or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 15, 2005


Back in the day, when I worked at a few newspapers, there was a word that denoted those little bits of filler you sometimes see; little one- or two-paragraph news stories, bits of trivia or "factoids", smidgens of gossip. Those bits of filler were called "brites". I couldn't bring myself to use this wretched neologism, so I called them "squibs" instead. Anybody who's met me knows how incontrovertibly stubborn I am, so my co-workers would allow me this. Some of them even picked it up. Were they humouring me, or did they hate "brite" as much as I did? It hardly matters; language is meant to share information, and they understood me.

As may be expected, the history of the word "squib" is murky; since the word originally meant a tiny firecracker or explosive device that went off with a small, unimpressive bang, the name might have referred to the sound it made. Eventually it came to mean a small piece of satirical writing, and then in my hands it came to mean a small piece of writing, period, something not large enough to stand on its own. I'm not influential enough to have it catch on, but dammit, that's how I'm going to use it anyway.

So: some squibs.


I don't know how I get through the day, having such a hair trigger, but once again I heard the pronunciation "heighth" on television and it sent me into a spasm. I understand how the mistake is made. "Length". "Width". "Breadth". Shouldn't
"height" also have an "-h" at the end of it?

It used to, but it doesn't any more. (And even when it did, it wasn't pronounced like "height" with a "th" tacked on the end, doubling the "t" sound almost into two syllables, as it invariably is nowadays; it was pronounced like "high" plus "th"--like "hith" with a long "i".) There's no escaping the fact that to many ears, it sounds uneducated, or at the very least wrong.


How about stressing (in speech) or italicizing (in print) "the" as a way of saying "the pre-eminent" or "the only one worthy of mention"? "It's the place to go." Doesn't it sound slangy and modern?

Surprisingly, it isn't modern at all. The Oxford English Dictionary (the source for this sort of information) lists a citation from 1824.


Yet again--I read a lot!--I saw "decimate" used incorrectly. Its meaning was once "to kill one in ten". Somehow that meaning has shifted to mean "to annihilate entirely" or "to kill the great majority of". This will no doubt become the dominant if not the only meaning in years to come, with its root ("decem-", "ten") fading into antiquity; but it still annoys me and other persnickety users of the language to see it used incorrectly.


Speaking of which: I recently learned that "persnickety" is strictly a North Americanism. In England, it's "pernickety", which is the older spelling of the word. My Canadian-English spell-checker flags the first spelling as incorrect but allows the second; I have a feeling what I have here is a British-English spell-checker with a few Canadianisms tossed in, because I've lived in Canada all my life and never once heard or seen "pernickety". It flags "gotten", too, but while "had got" may be the standard in British English, it absolutely isn't in Canadian English: we use "had gotten".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must confess to noticing many similar typos and mistakes, so I like reading your blog. But you've used 'factoid' incorrectly, tsk, tsk! A factoid is a 'fake fact' rather than a small, unimportant fact. A small lie that is posing as a bit of truth. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factoid. True, CNN perpetuated their bits of trivia as factoids, and even on BBC trivial facts were termed 'factoids,' but I would expect you to know that -oid appended usually denotes something that's pretending to be something else.

I have a good substitute, however. "Factlet." Small, unimportant, useless, capable of enriching few lives, but a fact, nonetheless. Please make a note of it. :)

Thursday, December 04, 2008 12:35:00 AM  

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