World Wide Words
Issue 898: Saturday 4 October 2014
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking. Several readers pointed out that I had said nothing about the second part of this odd expression. Cabbage here is a reference to the head, it being roughly the same size and shape. Cabbage and cabbage-head have long been slang terms for a dull-witted, stupid or naive person.
The Yorkshire exclamation I quoted in the piece is “well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs”, not “bottom”. Janet Alton emailed, “I was born and brought up in a South Yorkshire pit village between Sheffield and Worksop, and if anyone had said ‘bottom’ where I lived, they would have been accused of ‘talking posh’!” She added, “A similar expression of surprise or disbelief is ‘Well, I’ll go to’t back of our ’ouse’.”
The Word at War. In my review of the book, I misquoted the famous statement by FDR that 7 December 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a “date that will live in infamy”. The book’s authors had it correctly. Nick Willmott disputed one of the book’s statements, “You are not to be blamed for repeating the assertion that the celebrated Keep Calm and Carry On poster was never distributed during World War II. However, Reece Winstones’ Bristol Blitzed of 1976 includes a photograph which clearly shows the poster on display in 1941.”
Testing, testing … I’m developing a version of the World Wide Words site that will be responsive to differing screen sizes on mobile devices. If you have access to a smartphone, tablet or similar device and would like to look at a sample page and comment in detail on how easy it is to use and — as far as possible — its design, typography or coding, please contact me and let me know what make and model of device you have. Use the special email address email@example.com.
Housekeeping. If you recognise any of these defunct email addresses as having once been yours, would you contact me? firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
It means clothes.
It was more widely used centuries ago, because it had several senses, based on its Old French source, habillement or abillement, which come from the verb habiller, to fit out or render some item fit for service. The form without the initial h shows its link with English able, which comes from the related French habile or hable.
Earlier senses were of the outfit and equipment of a warrior, more broadly the weapons, munitions and other equipment of war. These senses died out in the seventeenth century but one other survived, the garments or vestments appropriate to some occupation, occasion or season.
It’s too pompously formal to fit our age and most dictionaries mark it as archaic. However, habiliments also became a jokey way to refer to one’s everyday clothes and it may still be found as a humorous, dismissive or sarcastic way to refer to clothing:
You know the kind of cyclist I mean: all is vanity. … He wears wicked shades, an insect-head helmet, and has athletic signage on his inappropriate habiliments.
The Herald (Glasgow), 20 Jun. 2014.
A new tribe. You may remember the yuppies of the 1980s, the Young Upwardly-mobile Professionals. Their name coined several imitations, of which the newest and most awkward appeared in British newspapers a couple of weeks ago. The group is the endies, those who are Employed but have No Disposable Income or Savings. It was invented by a think tank, the Centre for London, in a report, Hollow Promise: How London Fails People on Modest Incomes and What Should be Done About It. The Centre concludes that a combination of static incomes and increasing cost of living, especially housing and transport, have put about a fifth of Londoners into the endie group.
Book day. Next Thursday, 9 October, is Super Thursday for publishers in Britain, the day on which they launch their key books for the season. In the past, individual publishers have decided to put their best titles out on the same day, but this year publishers have combined to make an official joint promotional campaign. Book publishing has used the term from at least 2000, but borrowed it from politics. British elections are always held on Thursdays and a chance combination of national and local by-elections and the European elections was given the name in 1994. This was almost certainly taken from the older Super Tuesday in the US, when several presidential primary elections are held on the same day.
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Professor Pinker claims to love reading style guides. However, in much of his book — the last 115 pages especially — he points out their deficiencies and dismisses the views of purists, otherwise “sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis and the Gotcha! Gang.” In this lies one of the themes of his work as well as a hint of his style.
He explains cogently how to write better, to learn the sense of style of his title. His arguments and examples are drawn from cognitive science, which tells us how people take in information, and from modern grammar, which has replaced traditional assertions about the nature of English with a researched understanding of the way English actually works.
The book is entertaining while containing much good sense about the art of writing well. He takes examples of twenty-first-century prose and argues his way through what makes them good or bad. He advocates a classic style of writing, a conversation between writer and reader in which the writer knows what he wants to say and knows how much he needs to tell the reader and how much he can leave to the reader’s knowledge. The prime failure in much communication, he points out, is assuming that your reader knows too much (he calls it the curse of knowledge) or that he or she understands technical terms that are everyday concepts in the writer’s field but not outside it.
He follows this up with detailed advice on such matters as signposting your intentions to keep your reader on course, avoiding clichés, limiting the number of abstract nouns (to call that excessive nominalisation is an example of the problem), preferring positives to negatives (research has shown it takes more mental effect to understand negatives) and preferring active to passive (though he argues forcefully that the passive can usefully emphasise the key element of a sentence).
Much of the attention that’s been paid to The Sense of Style has focussed on Pinker’s iconoclastic views on grammar. Are dangling modifiers (the subject of so many Sic! items in this newsletter) always mistakes? No, he says, many are acceptable, so much so that we don’t notice them. It’s only the examples that lead to glaring incongruities that become reasons to avoid them. Is it OK to verb nouns? He says it often is, since they make it easy to express concepts that would otherwise require circumlocution and, anyway, using them is a matter of taste, not grammar. He points out the subtleties of less versus fewer, noting as one case that less is fine with units of measurement. In his discussion of punctuation, he advocates the serial comma, but decries the way his fellow Americans put their closing punctuation inside quotation marks, regardless of sense and logic.
After 115 pages of this and related rejection of convention, he ends “For all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness.” Amen to that.
[Pinker, Steven, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century; published in hardback and ebook in the UK by Allen Lane (ISBN 9781846145506) and in the US by Viking (ISBN 9780670025855).]
• The miracles of modern technology. Bob Bendesky found this on the US Weekly site on 27 September: “Chelsea Clinton introduced her newborn daughter Charlotte to the world one day after giving birth via Twitter on Saturday.” As Cedric Vendyback discovered, Time magazine included a tautology in a related announcement: “Chelsea Clinton gave birth to a newborn baby girl, she announced Saturday morning.”