Word of the day: fourgy

We haven't had a word of the day for a while, so I thought I would remedy that with 'fourgy' – a portmanteau of 'four' and, um, 'orgy'. I'm sure you can work out what it means.

I came across this word in Douglas Coupland's novel JPod (published 2006, and pictured right), but I doubt whether it has its origins here. IMDb lists the 2005 film Wicked Fourgy of Whorror, for example. I'm not sure I even want to know.

Googling 'fourgy' also throws up the word 'twenty-fourgy', which isn't as exciting as you might imagine – it's actually an orgy of watching TV series 24. I can relate to that.

On another note, this will probably be my last post before Christmas so season's greetings and all that. And now that I have been entrusted with Apus's bulging 'Black Museum' file I need never fear running out of blog material again...

Life outside the engine room

After more than 20 years in the engine room my escape plans are coming to fruition so within a few weeks JD will be labouring on with a new fellow stoker – though I hope to continue submitting noteworthy points from my seaside hideaway.

One of the more precious artefacts I'll be leaving in JD's care is a thick file entitled the black museum, packed with some of the more noteworthy howlers produced by our charges over the past couple of decades. No doubt JD will trawl through them for your delectation, but while the file's on my desk, here are a few examples, picked at random:

  • "it will in each case be a question of fact as in each case no two cases will be the same"
  • "a street lighting upright" (lamp post?)
  • "fire or heat turns this chemical into a lethal gas which causes severe irritation to skin and eyes" (leaving an uncomfortable corpse?)
  • "dangerously unsafe vehicles"
  • "underground motorway toll tunnels"
  • "sloping rear ramps"
  • "new and previously unseen problems"
  • "facilitates easy mounting"
  • "rear entry doors at the back of the vehicle"
  • "an unfair bias"
  • "a database of information"
  • "over the years he's built up his business rapidly"
  • "dimensionally precluded" (won't fit?)
  • "the judge commented that that was not the only problem that that company had had"
  • "a secret police undercover operation"

Headline: Mum left tot in car to booze

Ambiguous headline of the day goes to today's Daily Mirror with:

Mum left tot in car to booze

When I read this I initially thought the tot was left to booze (in the car), when in fact the mum went boozing while the tot was just left.

Nice headline words too: 'tot' and 'booze'. When was the last time you saw the word 'tot' outside a tabloid?

The Mirror's web version of the story

Mr MacMaster and the sun lounger

Surprised by a recent story in free London paper Metro. Here's the relevant bit:

A businessman who was hit on the neck by a sun lounger blown off a pub roof was awarded £1million damages yesterday.

Mr MacMaster was standing outside the Crown in Romford, Essex, when the accident happened on a windy day in October 2002. The neck injury was 'much more severe than one would expect' and left him in chronic pain, the High Court was told.

"Much more severe than one would expect"? He was hit on the neck by a sun lounger blown off a roof; there's not much more severe than 'instant death'.

Incidentally, kudos to Metro for its punning headline: "Pub's ill wind costs it £1m". However the paper's online version of the story includes neither the pun nor the above quote...

Drinking: hazardous to health

Production desk Christmas: 2

Well, having just finished a delightful day of confusion and extra work caused by our charges failing to do their jobs thoroughly (and this, mark you, on an annual product we publish over the Christmas holiday) I can only say that shooting would be too good for them.

Christmas? Bah humbug, says I.

A production desk Christmas

The pre-Christmas period is one of the busiest and most stressful for us on our magazine. Not only do we have a bumper Christmas issue to prepare but we work on the two following issues at the same time (no one wants to come in between Christmas and New Year, after all).

The production desk is a mess of layouts, proofs, plans and charts, and the smallest mistake can lead to much confusion. Earlier today there was a great example of the effect this can have on the best of us when I noticed that our production editor, who is normally a calm, reasonable person, was looking a little harassed.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked him.

"Yes. Line up some journalists against a wall and shoot them for me," he replied, before stalking off.

Glad to see we're all getting into the Christmas spirit...

Independent: Pratchett blooper

Bit of a blooper today in an Independent story on novelist Terry Pratchett. Here's the passage in question – the italics are The Independent's own.

[Pratchett] has written a number of specifically children's books, including Truckers in 1989, which became the first of its kind to appear in British adult fiction bestseller lists.

Two others, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents won the prestigious Carnegie medal for children's fiction in 2001.

I'm not a particular Pratchett fan (unlike Apus) so hadn't heard of the books in question – but winning the Carnegie with two books in one year? That, the strange, unitalicised 'his', and the missing comma after 'Rodents' all rang my subbing alarm bells.

You guessed it: Pratchett actually won the Carnegie with one novel, called The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Someone – probably a sub – compounded the italicising error by adding 'Two others' to the start of the sentence. And not checking on Amazon.

(At the time of writing this post, the same mistake can be seen (minus italics) on the Independent's online version of the Pratchett story.)

To float a balloon for something

Has anyone come across the expression 'to float a balloon for' something? It appeared in some copy recently and was a new one on me.

Judging by the context, it seems to mean something similar to 'to fly a kite for' something, ie express support (not to be confused with 'go fly a kite', a euphemism for 'go away'). But 'fly a kite for' isn't an expression I would personally use either, and I don't think it is that common.

Googling just gets lots of pages about literal balloons and kites, rather than metaphorical ones. And there's nothing relevant in my Concise OED or limited reference library – time to invest in some new books perhaps?

It's not a flange, it's a congress!

Spotted (not by me, I confess) in an Amazon book review:

In this marvelous book Smuts draws from years of painstaking field research in which she followed around a flange of chacma baboons in the Mateti Game Park in Zimbabwe. Her findings inspired the plot of When Harry Met Sally.

Fair enough, and if the film link's true a nice bit of trivia. But here's another bit of trivia: the collective noun for baboons is a congress. A flange of baboons was invented by scriptwriters on the seminal British TV comedy show Not The Nine O'Clock News for a classic sketch, 'Gerald the Gorilla' (yes, really). A fine case of fiction trying to become fact?

Gerald would have approved.

Isn't the net wondrous – I googled Not The Nine o'Clock News and found a youtube video on the Gerald sketch. Enjoy!


A brief cry of anguish: cost-negative

JD just called me over to share a chortle at a suit's quote: "This policy will be cost-negative." It's a direct quote so he (and I) left well alone. But I had a brief fantasy of beaming in to grab the source of the quote by the ears to ask him: "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST SAY 'THIS POLICY WILL SAVE MONEY', YOU POMPOUS TWIT?"

I feel better now.

Pair of footwear

I was doing some Christmas shopping yesterday when I noticed a sign in a shoe shop promising a "free gift with every pair of footwear".

I know what this means, but 'footwear' isn't a countable noun, so a pair of footwear – no way. What would be a good alternative?

'Free gift with every pair of shoes' – but the shop might also sell boots.

'Free gift with every purchase' – but the shop might sell accessories (such as shoe polish) which don't come with a gift.

'Free gift with all footwear'. I think this could be a winner. After all, no one is going to buy a single shoe – are they? Or would someone buying a pair of shoes (for example) try to claim a pair of gifts?

On another note, I am no longer an itinerant sub so will soon be able to dig out my digital camera and start posting photos of offending signs such as this one. In the meantime here is a generic photo of a 'pair of footwear':

Hey bro, is this the 17th century?

Thirty years ago as a young motorcyclist with more hair and less avoirdupois than is currently the case, I followed the fashion of calling close male friends bro; a term we copied from American magazines and films. It sounded horribly dated for some years but now a new generation of youngsters seems to have adopted it.

We thought it was up to the minute; so no doubt do they. In fact I'm indebted to a colleague with a passion for social history who has found the term being used as far back the early 17th century.

I bet they thought they were being cool too.

Racer mag and Europeans

On our publication, Apus and I make sure our writers don't use phrases such as 'the UK and Europe' – after all, the UK is part of Europe. Instead, we prefer them to use 'the UK and mainland Europe' or similar.

Flicking through Racer, which is a UK magazine devoted to the world of remote control cars, I was amused to see that a certain event on the Continent was described as accessible both to Brits and "mainstream Europeans"...

Quotes: there's nothing like...

Today's copy contained a rather unfortunate quote from a health inspector:

“There’s nothing like going on to a site and seeing a dead body and then going on to their family and telling them they won’t be coming home.”

Is it me, or does the wording make the inspector sound like he really enjoys telling people a family member has died? "There's nothing like a nice cup of tea and a biscuit." "There's nothing like going on to a site..."

On the trail of a caravan

It's hardly news that we Brits continually adopt American usage but last night the reporter in a TV crime documentary took it to new levels by telling us that a fugitive from justice "ran into a trailer park and hid under a caravan".

Maybe this was an attempt at (in)elegant variation - condemned in the first (1926) edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage as a weakness of "second-rate writers" and "young writers". But would it really have been so offensive to the ear had the reporter said the fugitive "ran into a caravan park and hid under a caravan"?

In any case, as he was speaking on a British programme, the reporter might have considered that while a "trailer" is a large and generally static caravan in the US, it has a different meaning on this side of the pond. UK eyebrows would elevate sharply at the suggestion that the athletic suspect "ran into a caravan park and hid under a trailer".

The contrasting status of a trailer park and a caravan park is a matter for sociologists and anthropologists rather than subs, but isn't it odd that trailer parks are seen (possibly unfairly) as downmarket places inhabited by what I believe our American cousins refer to as "trailer trash" while caravan parks are seen (possibly unfairly) as claustrophobic places inhabited by what we Brits refer to as "anally retentive neurotics".

Vive le difference! (or is that la?)

I love my Bushisms calendar

It's coming towards the end of the year, which means I need to think about replacing my 'George W Bushisms' desk calendar. This great little gift from my father has provided me – and the rest of the magazine staff – with a year's worth of unintentionally amusing quotes from the US president.

Today's entry is particularly fine:

For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three nonfatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It's just unacceptable. And we're going to do something about it.

-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; May 14, 2001

I know, I know – the quotes are given out of context; everyone makes mistakes when speaking in public; it's just Democrat propaganda. But it's still pretty funny, especially as I'm not American.

Feeling tense: sequence of tenses

Here's an obscure bit of usage that has me in two minds; it's from a newspaper report on military spending.

Admiral Lord Boyce said the Prime Minister should recognise the armed forces were over-committed and he should ensure they were properly resourced.

JD points out that the verbs have (had?) to be in the past tense to agree with the "said". Nonetheless the use of "were" rather than "are" seems to put the problem in the past, rather than the present and indeed the future.

Would I have substituted "are"? I'm not sure. I do feel it would make more sense, but rules, after all, is rules, in grammar as in everything else.

Comments, anyone?

Headlines: cop office

Was quite taken aback by a headline in yesterday's London Lite free newspaper:

Boy, 14, stabbed
to death outside
empty cop office

There is something incongruous about the headline for such a horrific story including the uncommon yet jaunty phrase 'cop office'. I understand that it was chosen for reasons of space – being several characters shorter than 'police station' – but still.

What would I have used instead of 'cop office'? I'm not sure. 'Cop shop' has the advantage of being an established phrase (at least here in the UK), but is possibly even jauntier than 'cop office'. And if you went with 'police station' you would have to lose some of the other information in the headline. For example:

Stabbed dead
outside empty
police station

Here I've had to drop 'Boy, 14' – but as the story was accompanied by a photo of the victim, I think that's acceptable. What do you think?

Correction: I've just discovered (by actually reading the story properly) that the police station in question was a "neighbourhood policing office" rather than a "regular police station". I'm not sure what the precise difference is, but it makes the original headline more accurate. Saying that, the online version of the story, which has fewer space restrictions, uses "police station" rather than "cop office"...

AdSense: no sense

This blog, like many others, uses Google's AdSense to provide relevant advertisements (see the two little ads above). However a couple of recent AdSense offerings have stopped me in my tracks.

One was an ad for cheapo British pub chain JD Wetherspoon - presumably AdSense picked up on my name for this one (and possibly my post about pub rowdyism...).

The other questionable advert was for, and I quote, "The Engine Room CD" on Play.com – it was news to Apus and me that we have ever released a CD. But it's given me the idea of an 'Engine Room Greatest Hits'. Watch this space.

If you spot any other inappropriate or plain bizarre AdSense adverts, on this blog or others, please let us know...

My other post about AdSense

It's been a long week

A news story landed on my desk yesterday including the information that a felon had been jailed in July 2006 but is due for release on 20 December.

Nothing wrong with that but I found myself wondering why the month gets an 'in' while the day gets an 'on'.

Then I thought, Apus old chap, it's Friday evening. Go home.

Minutiae can drive you nuts

Good news on the eco front, according to a London free-sheet: Europe could meet its carbon emission targets "simply by planting more trees in forests".

I'm left wondering if only trees in large groups absorb carbon. In fact wouldn't it make sense to avoid planting trees in the middle of forests, where presumably there's less light reaching ground level? But then if you planted solitary trees in large enough numbers they'd become a forest anyway.

And if the engine-room denizens who allowed that phrase through had simply cut out "in forests" I could have read the story and got on with my life.

While I'm in ranting mood, there's an advert on the same page for "premium down jackets".

Down-filled, certainly, but a down jacket? Think how long it would take to sew all the feathers together. What's more they're available in "15 unique colours". Technically every colour's unique unto itself but is the manufacturer implying that nowhere on earth will you find any of its chosen shades replicated? What tosh.

Writers... doncha love 'em?

It's been a long day in the engine room. Among the copy that came our way was:

"the failure rate at annual test was 65.96%". A clear example of a writer switching off his common-sense module and writing whatever his calculator told him. Assuming the vehicle fleet didn't number in the thousands, 66% would make a lot more sense... or better yet, two out of three.

"the infectious energy extolled by the business development director..." The writer meant exuded, of course, though JD, being in his usual argumentative mood, pointed out that the director could have been extolling someone else's infectious energy...

"the sliding drawer". As any engine room denizen would delight in telling the author, if it don't slide, it ain't a drawer (which reminds me of the schoolboy joke: Q–what do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A-a stick).

Sometimes, after all, an object is defined by its function. For example, is a broken-down car still a car? Say you removed the wheels and engine...

I think it's time for my medication.

It's a drawer. It slides.

Parcel consumers

A news story submitted to us recently contained the phrase "commercial and domestic parcel consumers".

What exactly is a 'parcel consumer'? I can only assume it is someone or something that eats parcels. I am especially impressed that this can be done on a commercial basis...

(We changed the phrase to 'customers of parcels firms' or 'users of parcels services' - I forget which.)

Infinitesimal error in the Mirror

Bit of a blooper in the Daily Mirror today.

In a one-page feature, the paper "asks columnists to imagine what their lives would be like in a parallel universe". Nicola Methven of 'Nicola Methven's TV Land' (pictured) starts her answer by saying:

Apparently we could all be living an infinitesimal number of parallel lives in an infinitesimal number of universes.

Em, I think you mean 'infinite' rather than 'infinitesimal' (extremely small).

The Mirror also has the same article online, complete with error.

Hyphens: strong staff

A news story by one of our writers today highlighted the perils of omitting hyphens. It contained this phrase:

The majority of the 200 strong staff

Obviously the company only employs muscular people! I inserted the missing hyphen, giving:

The majority of the 200-strong staff

But then I decided to keep it simple:

Most of the 200 employees

Headline: Virgin named as top Rock suitor

Today's confusing headline of the day comes courtesy of the BBC News site:

Virgin named as top Rock suitor

It took me a moment to twig that the virgin in the story is Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Ordinarily the initial cap of 'Virgin' would have given it away but as the word started the headline the visual clue was lost.

Branson, of course, set up the Virgin Records music label so it then took me another moment to realise that the 'Rock' the story refers to isn't the music genre but the troubled British bank Northern Rock.

Before you ask, I first saw this headline on the BBC News homepage and totally failed to note the small 'Northern Rock' image which might otherwise have clarified things. A picture of Richard Branson's grinning visage may have been preferable. And it's not often that I say that.

Virgin named as top Rock suitor

You are a genius, here's the proof

I recently came across an online blog readability test which assesses "the level of education required to understand your blog". And as you can see from the image to the right, the test reveals that only geniuses can understand the Engine Room.

On the negative side, this suggests that Apus and I should use a smaller vocabulary and less complicated sentence structures, or just speak... more... slowly...

On the positive side, if you've managed to read this far then you yourself must be a genius. And if you regularly understand what Apus and I are banging on about, well then, Einstein's got nothing on you.

Actually, Apus and I probably just confused the readability test with our British turns of phrase - and by blogging about words no one has ever heard before, such as sidehill.

(Thanks to Mr Verb for this one, and for the plug.)

Morrinov, Morritini and Vodkat

I am amused that the supermarket Morrisons' own-brand vodka is called 'Morrinov'. I also hear an unconfirmed rumour that its vermouth is called 'Morritini'.

Still, either has to be better than the bottles of 22% 'Vodkat' (pictured) which you can buy in Asda and other cheap places; there's a good reason the Harrogate-based manufacturer can't use the word 'vodka'.

And trawling through the web to find out a bit more about horrible drinks I did come across a good tip: run cheap spirit through a water filter (you know, the type that sits in your fridge) to take the impurities out and make it more drinkable.

Unfortunately, I am not currently in a position to try this advice but if anyone else has the opportunity, I would love to hear whether it works. Thanks.

Amazon Kindle: yay or nay?

I've just changed the poll on the panel to the right. The new question is whether you would buy a Kindle, the "wireless reading device" (pictured) just launched by Amazon. The Kindle can hold up to 200 e-books and has a screen that "looks and reads like real paper".

The reason I'm blogging about the Kindle is because I'm in disagreement with our web editor as to whether the device will be a commercial success. I don't want to influence your opinion, so all I can say now is that one of us believes it will, the other believes it won't.

If you want to find out more about the Kindle before making up your mind, check out Amazon's Kindle product overview or the Wikipedia Kindle page. There's also information on Wikipedia about other E-book devices.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your opinion.

P-p-p-pick up a penguin

Shop signs can be irritating, not least the misuse of apostrophes, but some shopkeepers are to be commended on their signs.

For example, when the buffet at Balham station in South London is closed the sign on the door reads "Shut happens".

And the florist near the Engine Room's top secret base is boosting his pre-Christmas turnover by flogging some rather jolly stuffed penguins under the sign: "A penguin's for life, not just for Christmas – unless you're a polar bear, in which case a penguin might be for lunch."

Congestion delays journey times: huh?

It's funny that sometimes our writers can get in a muddle with even the simplest of sentences. The meaning is in there, but the choice of words is wrong. For example:

Congestion delays journey times

No! Congestion increases journey times. Congestion delays road users. It doesn't delay journey times.

(JD walks off muttering to himself...)

Foreign congestion

Eggplant, zucchini and an Australian

Continuing on the 'North American' theme: one of the dishes available in our staff canteen today is the American English-sounding eggplant and zucchini pasta bake – that's aubergine and courgette pasta bake to Brits like me.

Actually I believe our head chef is Australian, and that 'eggplant' and 'zucchini' are the favoured terms in Oz. Either our chef is unaware of some of the differences between Australian and British English, or he is trying to stamp his authority (and nationality) on the menu...

(Read my other staff canteen-related posts: pan-fried cat and fine herbs.)

Word of the day: sidehill

Some copy I was subbing yesterday kept making mention of a certain vehicle's performance on sidehills. Thinking 'sidehill' was a technical term, or at least a specific type of hill or slope, I was surprised to find that the Oxford English Dictionary just defines it as North American for 'hillside'.

We say 'hillside'; they say 'sidehill'. Let's call the whole thing off.

And now I'm off to have a wichsand.

(Incidentally, I'd love to hear from any North American readers as to whether they use 'sidehill', 'hillside', or both).

Use TLAs carefully!

TLAs (three-letter acronyms) have become an established feature of the English language, but until an acronym becomes universally recognised it should be used with care.

That's why I didn't assume Engine Room readers would recognise 'TLA', and why JD and I give our readers the full version of even a well established TLA the first time it appears in a story. This is clearly not a universal policy.

The following headline and sub-head graced the front cover of today's Western Mail, the Papur Cenedlaethol Cymru ('National Newspaper of Wales', as if you didn't know), below a photo of a Welsh rugby player:

Where's our missing £21m? Fears WAG has plundered cash intended to help disabled people

Readers of British tabloids will be all too familiar with the TLA WAG – it stands for Wives And Girlfriends; particularly when associated with highly paid sportsmen like the stalwart pictured over the WAG headline. In tabloid terms WAGs are known more for their polished appearance and high spending habits than their intellect, but stealing cash from the disabled? A new low even for the most dissipated WAG, I thought.

Not until the 20th paragraph did I learn that to the Western Mail headline writer, if to no-one east of the River Severn, WAG stands for Welsh Assembly Government. A Welshman on our writing team was as confused as I was; it seems WAG has yet to catch on as a TLA for the Assembly, even west of the border.

The moral? It's better to tell your readers something they already know than to baffle them by assuming knowledge they don't have. Mind you, it would have been a great story...

Untimely cliches banned!

It seems that even the great and good who write for the Times Literary Supplement need to be brought to heel on occasion – their engine room has issued a list of words and phrases that are not to be used in that august organ:

  • iconic
  • ironically
  • carbon footprint
  • time poor
  • black/Muslim/literary community
  • any reference to sex beginning in 1963, in conjunction with Philip Larkin

Other engine rooms, other gremlins

One of our cherished freelancers spotted the following headlines on holdthefrontpage.co.uk:

  • Arranging the death of a loved one isn't easy
  • 12 die in 30 minutes as car bombers target Shite area
  • Child sex field at family fun event
  • Shoreham wind turbine talks

and, every sub's nightmare:

  • Think of a headline
    56pt bold headline

Not to be left out, I must own up to a memorable typo at the end of a motor show preview some years ago: "See next week for a dull report". Yes, 'd' is right next to 'f' on the keyboard and spellcheckers, as we all know to our cost, don't pick up typos that make real words – but did that get me of the hook? Of course not.

Get those shoes out of here!

Spotted at the security desk of Gatwick Airport: "Footwear repatriation area".

I know security has to be tight nowadays, by throwing a chap's shoes out of the country seems a mite harsh.

Shoes: go back home

The strange case of Megan Thomas, 20

Quite amused by a story in today's Daily Mail about "a 20-year-old secretary at a private club [who] won a landmark discrimination case after claiming she was sacked for being too young for the job".

The secretary in question, Megan Thomas, had this to say:

I was upset to lose my job. I was told I was too young and if they had met me a few years later there may not have been a problem.

They also said that I was deceitful, sly and lacked integrity, which was hurtful and untrue.

So there "may not have been a problem" with Megan working at the club if she had been slightly older, even though she was – in the club's opinion – deceitful, sly and lacking in integrity. A great approach to recruitment there...

Think before you write: recruitment ad

A magazine in the group that employs JD and I includes a recruitment ad that is well written and tempting (the job offers 56 days' annual leave, for a start).

The role, we are told, involves managing sites at a number of remote locations. Fair enough.

But someone at the advertising agency must have been having a bad day when they wrote the headline: 'Camp Managers'.

Not compelled but required

Today a story thudded onto the engine-room floor which had me reaching for the OED.

It refered to a driver who was prosecuted for failing to take regular breaks which the law 'compelled him to do'. A moment's thought and a quick definition check confirmed that the author should have written 'required him to do'.

Why? Because the OED tells us that compel is 'to force or oblige [someone] to do something' and the whole point of the story was that the individual concerned hadn't.

New word: meanderthals

It's nice to be in at the birth of a new word. A chum recently mentioned that he's sick and tired of slow-moving pedestrians who suddenly change direction and cause chaos in crowded streets – he refers to them as 'meanderthals'.

Spot the meanderthal

In which JD is denied escort services

As subs, Apus and I sometimes need access to websites that are blocked by our employer's "internet use policy".

This morning I was subbing a feature on companies that offer vehicle escort services for abnormal or heavy loads – you might have seen these on the motorway yourself. The feature made reference to the sector's internet forum, but access to this was denied to me on the grounds that "the category 'sex' is filtered".

Thinking about it, I can understand why our internet use policy considers www.abnormalescortforum to be inappropriate... and while I'm not sure what the other type of, ahem, 'abnormal escort', would be, I'm sure there's a market out there somewhere.

More sentence illogic: if and that

Here's a sentence taken from some copy submitted by one of our writers. What's wrong with it?

One of three UK ports will find out this month if it has been chosen to run a freight ferry service to Norway

Assuming for a moment that a port can find out anything, one port will find out that it has been chosen, not if. All three, presumably, will find out if they have been chosen – I doubt that two of them will be left in ignorance.

However writing 'three UK ports will find out this month whether they have been chosen' does not convey the fact that only one will be chosen, so I simply changed the sentence to:

One of three UK ports will this month be chosen

(And yes, this is all just another excuse to show off the blog's new pullquote/blockquote icon...)

Headline: energy needs to grow

Recently I was thrown by a headline used on a BBC News Science/Nature story:

Energy needs 'to grow inexorably'

Missing the single quote marks, I took this to mean 'energy has to grow inexorably', leaving me wondering how energy can grow. What the headline actually meant was 'energy needs are set to grow inexorably'.

For once, this bit of verb/noun confusion wasn't even caused by a lack of headline space...

200 x (2 to the power of 5)

A little bit of dodgy maths in some copy submitted to us by one of our freelance writers today:

At fewer than 200 units a year, the UK market is small but set to double every year to reach 300 to 500 units a year within five years

Um, doubling 200 each year gives you 400 after one year, 800 after two years, 1,600 after three, 3,200 after four and 6,400 after five...

I was talking to Apus and we agreed that this sort of mistake is one of the hardest to spot when you are subbing. Typos, grammatical errors and inconsistencies jump out at you, but dubious figures and illogical arguments can be read through much more easily – especially when you are focusing on the language rather than the meaning.

But I caught this one, so that's OK.

Pedants rule: important milestone

Just in from one of our charges is news that an event will be an "important milestone". The OED confirms that a milestone is "an event marking a significant new development", so the writer was reporting on an important significant event – as distinct from...

Subbing. If you aren't a pedant when you start you'll soon become one!

PS, yes I know that the phrase "pedants rule" lacks an object. It's been another long day, OK?

Journalists eat pan-fried cat

A permanent feature of our workplace intranet is a 'restaurant menu' page outlining the dishes available that week in our office canteen. One of today's dishes made me laugh:

Pan fried cat
fish finished
with crushed
potatoes with
fine herb &

Quite apart from the haiku-like quality of the description, that first line break is rather unfortunate. It's a hard life being a journalist, but surely it hasn't come to this.

Oh, and I was pleased to see the return of my old friend fine herb(s).

Prison and prepositions

Slightly amused by a BBC News story on a prison break. Here's the headline and first sentence:

Convicts escape jail with ladder

Two convicted thieves have escaped from prison by scaling a fence with a homemade ladder.

Is it just me, or does the headline suggest that the thieves stole the ladder from the prison during their escape rather than actually using the ladder in the escape? Surely 'convicts escape jail by ladder' would be more accurate...

Not the actual ladder used

Etymologic: etymology quiz

One of the Engine Room regulars emailed in a while back to suggest that we should start featuring occasional quiz questions on the blog, for example giving an obscure word and a choice of four possible definitions for that word. Readers of the blog - that's you - would have to pick the correct definition.

Not a bad idea, I thought, and I filed it under 'stuff I'd like to do on the blog when I get round to it'. But then I came across Etymologic, which is a great online multiple-choice word game. As you can imagine, the focus is on the etymology (origins) of words as much as their meanings, but I recommend you give it a go.

In my last attempt, I managed a paltry six out of 10 - the etymology of 'jerky' (as in beef jerky) and the meaning of 'pilgarlic' were two of the questions that threw me... Let me know how you get on.

Etymologic: the toughest etymology game on the web

At death's door... potentially

Last night while listening to BBC Radio 4, which is normally the home of good English, I heard a doctor say: "To resuscitate or not is a potentially life and death situation."

Potentially? Nope, I reckon once you're heart's stopped there's nothing potential about it.

Worldwide wondrous words

JD and I take delight in the idiosyncrasies of English, but a recently published book serves as a reminder that weird and wonderful words are uttered wherever people speak.

The book in question is Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words To Change The Way We See the World, by Adam Jacot de Boinod (published by Penguin).

How long is pisan zapra?

Here are some examples:

Pisan Zapra (Malay) – the time it takes to eat a banana
Tartle (Scottish) – to hesitate when about to introduce someone whose name you can't recall
Jayus (Indonesian) – someone who tells a joke that's so awful you have to laugh
Kaellig (Danish) – a woman who stands on her doorstep screaming obscenities at her progeny
*Rombhoru (Bengali) – a woman with thighs as shapely as banana trees
*Baffona (Italian) – an attractive moustachioed woman
And from Cameroon, a phrase that's almost too nice to be believable: Wo-mba... the smile of a sleeping child. Aaaaaah...

*PS Baffona Rombhoru makes an interesting name which would be perfect for an attractive moustachioed woman with thighs as shapely as banana trees.

Triple mixed metaphor strikes back

I blogged a while back about a triple mixed metaphor from one of our senior writers.

The same writer has done it again!

Operators will be buried under a mountain of data, glued to their PCs trying to unravel the mysteries of their operation

It would be difficult to unravel anything while buried under a mountain and glued to a PC... And I wouldn't mind all these metaphors so much if they weren't such cliches.

Bloody coincidental

Giving blood the other day I was amused to note that the air-conditioning unit in the blood van (sorry: mobile unit) was called a 'Fujitsu Plasma Clean'. Perhaps it's not just the air that it conditions?

Yes, I know it's a strange thing to spot but then there wasn't a lot else to look at...

And on the subject of giving blood, I am always a little concerned when the nurse tells me to 'make a fist to get the blood pumping'. I thought that's what my heart was for. Still, good to know I have a couple of back-ups...

Typo of the week: tea-hee

A small but amusing typo in a Times Online article about afternoon tea in London. Here's the relevant paragraph:

Afternoon tea is served daily at 2pm and 4pm (plus a noon sitting at weekends) and costs £31.50pp, or £38.50pp with a glass of bubby: book on 020 7420 2669. You've got until December 15, when the Savoy closes for a 16-moth, £100 million refurbishment.

It seems that 16 moths can do a surprising amount of damage...

Obscure but satisfying: quota and quotient

An obscure solecism helped me finish the working week on a high note.

One of our techies remarked in a feature that a number of otherwise similar vehicles "varied in their poshness quota". A rather clever phrase, I thought approvingly, and moved on. But something wasn't right. I looked again, reached for the OED and confirmed that he meant quotient, rather than quota.

Which is the first time I recall that word dropping into the engine room. Small victories... but as subs and copy editors out there know, in the engine room that's all you can expect.

Here's to the weekend!

The sign of the relieved canine

I've just re-read Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett in which he makes a (to me) delightful reference to his days as a sub, before he introduced a grateful public to the delights of Discworld.

Interesting Times is set in a fantasy version of medieval China, complete with complex pictograms. One of his characters is puzzled by an oft repeated pictogram that seems to show a dog urinating.

As any sub of my advancing years would recognise, Mr P is sharing an in-joke with with the likes of JD and I because 'dog's cock' is time-honoured engine-room slang for an exclamation mark.

Good to see the great man hasn't forgotten his roots!

Visuwords vs Erin McKean

A while back I wrote about a speech by Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary, in which she talked about the future of the dictionary. One of the things McKean said was that the current crop of online dictionaries did not live up to their potential; apart from being searchable and having a few links, they were just the same as their print equivalents.

Evidently McKean hadn't come across Visuwords, which is the fantastic 'online graphical dictionary' pictured here (although in practice I've found it works better as a thesaurus). Type in a word and Visuwords graphically shows any related words in an expanding spidergram. Parts of speech (noun, verb etc) are indicated through different colours, and hovering over a word brings up a definition.

If nothing else, it's incredibly pretty (it even impressed one of our designers), although words with many associations tend to bring the web browser on my Mac grinding to a near halt.

I'm adding Visuwords to our list of production desk tools, which you can find on the panel to the bottom right of the blog. Alternatively follow the link in this post.

The logistics space

One of the stories I subbed this morning talked about:

clerical and administrative roles in the logistics space

Um, 'the logistics space'? Surely 'the logistics sector' or 'the logistics industry' or simply just 'logistics'...

But maybe I'm wrong. Googling 'the logistics space' throws up quite a number of hits – and I even found one site that talks of a firm "acquiring a global footprint in the logistics space".

Horrible, or acceptable?

Len Jones' double burglary

I was a little bemused by a story in the UK newspaper the News of the World at the weekend. Here it is, in full:

World War II veteran Len Jones, 80, was burgled TWICE while in hospital after a fire at his home.

Former soldier Len got back to Colaton Raleigh, Devon, and found thieves had stolen his £12,000 record collection and then returned for his cameras.

My question is: when Len returned home, how did he know he had been burgled twice? The thieves could easily have taken the records and cameras in the one burglary.

Of course, Len's friends or neighbours could have been watching the property for him, and simply told him when he came out of hospital that he had been burgled twice.

But if so, those friends or neighbours did an exceptionally awful job of looking after his house, despite knowing it well enough to be able to identify which items were stolen in each burglary. And they evidently didn't tell Len about either burglary until after he was out of hospital. I am sure they would say that was because they didn't want to worry an old man who had recently been through a traumatic experience, but I have my suspicions...

Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat for a moment, I say the most likely explanation is that the friends or neighbours that were looking after Len's house were the ones to steal his records and cameras. And the whole 'double burglary' scenario was just a fabrication to throw the police – and Len – off the scent.

A bigger engine room

JD and I labour in the hot and sticky engine rooom of a trade magazine, but it's good to know that our exalted counterparts who pace the gleaming engine rooms of the national press are also no more than human.

Last week one of the tabloids informed its readers that a man had been found hanged from the bannister of his (presumably single-storey) bungalow, and on the following page was the revelation that the Tory party had been denied a surprise windfall. As distinct, presumably, from an eagerly awaited windfall.

But it goes to show how easy it is to forget the exact definition of the words we all rely on.

Album titles: Shut up and sub...

I recently mentioned that I've been reading a biography of musician Steve Earle. However what I forgot to add is that I was very taken with the title of a Steve Earle live album: Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (pictured).

This got me thinking about my all-time favourite album titles. I have a soft spot for Welsh band Mclusky's: My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours is probably the best, although The Difference Between Me and You is That I'm Not on Fire is also a belter. (As you can tell, long album titles appeal to me.)

Any favourite album titles out there?

Here's to the beer!

This being a Friday evening, beer is on the engine room agenda and on the all-too-rare occasions when our esteemed editor takes the team drinking he refers to going for "a couple of scoops".

JD was intrigued enough to research this use of "scoop" and discovered it has an Irish derivation. No surprise there then, as Mrs Editor hails from Erin.

But while this is doubtless a well established phrase, some of our younger charges refer to going for a Britney (from Britney Spears = beers). It's good to see that rhyming slang had not been consigned to history, but we were wondering if anyone out there has their own local phrases for this time honoured pastime.


Pronouns: ambiguity

Today I have a good example of how dropping pronouns in copy can lead to ambiguity. The following was taken from one of the questions submitted to our regular 'Readers' Q&A' page:

I have children who are under 18 and would like to work flexible hours

Of course, it's the author who would like to work flexible hours, not his or her children – although the lack of an 'I' before 'would' makes this ambiguous.

This example was written by a reader, not by a journalist, so I can't be too critical. But perhaps it shouldn't have reached the subs' desk in this state...


Sensible people, the Spanish. When greeting each other we Brits routinely shorten good morning/afternoon/evening to morning/afternoon/evening.

Spaniards do it the other way round and truncate buenos dias/tardes/noches to buenos at all times of the day or night. It does make life that bit easier for visitors to their fine country and there's something delightfully optimistic about people meeting and simply saying "good", don't you think?

Don't worry, it's not your eyes

Yes, I've been tinkering with the blog – apologies for any disruption experienced yesterday. The Engine Room is now decked out in more autumnal colours and hopefully is more legible to boot.

You may also notice that we now have a poll on the panel to the right. If you think of any good questions for the poll, don't hesitate to send them in, as quite frankly 'This is a test poll...' isn't going to set anyone's pulses racing.

We also have more social networking functionality (ugh) than ever – you can share posts on Facebook, add them to your Technorati favourites, or even use Sphere to search for related content. I'm not sure how many Engine Room readers use this sort of thing, but it's there if you want it.

A late addition – a summary of recent comments, again on the panel to the right. There's quite a lot of stuff on the blog now, so let me know if it's taking too long to load up for you. Thanks.

Surplus words: it's worth noting that...

My first day back from Spain and the first story to come my way contained the phrase "it's worth noting that...". If it's in a news story JD and I have to assume it's worth noting. One thing's for sure: this is a phrase that will never make it into our magazine while JD and I lurk in the engine room.

It's good to back. Honest.

Shotgun house

Reading the biography Hardcore Troubadour: The Life & Near Death of Steve Earle, by Lauren St John, I came across the following:

Like most of the houses of Steve's youth, it had three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a living room, all arranged in shotgun fashion off the main passage

Shotgun fashion? As a Brit, this was the first time I had encountered this American English term. Wikipedia explains that a shotgun house is "a narrow rectangular domestic residence... consisting of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways", and discusses the etymology of the term. I even found some plans for a shotgun house on an architectural website. And, of course, there is the lovely picture you see here.

But a bit of a discrepancy: the house described in the book has a "main passage", yet a shotgun house has "no hallways". Was St John using the phrase simply to mean that the rooms were arranged in a row? Can any American readers help? And how well known is the term Stateside? Any Brits come across it before?

Blu-ray: not so clear?

I just saw an advert on the side of a bus for the latest Spiderman film – "available on Blu-ray". Blu-ray, of course, is one of the new optical disc formats (the Playstation 3 is shipped with a Blu-ray drive).

However as the word 'Blu-ray' was capped up and written in an unfortunate choice of font, it looked for all the world like Spiderman 3 was "available on BLU-RRY'. Not really the format to be watching high-definition video on...


One of our sales reps is renowned for his interesting turn of phrase and ability to mangle idioms. For your pleasure, here are a few his best expressions from over the years:

  • A bit old in the tooth and green behind the ears
  • He's ruffled my cage
  • He's as sharp as a button
  • What's the point in shooting yourself in the back?
  • I wouldn't trust them with a bargepole
  • I bet he's spitting chips

Bugbears: SVO,O,+VO

Taken from a recent BBC News technology story (which appears to have been taken down, but you can still Google this phrase if you don't believe me):

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books and plays music.

I see this type of sentence construction a lot, even from professional journalists, and I believe that most people don't have any problem with it. But I do.

This gadget reads labels and plays music, but what does it do with audio books? 'Read them', I hear you say. But, except as a headline, you would never write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books.

Instead you would write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books.

This suggests the original construction needs another 'and'. Giving you:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books, and plays music.

I suppose the comma is optional, but it helps indicate a change of verb is coming.

Spelling can be (pomer)grate

My local Sainsbury's supermarket is currently selling a type of fruit called, according to the printed labelling, a 'pomergrate'. I can only assume that it's like a pomegranate, only better.

Just a shame the pomergrates aren't pomergratis...

And no, they aren't part of the SO RAS range.

They're grate...

Impossible quiz question

Found in the book Total Trivia: Over 2,000 Zany Quiz Questions:

Q. What percentage of British Engineers, to the nearest five, are women?

A. Two and a half per cent.


Recent gems

Jut to end a long working week on a high note, here are a few gems that have oozed under the engine room door:

  • "But now motor insurance readers last week agreed"
  • "The company began in humble beginnings"
  • "This agreement is expected to result in 5,000 units being produced annually per year"
  • "In a statement the company says"

And they wonder why JD and I sometimes growl at our charges.

Right that's it; my turn to hide in Spain for a week. Hasta la vista! (what does that mean, anyway?)

Headlines: children job seekers

A couple of dodgy headlines today. The first, from yesterday's Daily Mail (October 4):

Agony of the children job seekers leave in Romania

The first time I read this, I wondered who these children job seekers were, and why the headline didn't appear to make grammatical sense. Of course, the Daily Mail has elided a 'that' between 'children' and 'job', presumably for reasons of space. Very confusing.

And Gingerous sent in the following headline from the BBC News website:

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has been involved in a car accident with a 10-year-old boy

He asks: "Why was a 10-year-old driving a car?"

Wikipedia says that "sometimes a 'car accident' may refer to an automobile striking a human or animal" but I agree that it's not the most common use of the phrase. It does have the benefit of not implying that Gerrard was to blame, unlike a lot of alternative phrases.

The Engine Room: a mystery explained

You may be wondering why sometimes Apus and I refer to 'the engine room' (no caps) and sometimes to 'the Engine Room' (initial caps). After all, it's not like subs to be so inconsistent, is it?

Well, Apus and I work for the production desk of a particular publication. Long before I joined the publication, Apus had developed the habit of referring to the production desk as the engine room of the magazine, for obvious reasons. I picked this habit up from him, and when we came to start the blog, it seemed the perfect name.

So when we refer to 'the engine room', we mean the production desk on our magazine; when we refer to 'the Engine Room', we mean the blog you are reading. Of course, you may ask why we don't cap up the 'the'...

Australian business-speak

It looks like business-speak isn't limited to the US and the UK: Roz has written in with some examples heard during a one-hour 'Dialogue Day' session at the Australian Taxation Office. Here they are, with Roz's comments in brackets.

  • Key drivers
  • Key deliverables
  • Key strategies (why can't they use some synonyms for 'key'?)
  • ...sessions around delivery plans (whatever happened to 'about' or 'regarding' or 'concerning'?)
  • At the end of the day
  • Cascade down corporate messages (well, cascades don't often go up do they?)
  • Efficiencies made to business (how do you 'make' an efficiency?)
  • Big ticket item
  • Co-design session
  • Impacting on all the messages out there
  • Hip pocket
  • Value-adding
  • A deliberate service model (what – as opposed to an accidental one?)
  • Sophisticated profiling and risk
  • Level playing field
  • The tax agent community (yeah, there's probably an axe-murdering community too. Everything has a community these days)
  • Principles-based
  • Penalty 'safe-harbour'
  • Grass-roots issues
  • Base tenants (I think the $120,000-per-year idiot meant tenets)
  • Capability-building projects

Thanks for those, Roz. 'Level playing field' is one that often appears in our publication; we hear all sorts of gubbins about 'communities'; and 'impacting' is one of my personal bugbears. So I feel your pain...

Spanish: dos servicios

Biggest language blunder while on holiday in Spain: confusing 'dos cervezas' with 'dos servicios' – yes, I went into a bar and asked for two toilets instead of two beers.

I then compounded my error: attributing the barman's look of confusion to my poor Spanish accent, I repeated my request several times, each time slightly more loudly and clearly.

I never did get my 'dos servicios'.

Two please – large ones

It's just fortunate that, before I left the UK for Spain, one of our reporters took me aside and warned me not to confuse 'pollo' with 'polla'...

Blog update

I'm back from my holiday now, so thanks to Gingerous for uploading my posts for me.

The blog has gone from strength to strength in my absence: last week was our busiest ever, in terms of both hits and visitors. Partly this is due to another good mention on BuzzFeed – this time it was Apus' post on the OED dropping hyphens that hit the limelight.

We've also had a fair smattering of blog cross-pollination: see this post on Villa Grammatica, or this one on Roadput.com. Although who jessihempel is, I don't know.

My next task is to persuade Apus to install Firefox so he can put pictures on his blog posts (at the moment he is posting solely through the power of righteous indignation).

Verbing: how to social network

Recently I spotted an unusual, if ugly, example of verbing (creating a verb from another part of speech) on the front page of the Independent: "How to social network"

This is interesting because 'network' is already commonly both a noun and a verb; what the Independent has verbed is the entire noun phrase 'social network'. (Compare with 'how to socially network'.)

I suspect the Independent has verbed the noun phrase because of severe space limitations on the cover – otherwise it may have preferred something along the lines of 'guide to social networking' or 'how to use social networks'.

Hmm, I can't find any reference to 'how to social network' on the Independent Online, but here's someone else using the phrase (good article too).

Great Wall Wingle

Unfortunate vehicle name of the month: a Chinese pickup called the Great Wall Wingle.

The 'Great Wall' part is the name of the manufacturer; 'Wingle' is a portmanteau of 'wind' and 'eagle'.

The manufacturer's website says the "Great Wall Wingle is just like a brave and fierce lion from the appearance" - as I am sure you can see from the picture.

Feeling tense(s): launch of a new product

All the subs I know have grown used to writers reporting "the launch of a new product" and, until they become worn down and cynical, have taken the time to explain (gently or not) to the writers concerned that if it ain't new you can't launch it.

All the writers for the magazine whose engine room JD and I inhabit (and why doesn't 'which' have a possessive form, by the way?) have been lectured on this silly redundancy. But bless 'em, they can't resist it – the latest example arrived today, fresh from the keyboard of our generally admirable editor.

Will I explain it to him again? Will I remind our charges yet again that "making plans for the future" also contains a redundancy as you can't easily make plans for the past?

JD certainly would, but he's half my age and has yet to become as worn down and cynical as me (but you will, chum... you will).

More hyphenation frolics

Following my recent mention of hyphens, a story by the most senior writer in our care rams homes the importance of these often confusing punctuation marks.

Referring to a campaign group that was active in our industry some years ago, he revealed that it is to reform. I duly asked him for details of this reformation so we could enlighten our readers. No, he said, it isn't being reorganised; the group had actually closed down and is to be relaunched or, as he intended to write, it is to re-form.

So remember, a humble hyphen can change the meaning of an entire sentence.

History's greatest sub-editors: Alan Eaglesfield

Interesting find on Wikipedia.

Gravelly Hill Interchange - Junction 6 of the M6 here in the UK - is better known as Spaghetti Junction. There are several Spaghetti Junctions around the world, from Florida to Melbourne, but Gravelly Hill is the original. Incidentally it was voted as the favourite landmark of frequent motorists in a recent RAC survey.

But who was it that first coined the nickname 'Spaghetti Junction'? Alan Eaglesfield, sub-editor (copy editor if you will) on the Birmingham Evening Mail in the 1970s when the interchange opened.

Mr Eaglesfield, as one sub to another, I salute you.

Not averse to verbing

One of our charges has a habit of 'verbing' – using a noun as a verb. We don't object on principle; after all no one objects to gerunds, which are verb participles used as nouns. Recent examples dropping into the engine room include the eye-watering 'professionalising' and the less painful 'depolluting', both of which took the place of relatively clumsy clauses.

But just to keep us on our toes, yesterday the same writer came up with "a view with which we would confer".

Writers. Can't leave with 'em; not allowed to bury them under the patio.

Careers service bloopers

We recently received the following email from an individual who wishes to remain anonymous.

My colleagues and I in the careers service were thinking we should start a book of all the funny mangled English we get from the foreign students in interviews and on CVs. One girl replied to the question "Why do you want to be an accountant?" with the answer "because my mother did an accountant". I suspect she meant because her mother is/was an accountant – but maybe not?! Quite how the interviewer kept a straight face I have no idea.

There's also one hilarious Chinese guy who always puts on his CV/covering letter that he wants to join companies to "make many friends" and that he is "very popular"...quite why he thinks this is such an important point to make to an investment bank I have no idea. We really don't stand a chance of finding some of them jobs!

Compare to or compare with?

The engine room is not here to teach English but I really, really wish the writers in our care would get the message that there's a rule governing the preposition that follows the word "compare", and it's this: if you're comparing two things to show that they are similar you say "compare to". If you're comparing two things to show they differ you say "compare with".

The usual reference for this one is Shakespeare's phrase: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day".

It's easy. But after repeated reminders some of our charges simply can't get their heads round it. Anyway, I do feel better for getting it off my chest – which is what this blog is really about... stress relief for knackered subs!

Hyphens... doncha love 'em?

My 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage has a lot to say on the subject of hyphens, but it lacks the honest admission of the 2nd edition that resides on JD's desk: "No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description."

Both editions offer pages of advice on hyphens, but this is an area where usage is constantly changing. Reflecting this, the latest (6th) edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has dumped no less then 16,000 hyphens, many of them from compound nouns. Traditionally, paired words start separate, gain a hyphen and finally merge. An example close to my heart is motorised bicycle which became motor bicycle, motor cycle, motor-cycle and finally motorcycle.

But in many cases those nice people at Oxford have reversed the traditional process by reverting from a hyphenated pair of words to two separate words. Thus fig-leaf becomes fig leaf; other separated pairs include hobby horse, ice cream, pin money, pot belly and test tube.

Following the more usual process by squeezing out the hyphen to become a single word are bumblebee, chickpea, crybaby, leapfrog and logjam (though I can't say I like the look of the gj at the centre of logjam).

As far as I know we Brits still like a hyphen in the middle of our port-holes as an aid to pronunciation, while our American cousins are quite happy with porthole. Clarity, as always, is the name of the game.

Word of the day: puntillious

Anyone familiar with that commendable book The Meaning of Liff, by the late and much lamented Douglas Adams, will know that it comprises an alphabetical list of place names which he coined to describe familiar situations, emotions or objects that no one had previously named.

In case you've missed it here are the first three entries:

A liqueur made only for drinking at the end of a revoltingly long bottle party when all the drinkable drink has been drunk.

Of amateur actors, to adopt a Mexican accent when called upon to play any variety of foreigner (except Pakistanis - from whom a Welsh accent is considered sufficient).

To strongly desire to swing from the pole on the rear foot plate of a bus.

A colleague recently coined a word that deserves to survive, even though it isn't a place name:

The shared expression on the faces of a group of people after someone has made a pun and everyone else is frantically trying to think of another while politely chuckling in appreciation of the original. So next time you see it happen, and you will, remember to tell everyone concerned that they're looking puntillious.

Lunchtime: Waterstones and Morrisons

This lunchtime I popped into a Waterstones bookshop (to buy the latest Terry Pratchett, since you asked) and noticed a collection box on the counter for Waterstones' pet charity – the Dyslexia Institute. How's that for healthy self-interest?

Next stop was a Morrisons supermarket which had one of those machines that swap your loose coins for notes. It was below a large poster proclaiming: "swap your coins for cash".

It was good to get back to the engine room.

RAS syndrome: Sainsbury's organic

Sainsbury's Organic SO logoRAS syndrome: I am sure you know what this is even if you have never heard the term before. Let me give you some examples and see whether you can work it out (and sorry if this is patronising!).

  • PIN number
  • HIV virus
  • ATM machine
  • CNN network

Got it? Well, 'PIN' stands for 'personal identification number' so it is tautologous to say 'PIN number' - you are in effect saying 'personal identification number number'. The same is true for the other examples (swiped off Wikipedia).

In fact, Wikipedia has some good information on RAS syndrome, including why the name 'RAS syndrome' is itself an example of RAS syndrome.

Anyway, the reason I am talking about RAS syndrome today is because I came across a good example myself recently (as you can see from the image): 'Sainsbury's SO Organic' range of food – the SO itself stands for 'Sainsbury's Organic'. Is this a double RAS?

If you come across any further examples of RAS syndrome, double or not, do send them into us. Cheers.

Word of the day: greenwashing

The OED's definition of 'greenwashing' is:

the dissemination of information by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image

For example, a company that donates a small amount of money to an environmental charity, in return for a large amount of positive publicity, is guilty of greenwashing. Just think of the number of adverts that promote a company's 'green credentials' - a lot of them are 'greenwash'.

The term 'greenwashing' first appeared in the early 1990s and is a portmanteau (yes, another one!) of 'green' and 'whitewashing'.

Gems from our charges

My habit of refering to the writers whose work passes through the engine room as our charges might seem patronising, but consider the following gems:

"…which can only exasperate the problem."
"…boasts impressive credentials on paper."
"…but at the end of the day it’s not an overnight solution.”
"...roughly identical specification."
"...will not revert back."
"...like life assurance, you never know how valuable it is until you have to use it."

Our charges... bless 'em!

Headlines: surrogate mother of 11

Ambiguous headline of the month goes to the Daily Mail with the following effort:

Expecting kids, the surrogate mother of 11

The story focused on a surrogate mother of 11 children, rather than an 11-year-old surrogate mother. In the paper's defence, the photo accompanying the story did give a large clue as to the correct interpretation of the headline.

The Mail used a different headline for its online version of the story, but the same image.

Turkish politican with unfortunate name

I meant to publish this a while ago – the following news story concerns a Turkish politician with a rather unfortunate name.


Thanks to Gareth for sending this in.

Schpelling: accommodation, judgement

As JD would confirm, spelling isn't my strongest suit; hence the well thumbed OED on my desk.

But while everyone makes spelling mistakes, some are less excusable than others.

Last night, for example, I caught a TV documentary about a hotel during which, with great fanfare, a new, and no doubt expensive, sign was erected announcing that the hotel offered 'executive accommadation'.

In a former job as a writer I had cause to write about accommodation on almost a daily basis. The sub editor who sat opposite me finally lost patience; every time I misspelt the word she reached for her 18-inch steel ems rule and whacked me on the wrist. I learned fast.

And this morning a national magazine reported that a court had reserved its judgement. Nothing wrong with the spelling of judgement, except that in English usage it drops the first 'e' when used in a judicial context.

Both these errors, trivial in themselves, are noteworthy for their context. A hotelier should be able to spell accommodation (and a signwriter should have a dictionary); a court reporter should know the difference between judgement and judgment.

Off to sunny Spain

Tomorrow I jet off to Spain for two weeks. But don't worry – Apus will keep the blog ticking over in my absence.

As well as that, I've written some spare posts which Gingerous Humerous Maximus will be posting on my behalf. So it will be almost as if I haven't gone away.

A couple of you have been asking how my Spanish is progressing. Well, the latest invaluable phrases I've been taught by my 'Instant Spanish' book and CD set are:

* My wife is crazy
* I have seen some blue shoes
* The sales assistant was handsome like Tom Cruise
* The toilets are great

I've set myself the goal of dropping these into conversation with unsuspecting Spaniards. Bonus points for getting them all into the same conversation. Wish me luck!

Pointless padding

It's been a long day, made longer by the following phrases in stories that dropped through the engine room hatch:

"a recently opened production facility" (replaced by "a new factory") and
"all the aforementioned elements can be configured to tailor to the individual needs of the customer" (replaced by "these elements can be tailored to suit the customer's needs")

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Quotes: ministerial oversight

One of our recent news stories quoted an individual talking about the importance of "ministerial oversight". I found the ambiguity here quite amusing – of course, the speaker was stressing the importance of government ministers overseeing a particular project, not the importance of those same ministers unintentionally failing to notice or do something.

This raises an interesting question about the use of quotes – is it acceptable to reword a quote slightly to prevent interviewees looking foolish or being misunderstood? In this instance, we left the quote alone, as the correct meaning was evident from the context.

Trademarks: hole in the wall

Seeing as we have been talking about trademarks...

Back in June, I wrote on this blog about the number of different terms there are for ATMs. One of the ones I mentioned was 'hole in the wall' - and I've just found out that 'hole in the wall' is a trademark of Barclays Bank. Or rather, 'Hole in the Wall' as Barclays would have it.

Interestingly, 'hole in the wall' is listed in the OED – but as 'informal, British', not as a trademark. I wonder when Barclays trademarked it? The bank only started consistently using the term 'hole in the wall' instead of 'ATM' last year – but then it did install the world's first 'hole in the wall', in Enfield, North London, 40 years ago.

Trains, tickets, tannoys and tautologies

Announcements on trains and at railway stations have been irritating me more than normal recently.

I was warned the other day to "prepare for a full ticket examination" – whatever happened to ticket inspections? I am sure the person checking my ticket would rather be called an inspector than an examiner.

Another phrase I dislike is 'final destination'. A train has 'stops' on the way to its 'destination' – 'final destination' is just tautological.

And don't get me started on being referred to as a 'customer' rather than a 'passenger'... especially when my local railway doesn't even do so consistently. It offers me a 'passengers' charter' but calls me a 'customer' over the speaker system. Why?

Trademarks: Velcro

As subs, Apus and I have to be careful about the use of genericised trademarks in our publication. For example, our writers shouldn't refer to 'hoovers' when they mean vacuum cleaners in general - the manufacturer Hoover is liable to get cross at this misuse of its trademark and write us a stern letter.

Leaving these genericised trademarks in the magazine is unlikely to get us sued, but it could damage our relations with the companies in question. And we get enough stern letters as it is.

One genericised trademark that had me stumped recently was Velcro – if we can't refer to 'velcro' as a generic, what should we call this type of product? The OED, for once, wasn't much use. The answer came via Wikipedia - Velcro, apparently, is a specific brand of "fabric hook-and-loop fastener".

Wikipedia also has a comprehensive list of genericised trademarks – many of which are country or region-specific.

Word of the day: flexicurity

A rather unpleasant portmanteau word dropped into the engine room yesterday, as part of a feature on European employment law.

A Eurocrat (whoops, there's another portmanteau word though not the one I'm referring to) promoted the concept of 'flexicurity'; presumably a merging of 'flexible' and 'security'. He explained that flexicurity "shifts the emphasis from 'job security' to 'employment security' and from 'security with a job' to 'security of a job'."

Well that seems clear enough...

Headlines: gay toilet sex scandal

Gingerous Humerous Maximus has emailed in the following headline from Sky News: Washington rocked by gay toilet sex scandal

He asks: "Can you get a gay toilet?"

I was thinking about how this headline could be recast to avoid the unfortunate attribution of 'gay' to 'toilet'. Something like 'Gay sex in toilet' scandal rocks Washington is shorter, clearer, and active rather than passive, but it does have to rely on inverted commas - and relegates Washington to the end of the headline.

Of course, the simplest solution would be to hyphenate 'toilet' and 'sex': Washington rocked by gay toilet-sex scandal

Any other suggestions?

The kettle's ebullient

Erin McKean's remark about the serendipitous nature of printed dictionaries struck a chord.

As JD says, he and I maintain a glossary for the benefit of the writers in our charge and regularly include interesting words we come across by chance (which explains why the first words in the glossary is 'absquatulate'). The fact that none of our charges has challenged us for including such an obscure word indicates that they pay as much attention to the glossary as they do to the magazine house style book.

Recent serendipitous discoveries added to our glosssary that deserve wider recognition include otiose (which means useless) and ebullition (which means boiling).

I've already had the pleasure of assuring one of our more challenging writers that his latest submission is otiose and look forward to JD's assurance that the kettle is in a state of ebullition, it being his turn to make the tea. Could a kettle be said to be ebullient? I wonder.

Erin McKean: redefining the dictionary

Today I'd like to plug this video presentation by Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary. It's about the future of the dictionary and takes about 15 minutes to watch.

McKean make the interesting point that one advantage of a print dictionary over current online dictionaries is 'serendipity': "When you find things you weren't looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult."

Apus and I have discovered many of our favourite words through serendipity - from absquatulate (chiefly North American; 'leave abruptly') to covin (archaic; 'fraud, deception').

Incidentally, the TED website has a number of other talks that might be of interest; speakers include Al Gore, Bono and Richard Dawkins among many others. Makes a change from watching YouTube videos of people being stupid.

More corporate speak

The company that employs JD and I has, we learned via e-mail this very day, appointed a senior human resources executive (oh for the simple days of personnel departments).

The e-mail was disappointingly straightforward until the closing sentence when the writer slid into corporate-speak and revealed that Ms A "will have a dotted-line HR reporting relationship to" Mr B.


Marketing gets saucy: HP

Today's award for marketing hyperbole goes to HP Foods, maker of HP Sauce. According to the label on the bottle, HP Sauce is a "legendary and uniquely distinctive taste sensation" and also "everyone's favourite".

I love this for a number of reasons.

1. Everyone's favourite. Just not true.

2. Legendary. I'm not aware of any legends surrounding HP Sauce. If anyone else does, please let me know as I would love to hear them.

3. Taste sensation. Not just a taste but 'a taste sensation'! This sounds impressive, but remember that sensations can be unpleasant as well as pleasant. (I think HP Foods is hoping for association with 'sensational'.)

4. Uniquely distinctive. If it is unique, surely it is also distinctive. Or does HP Foods mean the sauce is distinctive in a way that no other distinctive taste sensation is distinctive? Perhaps - but what does that mean?

(Incidentally, the HP website says the firm has been "providing the nation's sauce solutions for over 100 years" - one for Private Eye's 'Solutions' section perhaps.)