or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pants on Fire

I really do love Salon.com; I've been a subscriber ever since they offered subscriptions and I read it every day without fail. But honest to god if they don't get a copy-editor soon I am going to snap.

Here's the latest crime against meaning and good writing, in a piece by Andrew Leonard about a book called End of the Line:

So while business magazines and Wall Street investors praise the Wal-Marts, Dells, Ciscos and General Electrics that bestride the land, Lynn comes to bury them. The very things that make these companies great -- their mastery of logistics, nimble outsourcing and offshore operations, relentless quest to bring costs down and profits up -- are destined to doom us all.

Who is to blame? For Lynn, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the former editor of Global Business, a monthly publication aimed at executives of multinational corporations, Bill Clinton gets the lion's share of calumny.

Not only is "calumny" the wrong word, it's just about the wrongest possible word in its context.

Perhaps the writer meant to say "contumely" (which wouldn't have been quite the right word either, as "contumely" means "rudeness or contempt arising from arrogance"), or maybe he just thought that "calumny" means something like "vitriol" or "vituperation". But "calumny" has only one meaning: "a maliciously false statement meant to destroy the reputation of another". In using this word, the writer is inadvertently suggesting that the author of the book he's reviewing is deliberately lying for the purposes of character assassination. That can't be what's meant, and isn't: the review makes clear that the book's author does hold Clinton accountable, so he doesn't think Clinton is being calumnied by anybody, and the article's writer doesn't think that the book's author is doing any character assassination either.

But that's what happens when a writer doesn't pay close attention, when he doesn't pick up the dictionary now and then, and when there's no-one looking over his shoulder.


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