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."
" 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.)

Solihull Spontaneity Day

On 28 September, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council is holding a Spontaneity Day with "impromptu poetry performances and impulsive inspiration sessions".

There's something that amuses me about a Spontaneity Day being planned weeks in advance...