Tag Archives: usage

Don’t Needle Me: The Words We Use

While traveling a while back, I saw a woman toting a sewing machine as her carry-on luggage. No one stopped her.

What is the matter with the Transportation Security Administration? Don’t they realize the dangers inherent in sewing machines? Consider the terminology.

A needle is a small, slender, pointed implement used for sewing or surgical suturing. Have you never punctured yourself while attempting to attach a button or stitch a hem? I inevitably bleed on my blouse or skirt. It’s no wonder the verb needle also means to goad or provoke. I’m often provoked when attempting to sew.

This line of thought led me to consider the analogies used in business and wonder for a moment why sewing analogies don’t show up as often as sports. I assume it is because until recently the majority of business strategists were male, and the majority of sports enthusiasts were also male. “Let’s figure out our game plan so we’ll be in the catbird seat.” I’ve wondered where the catbird seat is and where the phrase came from. It apparently was used in the south to mean an advantageous position, high up where the group of birds that includes the mockingbird choose to sit to sing their tunes. The term was popularized in a story by James Thurber, who cited its frequent use by sports commentator Red Barber.

When things are going well, the company is batting a thousand, perhaps with the assistance of a cleanup hitter.

Although these terms are easily understood by most Americans, even those who aren’t fond of sports, the full court press utilized by basketball teams and business strategists may be more obscure. Any of these could be misconstrued by those not familiar with the sport.

Some years ago, former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, urging patience to critics of a plan to shut down North Korea’s nuclear program, assured them we were only in the first quarter, with a lot of time left on the clock.

Rice’s language was familiar to others on the Bush White House team, but less to the Asians she was addressing. But that’s okay. Ms. Rice took one for the team and kept her eye on the ball. A good thing, else her gaffe might have become a political football for Democrats to kick around.

Let’s level the playing field and consider the other endeavors and hobbies that we employ to add spice to our words. Want to postpone making a decision? Put it on the back burner. Let your ideas simmer for a while. But don’t stew about the problem and by all means, don’t cook the books. However, if the issue rises to the top of the list, consider your opportunity to curry favor with your manager by putting some heat under it.

The phrase curry favor has nothing to do with Indian cooking. It comes from an old French morality poem about a vain donkey named Fauvel that deceived the leaders of the court and rose to power. Those who wanted to please him and gain political power stroked and curried Fauvel. A later English moralist changed the term and it evolved to currying favor.

Let’s end where we began, with sewing. Two basic stitches in knitting are the knit stitch and the purl stitch. Is it possible the word purl is related to purloin? Purloin, meaning steal or misappropriate, has its origins in Middle English, meaning to put away or set aside. I’d love to hear from knitters out there if there’s any sense in my thinking. One website referred to the purl as the opposite of a knit stitch. The purl stitch is yin, the dark, shady hillside, to the knit stitch’s yang, the bright, flat open space.

Or am I merely missing a stitch?

Cobbler, Slab, Crisp or Slump?

Some might consider the various terms used to describe fruit desserts as jargon, “insider” language to be avoided. I consider their colorful names words to ponder, and the dishes delicious treats to savor.

We all know what a pie is, but why all the other creations and the many names? A 2013 article by Kim Severson in The New York Times, “Sonkers, Grunts, Slumps and Crumbles: What You Call Your Pie Depends on Where You Live,” begins with the search for an authentic recipe for a sonker and ends with a helpful glossary.

Many of the dishes were created to stretch the use of fruit that wasn’t ready for display in a tart. Food author Amanda Hesser maintains that the various names disguise “plain desserts that have been well marketed with good names. Who doesn’t want to try a slump?”peaches-869386_640

A slump? A sonker? Give me a pinch of patience and I’ll describe them. Let’s start with the ubiquitous cobbler. Severson said that what you call a cobbler depends on what you grew up with.

Here in the West, pioneers brought their recipes with them, so a cobbler may be interpreted in several ways in the same state. A 1984 fundraising cookbook from the Owyhee County, Idaho,  Senior Citizens, Country Cooking, shared a recipe for a cobbler with a crumbly top, while a cobbler in a 1970 cookbook by The Idaho Historical Auxiliary had a pie crust-like topping. Some cooks top their cobblers with biscuit dough; others consider that an outrage and stick to batter or pie crust toppings. My stepfather made a great peach cobbler, notable because I believe it had more sugar than peaches. Pandowdy is another colorful name for the cobbler, so named perhaps because of its dowdy appearance.

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Gluten-free Cobbler from King Arthur Flour

Some say the biscuit toppings resemble cobblestones and give the dish its name. Others say it is cobbled together.

Fruit crisp or crumble: In this Northeastern favorite, the fruit is topped with oatmeal and brown sugar. Again, however, the 1970 Idaho cookbook sprinkled flour, cinnamon, margarine and brown sugar over apples and called it a crisp. The same cookbook contained a Rhubarb Crunch. Rhubarb, a plant in the buckwheat family, that is neither fruit nor vegetable, is covered with an oatmeal crumble and baked.

Brown Betty: made by layering fruit and buttered bread crumbs.

Apple slab: A pie made in a 9 x 13 rectangular pan, easier to divide and serve than a round pie.

Buckle: Made with more batter, a buckle is more cake-like. Some top it with streusel.

Slump: Similar to a grunt. In these American cousins of British steamed puddings, stewed fruit is topped with batter or biscuit dough, which is then steamed into dumplings.

Sonker: Specific to Surry County, North Carolina. Some cooks in the county insist that sonkers are made only with sweet potatoes and buttermilk, but others allow it can be made with fruit. The sonker is made in a large, deep pan, ideal for feeding big farm families and their crews. Some cooks insist it be covered with a pie crust, others opt for batter.

Severson quoted Alma Venable, one of the cooks who believe that a proper sonker is made with a crust. On what separates a sonker from a cobbler, Venable said, “You have the violin and you have the fiddle. The sonker is the fiddle.”

Avoid Embarrassing Goofs

I’m working on a book that compiles many of the articles I wrote for The Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider when I lived in Boise.  I’ll be posting them throughout the next months and welcome your comments and corrections.

Before you hit “print” or “send” on any document, you need to be sure it is as free of errors as possible. This is most important when dealing with words with a longer life span, such as website copy, but mistakes weaken any communication.

First, for fun, let’s define grammar, punctuation and mechanics. Grammar is the way words are put together to make units of meaning. Punctuation refers to those symbols used to help people read sentences the way we want them to be understood.

Mechanics refers to the arbitrary “technical” stuff in writing: spelling, capitalization, use of numerals, and other conventions.

Usage is the way language is used. Usage evolves and changes with time and attitudes. Usage affects grammar, punctuation, and/or mechanics.  write-2400px

Let’s move on to ways to check our documents. The best proofreader is someone else, because it is hard to find our own typos. But if you don’t have that luxury, try these hints.

1.) Print your document instead of proofreading it on the computer screen. You’ll find more errors.

2.) Read the document backward. You’ll see words you’ve skipped.

3.) Pay attention to, but don’t blindly obey the spelling and grammar checkers on your computer.

4.) Use the auto-correct feature in your word processor to correct words you consistently mistype. Add your personal bugaboos to the program.

5.) Read your work aloud. If you are bored by your voice, consider trying a free program such as Text Aloud, which converts any text into spoken words. Standard voices are free, premium voices come at a fee. I don’t know exactly what a premium voice is, but perhaps sultry comes at a cost.

6.) Use the tip of a pen or pencil to physically touch each word (on the printed page) to force yourself to read each word. Try putting a ruler under a line. Or (idea thanks to Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) cut out a small rectangular window on an index card and slide it over your copy as you read. I think the hole would be hard to cut. Maybe a notch in the top?

7.) Several automatic editing  programs may provide the help you need to  check your manuscript for style: overuse of words, unvarying sentence lengths, clichés, too many “ly” adverbs, passive voice, ending with a preposition (not always wrong), misused homonyms, repeated words (close together), common misspellings (such as mispel) and other flaws. Some are free; most give free trials. Google automatic editing for reviews and try them. I’ve tried a couple and they do indeed find errors. I don’t always agree with them or have the patience to use them. However, some people love these programs.

Error-free may be a dream, but these hints will lead to fewer typos and a better finished product.

How about you? What’s your best hint for avoiding those embarrassing goofs (the kind on the page)?