Arcane Vocabulary: Pulchritude

A very ugly word (PULL-kruh-tude) meaning a very pretty thing: physical beauty.  I tend to think of it as indicating a certain toothsome bustiness, but given that the word doesn’t come up much in conversation, I’ve never been very successful in checking my impression against those of others.  Thoughts, anybody?  What image does this word bring up for you?


Grammar Nazis 1

Welcome to a new series: humor about grammar nazis.  More soon!

That Mitchell and Webb Look is one of my favorite British shows.  Here’s their take on the bad end that grammar nazis must always come to.

And, before you ask, nonliteral or metaphorical references to political organizations do not require capital letters (CMoS 8.65).

Dickinson and the Dash

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), there are several kosher uses for the em dash (as opposed to hyphens and en dashes, which will be discussed in a later entry).  You can use pairs of them to set off a statement in the same way you’d use parentheses or commas (6.82).  You can also use it, as discussed in 6.83, “to set off an introductory noun, or a series of nouns, from a pronoun that introduces the main clause” (as in “Theresa’s blog—it’s an underappreciated masterpiece”).  It can also be used to express a sudden break in thought (6.84), or before “that is” or “namely” (6.85), or to start a line of dialog (6.88; rare in American usage).

…and then there’s Emily Dickinson.  She breaks all the rules, and that’s why we love her.  Check out poem 620 (she did not give her poems formal titles).

Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

Just think of her, shut alone in her room, staring out at  the mountains, and thinking to herself, “A comma?  Screw that!  Written English, it’s time to bend.”

Or a more prim version of that sentiment, anyhow.  Her formal experimentation is part of what makes her so modernistic and so expressive.  Oddly, though, Dickinson’s daring with punctuation wasn’t widely known until Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 edition of her poetry.  His was the first collection to include her body of work in its entirety, and the first to retain her original style, dashes and all.  Dickinson’s reputation grew from obscure to grand over the course of the twentieth century, and Johnson’s effort to let her poetry stand on its own was one of the factors behind her rise.  So here’s to the em dash!

Own It: Apostrophe Errors (with Reference to the Insane Clown Posse)

Yep, you said it!

The very first rule of the very first page of the very first section of The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s classic book on writing, concerns apostrophes.  This is a punctuation mark that puzzles many, but from this fog of confusion, Strunk and White distill a single, vital droplet of information: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”  The first example they cite is “Charles’s friend.”  That’s right.  Do you hear me, world?  If it ends in an s, it still requires an apostrophe, then another s.

This works in 99.9% of cases (this number has been scientifically discovered . . . in my head).  There is, however, one weird exception: “for goodness’ sake,” and other “sake” expressions in which the first noun ends in s. The Chicago Manual of Style (sixteenth edition) justifies this as creating “euphony.”  Which is to say, it sounds better.

Interestingly, in CMoS-land, there used to be other exceptions—special rules about names ending in a silent s or names ending in an “eez” sound (CMoS cites “Xerxes” or “Euripides” as examples, though I prefer to think of this as the Jeffrey Eugenides rule).  In the sixteenth edition, however, the writers changed their minds.  Now Jeffrey Eugenides gets to own things just like everyone else: “Jeffrey Eugenides’s beer cozy.”

Even more interestingly,* Strunk and White and CMoS do differ on the issue of Jesus.  Not in a religious way, mind you, but in a grammatical way.  Which I think we all know is what really matters.  Strunk and White advocate for writing, say, “Jesus’ clown makeup.”  CMoS says “Jesus’s clown makeup.”  But then, something tells me that the Insane Clown Posse does not understand the mystery of apostrophes…or magnets.

*Provided you are boring.

Graduation Special: How to Spell Your Own Degree

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s graduation season, and those of you who have just received doctorates have probably wondered how, exactly, to abbreviate the degree.  And the heat of the moment is not really the right time to look this up (“Let me just put down my mortarboard for a sec and read the Manual, Mom…”). But if you have to add it in after your name to properly present yourself in a professional context, then it’s worth doing right.  The expression, which technically stands for the New Latin term philosophiae doctor, is properly spelled “PhD,” not “Ph.D.” or “PhD.” (don’t retain the periods).  Why?  You’ll have to ask The Chicago Manual of Style 10.4 yourself—fruitlessly—for the logic, but the manual instructs us to leave off periods in abbreviations that end in a capital letter.

Dude, That’s My Word

This famed scene from The Big Lebowski gives us a window into the evolution of the classic American slang word “dude.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), the term first arose around 1883 and referred to the sort of man who wore spats and smoked cigarettes—in effect, a dandy.  The association of the dandy with urban settings gave us the term “dude ranch,” a Western ranch catering to urban tourists.  History nerds, keep in mind that the association between effeminacy and homosexuality was not yet well formed in American culture, so the term gives us a snapshot of a time when the corruptions of wealth and luxury were more associated with being effete than a sexual interest in men.

“Dude” as a synonym for “male person” began in the African American community by 1918.  Anyone who’s ever listened to any Lord Buckley, performer beloved by beatniks, can imagine the path of the word from there to white counterculture.  By the 1970s, when El Duderino was dropping out of college, the usage was documented in a slang dictionary compiled by students at the University of North Carolina.

I’ll close with a clip (sorry for the poor quality) that shows, better than I can, one contemporary use of the word dude, as a bro-ish interjection expressing nothing in particular.  We’ve come a long way from spats, alas.

Arcane Vocabulary: Frugivorous (or, From Fruit Bats to Bollywood)

Here’s a fun word: frugivorous (froo-JIV-er-us).  Like carnivorous and herbivorous, it’s a word about diet (though, as far as I know, it’s way less useful for discussing dinosaurs than those other two).  It indicates an animal that eats fruit.  Like the fruit bat:

According to Merriam-Webster’s (online edition), the word’s composed of “Latin frug-, frux + English -vorous.”  Which, I have to say, gives a whole new twist to the 1960s dance craze the Frug.  Perhaps it was less about youthful rebellion, and more about the simple joys of fruit.