS Irwin,


What’s a sillykin? Is it an inane family member? No… well, it might be, but that’s not what the kin part is. A sillykin is any sort of fool or simpleton. It can be a term of endearment or mild reproach, when uttered towards a family member or friend (or perhaps paramour), but it can also be about as flatting as nitwit.

The -kin, in this case, is a diminutive suffix. It’s related to German -chen, as in Liebchen and Mädchen and Gretchen. It shows up in English words such as munchkin and bumpkin and gherkin. And you know silly, of course: it comes from the same Germanic root as modern German selig, ‘blessed’; the original sense in English was also ‘blessed’, but it shifted over time through ‘innocent’ and ‘naïve’ to ‘inane’. And you could say that in a way it has come full circle (or perhaps never fully went away from its origins), since a sillykin is the sort of person of whom you might say “Well, bless his little heart.”

The history of its construction also means that sillykin isn’t said like “silly kin.” The suffix is typically destressed to the point of neutralization (which, come to think of it, is what some of us are trying to achieve when we drink ourselves into sillykins), and the second vowel is also reduced, so that it’s more like “sillikin” or “sillakin” or “sillikan.”

We tend to have old-fashioned ideas about what a fool or simpleton might be: some buffoon in farcical clothing making obvious mistakes in the management of horses, for example. But in the modern era, a sillykin could be some guy sitting at his computer, thinking himself very smart but making something with very obvious security flaws – such as an “anonymous free speech” platform that’s easily hacked so the full identifying details of everyone on it can be downloaded – or perhaps thinking that he’s invented the convenience store of the future when he’s just re-created the automat, or thinking that the solution to traffic problems is a system that, among other things, moves only one car at a time and requires an elevator to get the car into and out of it. And that is why they call all those guys the Sillykin Valley.

What? Silicon Valley? Are you sure? They sound the same, you know…


Hey, why say “governor election” or “election for governor” when you can say “gubernatorial election,” am I right?

Of course, most of us don’t say “gubernatorial election” or “gubernatorial” anything else, but most of us aren’t in the news business or the writing-about-politics business, where the feedback seems to lead to genre-specific words that are meant to sound somehow more knowledgeable (cf. temblor and pontiff). This is a word that has a fancy machine sound to it, and its six syllables – two dactyls, like two long middle fingers aimed at each other – are impressive too. And, just incidentally, America’s favourite ex-robot (OK, he just played one in the movies) was sometimes styled the Gubernator (well, and sometimes the Governator).

On the other hand, gubernatorial also has that somewhat less-than-dignified sound of goober (to say nothing of booger). At least governor can be shortened to gov; imagine if it had to be gub – what a sound of a gobstopper, or perhaps a mouth submerged and drowning (gub, gub, gub). But if governor had retained its Latin form, that’s what it would have been, because the Latin original is gubernator, from which we get this strictly classical adjective.

And how did gubernator become governor? In the incessant production-response-and-revision cycle of speech, as it passed through Old French, the -nator was worn down to -neur, which became Middle English -nour and our modern -nor; and the [b] sound just softened over time to [v], a sound shift that won’t surprise anyone who speaks Spanish, in which the two sounds are treated as two versions of the same sound (which is why, for instance, the adjective from Havana is habanero). The same shift happened in the shimmy from Latin to French.

Oh, but don’t worry about our abilities to govern our tongues. It has ever been thus: consonants often go over time from stop to fricative, as in from [b] to [v], and even more often from voiceless to voiced, as in [k] to [g].* Which is another thing that has happened to this word. 

Because gubernator didn’t spring fully formed from the brow of Minerva or whoever. It came from Greek κυβερνήτης, kubernḗtēs, ‘steersman, pilot, guide’. But the interesting thing is that it came over in an organic, speech-based way; it didn’t get borrowed into Latin in the way many Greek words did: the κ didn’t become Latin c, and the υ wasn’t rendered in Latin as y, as was so typically the case. 

What that meant, though, was that when the Greek root was borrowed directly into English in 1948 to refer to feedback systems of communication and control, it could be borrowed using the usual Latin-styled transliteration and wouldn’t look like its Latinate descendant. In fact, since cybernetics has also had its pronunciation governed by English practices, you can’t even notice that it’s from the same root as gubernatorial. There’s no governetics and no cybernatorial.

Well, not yet, anyway. But once Skynet takes over our politics…

* They can also go in the other direction about as easily.


Would you ever squid your family?

How about your family photos?

OK, not squid, not really. Cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish isn’t quite snugglebunny, is it? But there’s something classy about it, you know… [touches earpiece] Wait, I’m just being told that no, there’s not.

But oh, yes, there is. You know that classic golden-brown tone of some old photographs? What’s called sepia?

Well. I was just making supper tonight, and, as one may from time to time, I was using pasta with squid ink colouring. And on the front of the package, I noticed that, along with a photo of a tentacled sea creature on a bed of parsley, it said “tagliatelle con nero do seppia.”

Huh. Seppia

I turned over the package. It gave the ingredients in several languages. “Durum wheat semolina with squid ink,” it said. And in German, “Hartweizengriess mit Sepia-Tinte.”


So I looked it up. And here’s the deal. Cephalopods – octopus, squid, cuttlefish – produce ink, as you probably know. That ink has been historically used not just for the obvious purpose of colouring pasta but also, strangely enough, for drawing and writing. Squid ink, as seen in pasta, is a blueish black, often with green tinges; cuttlefish ink, the more popular kind for art, tends towards a rich brownish black. In both cases, the original cephalopod uses the ink as a means of escaping. And in pasta as in photography, the original cephalopod has escaped.

In pasta, it has escaped because squid ink is not cuttlefish ink and yet they say it is. Sepia (or, in Italian, seppia) is cuttlefish; it comes from Latin, which got it from Greek, basically unaltered, meaning the same critter. But my pasta is evidently coloured with squid ink; you can see the bluish-green tint, rather than the brownish tint of cuttlefish ink. Yet the Italians and Germans call it sepia ink nonetheless. And if they are right, then English – which, as on my pasta package, calls it squid ink – is wrong. Either way, someone has a disconnect between ink producer and ink name.

In photography, the cephalopod has escaped because although the photographs have the same kind of brownish-black tint as you see in drawings made with actual sepia ink, they are not actually made with ink from cuttlefish. Rather, it’s called sepia just because it looks about the same as cuttlefish ink. In actuality, the silver in the print has been converted to silver sulfide, which, aside from having a warmer look, is more stable and lasts longer.

And, of course, in photos such as the ones I have here, the tint isn’t ink at all; it’s just a tinge in the image presented by your computer screen. The squid has quit town; the cuttlefish has scuttled away.

So there you have it. And there you have my lovely pasta dinner, which I cooked for my lovely wife.