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Category: usage Page 1 of 2

The harkening back…

I’m reading The Professor and the Madman1, by Simon Winchester, and given that it details the circumstances around the creation of The Complete Oxford English Dictionary, there are plenty of unusual words thrown about!

I particularly enjoy learning of common words we use today having previous meanings that are virtually unknown now. Take heckling for example. According to Winchester, it meant

…the process of separating the individual stems of the flax plant from each other…2

And then,

…(often in a political context) in the sense of catechizing someone, making his or her arguments stand up to severe scrutiny, as a flax plant might stand for the scutcher.3

Neither of these definitions match how we use the word today, but you can see a progression through the meanings.

Another example I knew of before is broadcast. You certainly know the most common meaning today, but the word was first used in the middle of the 18th century. Like Heckling, it was a farming term:

Of seed , sowing , etc.: sown or performed by scattering widely rather than by placing in drills or rows.4

One would cast the seeds over a broad area. Broad-cast.

I wonder what other words we use today, perhaps in a technical sense, have much older meanings.


  1. Strangely, and inexplicably, the title of this book everywhere but the US and Canada is The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words.
  2. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1998
  3. ibid
  4. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2007

Facebook news is weird

According to Facebook news headlines, the Dixie Chicks will soon embark on the weirdest tour ever.

I find it odd that they’ll be visiting 40 cities, but only playing in four of them. Sounds like the most inefficient concert tour ever.

Either that or the Facebook news people need a lesson in sentence construction, but that couldn’t be it, right?


Image capture from Facebook.com

On accident

Over the years, I’ve heard many children say on accident rather than by accident. Kids haven’t learned the finer points of grammar and phrasing, so it’s but one of the many mistakes they sometimes make. This is born out by the fact that I’ve never heard any child over the age of about ten say it.

Until now. I saw a U.S. John Deere television ad in which the voice-over states:

To make sure people don’t break John Deere tractors on accident, we try to break them on purpose.

I was reading at the time and my head snapped up so quickly that I surprised myself. The only good thing I can stay about this is that I now know why kids make this mistake! Is on accident accepted usage somewhere in the U.S. or should John Deere be looking for a new ad agency before they embarrass themselves further?

Film? I don’t think so.

It always happens. When you notice a new quirk of language, you begin to hear it more and more often, in many different places. It’s almost as if you’re more attuned to it, so it is suddenly everywhere. Unfortunately, the same thing is true for incorrect uses.

Such is the case for me and the word film. The use of actual film has been on the decline for more than fifteen years. When you go to the theatre to see a film, it’s not film. When you film something with your phone, it definitely isn’t film! Still, people keeping using it.

Part of the problem is that there’s not a nice drop-in replacement. For both film and tape, the noun translates to the verb when you record on the medium. Such isn’t the case with flash memory and hard drives. Record works perfectly, but I suspect that people associate the term specifically with audio. Still, it’s the most accurate and as a bonus, it’s not media-specific.

It doesn’t work for going to the theatre though. My favourite term for that is an old one. In old films, they used to call them pictures. “Hey, do you want to go out tonight and see a picture?” or “Do you want to go to the picture show?” I haven’t been able to bring myself to use it, but I find it utterly charming. I suppose the dull and colourless movie will fill end up filling the gap.

If you do nothing else, for goodness sakes, stop saying that you film or tape video with your phone. You never have and never will.

Technical documentation, Microsoft-style

Do not use slang that may be considered derogatory, such as pimp or bitch.

Microsoft Manual of Style, Fourth Edition

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