or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hue and Cry

Here is a sentence from a piece on, yes, Slate.com about iPhone apps for kids:

It's actually a sweet story: The boy hues closely to his sense of justice and has a lot of fun putting out fires with the fire truck.

All I could think was, "You have got to be fucking kidding me. Is it even possible that an adult, and a presumably professional writer, doesn't know the difference between 'hue' and 'hew'?"

Well, apparently it is, because there's the proof, right there, along with proof, yet again, that no piece of writing is ever checked by another human before publication on Slate.

Both versions of "hue" in English are extremely old. "Hue", as in "colour", is from an Old English word, "hiw", which meant such things as "colour" and "beauty" and likely originated as a Sanskrit word, "chawi", with similar meanings. The "hue" of "hue and cry" is an old French word that meant "war cry" or "hunting cry", which makes "hue and cry" seem a little redundant, but there you go, that's language for you.

The word that Slate writer Michael Agger intended to use, "hew", is something else altogether. It may be familiar from the phrase "hewers of wood and drawers of water," a Biblical reference that was also once widely applied to Canadians, and it is also an Old English word, "heawan", "to hack or gash", which seems pretty clear. But the idiomatic verb form "to hew to" is, as so many modal verbs are, obscure, until you learn that when you hew to a line, you are cutting by following a straight line marked on a piece of wood, and any metaphorical sense--such as hewing to a sense of justice--is clear and obvious.

Maybe the writer didn't know the difference, or maybe he did and just slipped up, or maybe the computer's spellchecker was unnaturally stupid. But the mistake should not have made it into print, because someone should have caught it beforehand. It may or may not be the writer's fault, but I don't know who to blame, and I gotta blame someone.


On the other hand, here is a hypnotically fascinating piece on cannibalism (and not an error in it, as far as I can see). Read it!


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