or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Taking the Shine Off

Here's a sentence from a Slate.com article by food writer Sara Dickerman about the wonder of pretzels:

According to Harold McGee's essential reference On Food and Cooking, a short dip or shower in a dilute solution of lye before baking converts some of the pretzel's outer starches into an alkaline gel, which browns especially quickly and creates the pretzel's distinctive sheeny surface.

"Sheeny" isn't wrong: it's a valid word in the English language, an adjective formed of a noun by the usual method of adding a "-y" to the end of "sheen" (which is related to "shine", which is related to German "schön", "beautiful"). The trouble is that "sheeny" is also a word, origin completely unknown, that has long been a nasty epithet for "Jew".

There are, of course, words in English that look like, sound like, or are indistinguishable from other words that are generally tabooed in polite society. There was that awful incident at the University of Wisconsin a few years back after a professor used the word "niggardly"; the only black student in the class, who had never heard the word before, perhaps understandably took exception. (It's unrelated to "nigger", which is a corruption of Spanish "negro", "black": "niggardly", which means "cheap", is related to "niggle", a four-hundred-year-old word meaning "to carp about minor details". "Niggard", the noun form of the adjective "niggardly", is close on to seven hundred years old, much older than "nigger".) "Spic and span" has nothing to do with the word "spic", an insulting term (old, and of disputed origin) for a Hispanic person. The "spic" in "spic and span" is related to the ancient "spike" (it dates from the early 1300s), which is to say "nail": the span is a piece of wood, and a house that's spic and span has everything nailed down and in its proper place.

Intelligent people can sort these things out and not take offense where offense, or even the suggestion of it, was not intended. But I still wouldn't have used the word "sheeny", nitpicker though that surely makes me. It seems foolish to use a borderline word so easily replaced. Since the writer used "sheen" in the previous sentence and in the subsequent paragraph, I can't see that the word "sheeny", or any variation of it, was necessary, anyway; something ought to have been changed, and you know which word I would have elected to that post. I would have substituted "glossy", maybe, or--why not?--"lustrous". I can't say that "sheeny" is wrong: I can say that I think it would have been better avoided.

Here's something else from Slate that is entirely wrong, though: a sentence from a piece about the new video game Halo 3 by Chris Suellentrop.

The recently released and justly raved game BioShock is a masterpiece of narrative gaming, with an absorbing story that transports the gamer into a compelling fictional universe.

"Justly raved"? No. "Rave" takes a preposition, and it is virtually always "about", though occasionally "over". The word Suellentrop was looking for, and the copy-editor ought to have supplied, is "raved-about", hyphen and all.


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