or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 12, 2005

Naughty, Naughty

One job of the copy-editor is to catch usages that, while not technically wrong, are inferior to more established or precise ones, and then try to convince the author that the original choice was not as good as the substitution. It can be an uphill battle.

From today's Salon.com review of the new movie The Skeleton Key:

This architectural ode to the old-time graciousness of the South is pretty enough from the outside, but inside, it's a warren of boarded-up doors just waiting for the right key, ominous rooms lit only by the meager shafts of light that manage to sneak through slatted windows, and crackled-cream doors and window frames that look as if they haven't seen the wet end of a paintbrush since 19-ought-two.

I love a long, comma-spackled compound-complex sentence as much as the next person, but I do not love the use of "ought" in this case. As I've said, it's not technically wrong, but it caught my attention and it could be better.

"Ought" is occasionally used as a substitute for "aught", which is what the writer ought to have used. In this context, "aught" means "zero", and it comes from what etymologists call a misdivision--of "a naught", because "naught" also means "zero" or "nothing". Since "a naught" and "an aught" sound identical in normally spoken English, both terms found a place in the language. ("Naughty" means "wicked" or "mischievous" because "naught" once meant not only "zero" but also "evil"; it was more or less interchangeable with "bad" in any sense, such as "naughty weather", but eventually came to refer only to behaviour.)

By the way, there's a reasonably common belief that the same sort of misdivision happened to "orange"--that "a norange" became "an orange". This turns out to be untrue: although "naranja" is Spanish for "[an] orange" and "norenge" was old French for the same word, it lost its leading "n-" before it ever entered English.


Post a Comment

<< Home