Saturday, June 29, 2013

Duct tape/duck tape, one more time

Is it duck tape or duct tape, and which came first? Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has updated his page on the debate, adding new material and antedating the first unequivocal "duct tape" mention to 1957. (In my last go-round on the topic, in a 2010 Boston Globe column, my earliest cite was 1960.) He also links to new research on the history of duct tape, by a former Scotch tape marketing director, that details the development and naming of 20th-century tapes.

Johnson & Johnson's official story has been that
the original material was developed by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson in 1942 as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes in the US Army. ... Because the fabric backing was made from cotton duck and because it repelled moisture "like water off a duck’s back," it became known to soldiers as duck tape.
It's a good story, but none of us have been able to find a shred of evidence for it, despite the abundance of World War II-era documentation. In fact, "the tapes used by the US Army during the war for sealing ammunition cases and other uses were off-the-shelf brands, including Johnson & Johnson’s Jonflex and Utilitape," Quinion reports. And there's no sign that soldiers called these either duck tape or duct tape; those terms were popularized in the 1960s and '70s.

The issue has long been confused by the existence of early references to "duck tape" meaning cloth tape made of cotton duck, whether stickified for sealing or used for other purposes; during my search I unearthed several old ads for Venetian blinds with ladders made of this woven cloth "duck tape." But it's pretty clear now that both terms, the "logical" duct tape and the (now trademarked) Duck Tape, have reasonable -- and fairly recent -- claims to legitimacy.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Riddle me this: a "bullet-ridden" corpse?

I got an e-mail yesterday from James Alan Fox, who teaches criminology at Northeastern University (and blogs for the Boston Globe), noting an oddity in the paper's update on Aaron Hernandez, the ex-Patriot now charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd. The victim's "bullet-ridden body was found in an industrial park" near Hernandez's home, the story* said.

"I know that ['bullet-ridden'] is sometimes used instead of 'bullet-riddled,' but is it proper?" asked Fox. "You can be guilt-ridden, but riddled reflects multiple holes."

He was way ahead of me, since I had no idea bullet-ridden was in circulation. And he's right: It's quite common to find bullet-ridden when bullet-riddled is (I think) intended. Ridden, after all, means "burdened, oppressed, harassed by": debt-ridden, hag-ridden, conscience-ridden. A riddle is a sieve, so riddled is the word for something (or someone) full of holes; "I was to be made a riddle of if I attempted to escape," says the OED's 1843 citation.

Ridden for riddled could be a retrieval error, a substitution of one word for a similar one by a writer who actually knows the difference. It's not hard to accidentally bunker down instead of hunker down, and so many writers have shimmied up drainpipes (instead of shinn(y)ing) that the new version is taking over. But whether it's an accident or a misapprehension, bullet-ridden has been around for a long time. Google Books instantly gave me a sampling of 19th-century examples like "the old, tattered flags, under whose bullet-ridden folds dear comrades fell" (1868).

Since both ridden and riddled suggest affliction, and their sounds are similar, apparently ridden sounds plausible enough -- especially in this cliched crime compound -- to slide right by editors and readers. Also, as the website Phrase Finder notes, both words go hand in hand with guilt: We can be guilt-ridden or riddled with guilt (or both). The reverse substitution is less likely: Riddled must retain enough of its "holey" sense to keep us from writing conscience-riddled or hag-riddled.

I like to think that in my editing days, I would have noticed a goof like bullet-ridden. But after looking at its history, I'm not feeling so confident. An awful lot of people have read the word, and the dearth of recorded peeving suggests that most of them -- or us -- didn't see anything wrong. 

*The link is to an updated version of the story Fox cites.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Incent dissents

Speaking (as I was here) of the Times's After Deadline blog, this week's edition also included a delightful plea from a reader whose comment (like many of them) was meant only to record a peeve that hadn't been mentioned:
Please, please, please, stop using "incentivize." This is an unnecessary expansion of the perfectly good verb "incent."
Of course, both incentivize and incent have been widely denounced as business jargon in recent years. When I polled Boston Globe readers on their distaste for "new" and controversial verbs, incent/incentivize ranked second (after dialogue). So naturally, another Times reader soon posted a terse response:
"incent" is not a word.
Of course it is a word, like it or not. But more than that, the first commenter is correct on the history: Incent was in print, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, as early as 1844, in a New York weekly. An expanded version of the citation:
She had been dazzled by the supposed wealth of a gay fellow, and, incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.
Yes, this is an American source, but incent didn't remain American: By the end of the century, it was appearing in British texts as well. It didn't make much headway, though, over the decades; as the Google Ngram graph shows, it's the newer incentivize that really caught on. (Attempts to split the difference with incentize have flopped.)

We like to think of those -ize verbs as horrible modern business jargon, but in fact, as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, they've been catching flak for over 400 years. Some die off (pulpitize, melancholize); some stick around (economize, legalize) and make themselves useful. In any case, it's their novelty, not their -ize endings, that rubs people the wrong way. Despisers of -ize should breathe deeply and recall that one of our oldest -ize verbs, respectably rooted in Latin and Greek, is the 13th-century baptize

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Further proof that "lay/laid" is a lost cause

How hard is it to keep lie, lay, laid, lain in their proper places? Let's ask Philip Corbett, the New York Times's standards editor. In yesterday's After Deadline blog, he listed this among the paper's usage missteps:
Mr. Zimmerman talked to police repeatedly and willingly, making statements that lay the groundwork for his self-defense case.
We use the article: “the police.”
It didn't take long for readers to point out the mistake Corbett had missed. "You should also use 'laid,' not the intransitive 'lay,'" said one: Zimmerman's statements laid the groundwork.

Lay, of course, can be transitive too -- in the present tense: "Lay the coats on that bed." But the Zimmerman sentence is cast in the past ("He talked to police"), so the usual sequence of tenses would call for the past-tense laid. "I know you are right" becomes, in the past, "I knew you were right" -- even if you still are right.

But not always. The writer might claim he meant to use the present tense of transitive lay, since  even though Zimmerman talked to police in the past, his statements are laying the groundwork for a defense. Brian Garner calls this the "ongoing-truth exception" to the standard tense shift: "When a subordinate clause states an ongoing or general truth, it should be in the present tense" whatever the main verb is. Thus "He said yesterday that he is Jewish, not ... that he was Jewish."

Garner seems to want to make this a rigid rule, so that every continuing truth would be stated in the present tense. That has not been the traditional practice, though. "The tense shift can always be disregarded when one wants to make a subordinate clause conspicuous," wrote Bergen and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957):  "He told me the train leaves at three," for example, or "he taught that God is love." But usually, they caution, "the shift has nothing to do with 'real time.'" In most cases, we shift tenses naturally: "What did you say your name was?"

As far as I know, nobody before Garner suggested drawing a bright line between cases where the "ongoing-truth exception" was mandatory and those where it wasn't. Following it rigidly would create some odd sentences: "I knew you are right." "Mom thought my dress is too short." And often either version serves equally well: "She said he still believed/believes in Santa Claus." We've gotten along for centuries leaving the choice to the writer; why would we clutter up our heads with a rule now?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Extremely organic: "biodynamic"

Writing in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson wondered about the nature of the "biodynamic skin creams" on display at this year's Brooklyn Baby Expo. "Is biodynamic a subset of organic, or something else?" he asked parenthetically.

Adam and I are behind the times, it seems. I had the same question after a recent visit to the Bay Area: The menu at a popular San Francisco restaurant offered a spritzer made from "Seltzer Sisters soda water with Nikolaihof biodynamic elderflower syrup."

I soon discovered that this isn't just West Coast woo-woo. Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge also stocks the elderflower syrup, made at "the oldest wine estate in Austria," where the Saahs family "still use a wine cellar built by the Romans."
The entire estate is run according to biodynamic principles. As a result, the Saahs plant and harvest according to the moon calendar and use only homeopathic treatments for the grapevines and other plants.
But that summary barely scratches the surface, as the Wikipedia article makes clear. Turns out that biodynamic agriculture is one of the many offspring of the protean social reformer Rudolf Steiner, who's perhaps best known today as the founder of Waldorf education. Whole child, whole farm -- it's the same idea, more or less.

And what does it involve? A winery's website has a nice summary:
[Steiner] espoused the principle that a farm should be considered as an organism or self-contained entity. As far as possible the bio-dynamics of the farm should be in balance and harmony. In practice, this is achieved by avoiding the use of toxic chemicals for controlling pests and the use of artificial fertilizers, balancing farm outputs to inputs, developing sustainable ratios for cultivation, cropping and livestock activities and using on-farm materials for soil enrichment.
These materials include a number of homemade compost enhancers such as recipe no. 502:
Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
Call it extreme organic farming (because "organic farming on steroids" would just be so wrong!). And though the science (naturally) is contested, I'll gladly concede that a farmer willing to stuff yarrow into deer bladders, bury it, then dig it up again has earned the premium price that "biodynamic" produce surely commands. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fine distinctions: careering, fearing, recollecting

Last week at You Don't Say, John McIntyre responded to one of those true believers who think that so long as they still distinguish between overlapping words -- career and careen were the pair at issue -- everyone else should too. "Why on earth would we dispose of such a useful distinction?" asked the commenter.

This rhetorical challenge is a perfect example of begging the question, in the old sense. Who says it's "useful"? If I found it useful, wouldn't I be using it?* In any case, Gabe Doyle gave this issue the full treatment way back in 2009, so I won't dwell on it. 

As John kindly mentioned, my annotated edition of Ambrose Bierce's "Write It Right" includes abundant examples of similar alleged distinctions. In the case of remember vs. recollect, for instance, Bierce says the difficulty governs the verb choice: "We remember automatically; in recollecting we make a conscious effort."

This seems to be an uncritical borrowing from Richard Grant White, whose 1870 "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present" is the earliest source of the "rule" I've found. There are few later sources, presumably because the rule is so pointless. Why would a listener care if you were recalling something with effort or not? And wouldn't the rule make it incorrect ever to say "I can't remember X"? At any rate, the distinction never took hold, even among sticklers.

Another Bierce bugbear was discussed at Arnold Zwicky's blog the other day: "I'm afraid" vs. "I fear." Bierce says "I fear that it will rain" is correct, though he gives no reason. He may have swiped this one from an 1855 handbook by one Walton Burgess, grandly titled "500 Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, in Speaking, Writing, and Pronouncing the English Language, Corrected." Burgess uses the same "rain" example, and he does give a reason: that "afraid expresses terror; fear may mean only anxiety."

But as Arnold noted, there's no historical support for banning "I'm afraid" in the polite/apologetic sense. And even if Burgess's distinction once held, today we hear "I fear" as quite formal, and freely use "I'm afraid" to express both fear and mere regret or anxiety.

I leave for another day Bierce's attempts to differentiate between necessities and necessaries, coat and coating (of paint), trifling and trivial, custom and habit. Suffice it to say that a century later, we're doing very well without them.

*Of course there are always distinctions that remain "meaningful" for some of us even when Those Kids have dropped them; I still think "he may have survived" and "he might have survived" mean different things, but lots of people no longer read the verb as I do. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bernanke gets it right

Belated congratulations to Ben Bernanke, who included an oft-mangled Biblical passage in his commencement speech at Princeton last Sunday and managed to get it right: 
As the Gospel of Luke says (and I'm sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."  It's kind of like grading on the curve.* 
The Kennedys were fond of the Biblical admonition too, and misquoted it through several generations. In 1997, I wrote a Globe column** about JFK Jr.'s garbled version, printed in his magazine, George: "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"

But it turns out the passage has confounded would-be quoters for centuries. When Mark Liberman took up the question at Language Log, in 2007, he found ungrammatical versions dating back to 1826. "However you decide to connect everything up," he wrote, "somewhere in there you need to tell us that much is expected from people, when much is given to them." Apparently that's harder than it sounds, even for educated native speakers.

Bernanke also went with singular they in a couple of instances:
Life is amazingly unpredictable; any 22-year-old who thinks they know where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination.
Take a few minutes the first chance you get and talk to an alum participating in their 25th, or 30th, or 40th reunion.
These were departures from the published text, where the first quote read "any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be," and the second had "his or her 25th ... reunion." In speech, of course, singular they is utterly  natural, and Bernanke didn't hesitate to use it.

*'I've quoted the speech as delivered; the text version has a couple of small differences, including a footnote for the Bible quotation: "Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible."
**Behind a paywall now, I'm sorry to say.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

That's not (yet) what it means

Mark Bittman's piece on salt in the Times last week had a usage I'd never seen before. He wrote:
It does seem that as sodium intake in a population decreases, so does blood pressure, so public health officials argue -- not insensibly -- that most Americans (probably 90 percent!) would be smart to try to eat less salt.
Insensibly only makes sense here if you think it's the opposite of sensibly; Bittman (I think) means to say "not unreasonably." But that's not what insensibly has traditionally meant, to me or my dictionaries. 

The OED's (not updated) definition is "In an insensible manner or degree; imperceptibly; unconsciously; esp. so slightly or gradually that the action or process is not perceived; by imperceptible degrees."

And insensible here does not mean "contrary to common sense." The word did once mean "destitute of sense or intelligence; irrational" -- the OED's cites date from 1531 to 1794 -- but that sense is labeled obsolete. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary calls it archaic, as did the dictionary's 1913 edition; American Heritage (4th ed.) ignores even the possibility of that meaning.

But is archaic insensible poised for a 21st-century comeback? Well, Bittman isn't alone; examples of insensibly for "unreasonably, not sensibly" are out there, as early as 1986. Some sightings from the Times:
We ... took the measure of the 33-foot cross planted there, first erected by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s to counter the bad vibes from the volcano, which they regarded, not insensibly, as the gates of hell. (2007)
Sensibly, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani wants to get rid of the bad. But insensibly, cabbies say, the new regulations he proposes would not only run off the errant few but sideswipe several hundred of the good as well. (1998)
Sarge, a Hell's Angel from Lea Valley, England, was disappointed in his trip to Kruger Park, the crown jewel of the South African park system. Not insensibly perhaps, because he ... had arrived at an inopportune moment. (1996)
''The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt'' is a curiosity: a documentary mixed in, but not insensibly so, with docudrama. (1986).
And from other edited sources:
...the group of iconoclastic individuals who insensibly condemned the arena to its fate to appease the Penguins. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2012, letter to the editor)
This is not the first time the Sense and Sensibility star has acted insensibly over the pursuing shutterbugs. (, 2009)
In Colburn's case, appellate lawyers are arguing, not insensibly, that drugging the defendant into a torpor during his trial denied him his constitutional right to be competent. (Houston Chronicle, 2002)
Many observers believe, not insensibly, that developers of the tourist region around Niagara Falls would do better to form their own vision than simply to re-create what has already occurred. (Buffalo News, 2001)
Say "Y2K" with an anxious brow and all will know that one is worried, not insensibly, about the problem with computers. (Houston Chronicle, 1999)
Of course, for all I know this could be the dominant sense among the under-30 population. (There may be lots more examples out there for anyone willing to search "insensible" instead of "insensibly/not insensibly," but winnowing the results would take more time and patience than I have.) I wouldn't presume to resist the inevitable, but I would caution those who like this sense of insensible: The word can be hard to interpret even now, thanks to its many shades of meaning; it might be wise to resist adding another.