11.15.2017

A Metaphor Worth Its Weight in Salt

A woman being interviewed on NPR today said that any HR officer “worth his weight in salt” would take claims of sexual harassment seriously.

People often confuse the expression “worth his/her salt” with the superficially similar “worth his/her weight in gold.”

The first derives from the tradition of Roman soldiers sometimes being paid in salt. A fairly minimal standard of praise.

The second is much more extravagant way of praising someone as truly exceptional.

You’d taste pretty bad if you were seasoned with your weight in salt.

8.03.2017

[Expetive Deleted] News

Warning: this post deals with language some will find offensive. In this post I’m using euphemisms, but the links below don’t. Don’t click on them unless you’re OK with this sort of thing.

Last week journalists tied themselves in knots trying to convey what was so offensive about Anthony Scaramucci’s comment referring to Steve Bannon’s self-absorption without actually quoting him accurately.

John Oliver had a lot of fun showing various clips of TV journalists trying out all sorts of ways to avoid using his exact words. Oliver of course—being on HBO—was able to pierce through the fog.

Elliot Hannon in Slate explored the same territory, and interestingly chose to call the term in question an “anatomical improbability,” unlike many other journalists who fell back on the cliché “anatomical impossibility.” A quick Web search demonstrates graphically that Hannon’s wording was more accurate. Auto-fellatio is rare but quite possible. They were confusing it with auto-sodomy, truly impossible.

Auto-sodomy is almost always used in the context of hostile suggestions telling someone to “go ______  yourself.”

In contrast, the notion of auto-fellatio refers to people narcissistically absorbed in their own narrow view of the world.

The whole controversy was made possible by the New Yorker’s decision some years ago to use four-letter words whenever they seem appropriate.

And Scaramucci, by referring to Bannon’s metaphorical auto-fellatio, wound up truly auto-sodomizing himself out of a job.

7.17.2017

A great question: "If I was" vs. "If I were"

Over in the comments on the calendar site, Reader 13c11a (we don't have readers with uninteresting names) asked a great question:
In the piece below, which is correct--was or were--and why? Thank you very much.
He repeated that he would neither have the IV removed nor let me go. He went on to explain that he could not discharge me because I was in serious condition. I argued that I couldn’t have been lawfully admitted and that I was going to leave. He explained that he admitted me as an emergency and that I was far too ill to leave. I explained that I had two twenty year old cats at home who were expecting me to return on time to feed them. He was a broken record: he would not allow me to leave. I thought this strange because he was half my age. I don’t know why I thought that mattered. It was as though he was/were wearing a badge and I had been pulled over.
  I replied:
What a great question, and that is an engaging and interesting piece of creative prose! I commend you, 13c11a, if this is original to you.
Around here we don't like technical terms so much, so in keeping with  that I'll just say that any time you're talking about something that could never be true you use "If I were," as in "If I were you. . . . " Conversely, it's natural to say, "If I was off course, I wasn't aware of it at the time," because it's entirely possible that you might have been on or off course.
But then it gets slippery, especially since you can't always say it's one or the other. The song goes "If I were a rich man," which is fine. I get it. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof isn't a rich man, so the statement is not true. But is there a context for "If I was a rich man"? How about "If was a rich man then, I certainly didn't feel it at the time"?
Or how about if Tevye had just plain sung it, "If I was a rich man," with all of his life circumstances just as they are? Would that be so wildly out of bounds? No, not really, because in modern usage the "were" is not required in every case that it could be used. I'd argue no one would bat an eye at "If I was a rich man, all day long I'd biddy biddy bum, if I was a wealthy man."  
Certainly in creative prose you can let your ear guide you somewhat. In my opinion, "It's as though he was" would read better than "It's as though he were" in your passage. I could even argue it is more correct because it strengthens the metaphor of nurse/cop and patient/suspect. That is, if you go with the idea that "If I were" is for cases that are impossible and "If I was" is for cases that may or may not have been possible in the past, you can nudge your metaphor toward the latter interpretation and make the poetic declaration of "He was a cop, and I was his suspect" simply by choosing "was" over "were."
If you do want the technical term, you call this the subjunctive mood, and a good discussion of the point is on the English Language & Usage site.

6.04.2017

Checking Up On “Checkered”

Yesterday I heard somebody being congratulated for “a really checkered career.”

The word “checkered” in this sort of context usually has a negative meaning, suggesting that a person with a checkered past committed serious faults. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “diversified in character; full of constant alternation (especially for the worse).”

The original expression stems from comparing the black and white squares on a chessboard to the bright and dark spots in someone’s life.

I imagine the speaker meant something like “varied,” “many-sided,” “multifaceted,” or “wide-ranging.”

Richard Nixon, who came to national prominence with his “Checkers speech,” had an especially checkered career.

2.10.2017

Alien Apostrophes Invade American Department Store!

In the wake of the current controversy over major stores dropping Ivanka Trump’s line of products, we’re seeing a lot of references to “Nordstrom’s."

Unlike Macy’s, “Nordstrom” is the official name of the chain. No apostrophe. No final S.

11.13.2016

Just one more thing about apostrophes . . .

On the podcast we’ve been discussing apostrophe usage for the past three weeks. There are a lot of comic strips weighing in on the subject lately.

Here's a pretty clever example from Wizard of Id.