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MARTHA SEZ: You better watch your language

November 28, 2011
Here we are, dumped back into ordinary time for the winter. It is nice to have the sun come up earlier in the morning (how do they do that?) and of course not so good to have darkness fall by dinner time. Courage! Only a little more than a month to go before the Winter Solstice. After that the days will stop shrinking and begin to lengthen by infinitesimally small increments every (shiver) day.

But who’s complaining?

Well, clearly, I am. As usual, I don’t even have Thanksgiving planned yet, and already I am feeling pressured by Christmas. I will use this opportunity to be cranky about language.

Yes, because, every year I want to use the expression “Daylight Savings,” the way it seems everybody else does, as if we were discussing a bank — Daylight Savings & Loan. Then I check to make sure by looking it up in my handy “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual,” and reread “daylight-saving time — Note savings, Note the hyphen ...Lowercase daylight-saving in all instances.”

This section goes on to make clear that “A federal law, administered by the Transportation Department,  specifies that daylight time applies from 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of April until 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October ...”

This is not actually the case, however. Last year daylight-saving time was officially dropped before Halloween, and this year we went off daylight-saving time the week after. What is the Transportation Department doing, anyway? Wasting time messing with Daylight Savings Time, I mean daylight-saving time, instead of getting real work done, is how it looks to me.

You needn’t feel as if you are walking on eggs around me as far as correct word usage is concerned, however. Even though I am an English major as well as a librarian, I am not one of those people who bristle when she hears a colloquialism. Well, not much. anyway.

By the way, the expression is “walking on eggs,” not “walking on eggshells,” the way some people would have it. Just saying.

Also, the fact that I don’t have Thanksgiving nailed down yet does not mean that I am “behind the eight ball.” I notice that people often say that someone who is falling behind is behind the eight ball. Actually a person who is behind the eight ball is in a hazardous position from which there is no escape, according to “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” Just so you know.

People also get mixed up about homing in versus honing in. You home in on a target. To hone is to sharpen or refine, or, in some dialects, to yearn for or to whine. That rhymes!

There is disagreement about the word forte, as in “English is not really my forte.” Most people pronounce it “for-tay,” but I have found that both “fort” and “for-tay” pronunciations are correct. Maybe it depends on whether you imagine you are saying it in French, in which case the final e would be silent, or in Italian or Spanish, in which case you would pronounce the final vowel.

I will flesh out this column — not flush out, as some would have it, but flesh out, meaning to amplify or expand — by admitting that I can’t really afford to be too cranky about language, since I make mistakes myself. Hard to believe, I know.

There’s the expression “butt naked,” for example. I am irritated when I hear it, and always assume it’s an incorrect way of saying “buck naked.” When I looked it up, however, I found that there is no widespread agreement that either one is correct. In fact, some sources claim that “butt naked,” vulgar as it may be, might have been the original, with “buck naked” coming later, either as a euphemism or simply a mistaken pronunciation. Hmph.

Have a good week.



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