Category Archives: Words

“slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

If you are confused about the difference between style and grammar, you should read this testy but important post from The Economist’s Johnson blog, pointing out a problem with Paul Farhi’s Washington Post profile of David Minthorn, one of the editors of the AP Stylebook. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

“E-MAIL” or “e-mail”? “Bed and breakfast” or “bed-and-breakfast”?… “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Mic” or “mike”?

My question isn’t which of these readers prefer, but a more abstract one: which of these are questions of grammar?

The Washington Post profiles the Associated Press’s “grammar and style expert” David Minthorn today. In raising all these questions (and Mr Minthorn’s answers) and in describing Mr Minthorn as a kind of linguistic Solomon, the Post’s Paul Farhi never once makes a crucial point: none of these questions has a correct answer at all, because they are not questions of grammar. They are all style…

Whether to hyphenate “e-mail” or not is one of the most trivial and boring things I can possibly imagine having a debate about, but the AP’s recent move to “email” caused an almighty furore….

It’s good to be consistent, and that’s why the AP and The Economist (and probably the Washington Post) have something called a style. But this is just a series of subjective, almost capricious rulings so that we don’t see “e-mail” and soon thereafter, “email”, a “Ghaddafi” here and a “Qaddhafi” there. As the name suggests, style is a matter of taste…. Who cares, for goodness’s sake? Just pick one and stay with it.

Grammar, on the other hand, really does render “right” and “wrong” judgments…. This isn’t to say there aren’t open or controversial questions of grammar. And there are meta-level questions about the sources of authority in questions of grammar, the old prescriptive versus descriptive argument…. Whatever your language or dialect, it has rules….

Many people worship and slavishly follow the AP’s style. They shouldn’t, because the whole idea of slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language…

It’s also important to remember that there are different style guides for different types of writing, and each style is influenced by practical considerations unique to their publications. For example, Chicago style (used by most of the publishing world) uses the serial comma for clarity, while AP style (used by most newspapers and journalists) doesn’t use the serial comma in order to save column space. Here are two additional examples from Farhi’s article. The AP decision to drop the hyphen from “e-mail” was made because “the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second.” And though Chicago italicizes the titles of books and periodicals, Minthorn notes that “AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them….”

So you should make sure the style you are using is appropriate to the specific type of writing or publication, understand the reasons behind the style decisions you make, and apply your style choices consistently. For more about style manuals, see my previous posts on the subject. For more examples of Chicago and AP style differences, see the AP vs. Chicago blog.

Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

I’ve previously blogged about a number of different style manuals, but this is a rather unusual one. BoingBoing has published online the style manual of the National Security Agency, received through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in April 2010.

The NSA has a style guide—a Strunk and White for spooks—which we’re delighted to publish here for the first time.

Most of the document is an alphabetized compendium of ambiguous, easily-misused or otherwise troublesome words. As style guides go, it’s standard fare: more interesting than the grammar tips are clarifications on obscure intelligence terms and the usage examples, which often lean toward military operations, geopolitics, killings and diplomacy.

Go to the BoingBoing post to read the embedded document or download it as a PDF or TXT file.

Below I’ve copied an assortment of entries that caught my eye as I browsed:

about, approximately …
About is preferred in general and informal contexts. Approximately is common in technical and reference works. Do not use either term (or estimated or nearly) if precise figures are given. POOR: During the attack, about 304 were killed. GOOD: During the attack, 304 were killed. If you are not sure of the number, round it off: During the attack, about 300 were killed.

aircraft …
Do not abbreviate the generic types of aircraft in serialized reports. Use fighter, not “fir”; bomber, not “bmbr”. In keeping with modern journalistic style, capitalize only the first letter of aircraft nicknames: F-15 (Eagle).

bomb …
Do not use the terms A-bomb or H-bomb. Spell out the words. Do not capitalize atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, etc.

bureaucratese …
Bureaucratese is a pejorative, non-technical term for the language style commonly associated with bureaucrats.

Avoid bureaucratic style whenever possible. It is the mark of the timid writer. What is bureaucratic style? Robert Claiborne identified the four main principles of bureaucratic style as:
• never use a short word where a long one will do;
• never use one word where you can use three;
• use abstract and general terms rather than concrete and specific ones; and
• avoid flat statements by hedging and qualifying.

Bureaucratese speaks in passive voice and buzzwords, and it carefully avoids assigning responsibility for any action or decision. It will bore or put to sleep most readers. Don’t use it unless you have no other way to communicate.

casualties …
In military terms, casualties means the total number of dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Do not use casualties when referring to only one of these categories.

communism, communist. ..
Use lowercase for the word communism.

Capitalize communist when referring to the political party or to individuals who are members of it: Communist Party. He is a Communist.

Use lowercase for communist in all other situations: a communist government; he has communist leanings.

Shortened term for electronic mail. The spelling without the hyphen is becoming more common and is preferred, but the alternative form e-mail is also correct.

foreign phrases and words …
Keep the use of foreign words and phrases to a minimum. Few of our readers are linguists.

Where the capability exists…, italicize any foreign word or phrase that may not be known to the average reader. Commonly recognized terms that need not be italicized include, but are not limited to:
• ad hoc
• attache
• blitzkrieg
• bona fide
• charge d’affaires
• communique
• coup d’etat
• de facto
• demarche
• detente
• fait accompli
• junta
• laissez faire
• per se
• persona non grata
• rapprochement
• versus
• vis-a-vis

Phonetic spelling of the letter “f.”

gender …
When talking about a specific person, use a term appropriate to that person: chairman Jones, chairwoman Doe.

Use neutral terms when talking about mixed groups or persons whose identity has not been established: members of the Assembly, rather than Assemblymen; a member of Congress rather than a Congressman.

Do not change an official title to a neutral term. If the official title is “Party Chairman,” use that term; don’t say “Party Chairperson.”

For pronouns, the problem is different. Modern English does not have gender-neutral pronouns for people.

When a pronoun must be used and the gender of its antecedent is not known or can refer to persons of either sex, there are four three choices the writer can make, all of which are acceptable in SIGINT serialized reports.

1. Use the plural pronoun: Everyone hopes they will win the contest.
2. Place the whole sentence in the plural: All people hope they will win the contest.
3. Rewrite the sentence and eliminate the personal pronoun: Everyone hopes to win the contest.

Government, as a political term, refers to an established system of political administration. In American usage, it takes a singular verb; in British usage, it takes a plural verb.

guerrilla …
Preferred spelling. The alternate spelling is guerilla.

jihad …
Preferred transliteration of the Arabic word for “holy war.”

missile …
A missile is an unmanned, self-propelled weapon whose flight path or trajectory can be controlled. A missile may be aerodynamic or ballistic. Distinguish it from a “rocket, which is a self-propelled vehicle whose trajectory or flight path cannot be controlled.

Two n’s and s’s. Avoid abbreviating it as “Recon” except as part of a unit designator in a listing or in a narrative report where it occurs repeatedly. Also avoid the abbreviation “recce,” which is chiefly British. The verb form of reconnaissance is reconnoiter.

revolt, revolution …
A revolt is widespread opposition to current standards. Politically, it refers to an armed attempt to change authority.

A revolution is a radical alteration in a system or in social conditions. In the political sense, it is the overthrow by open and organized armed force of an established government and its replacement by another.

security control markings …
Words or phrases added to restrict the dissemination of a serialized report. At this time there are five such markings:
• ORCON – Dissemination and Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator
• NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
• PROPIN- Proprietary Information Involved
• REL – Releasable to (name of the countries)
• EYES ONLY – (used only on electrical reports in place of REL due to existing software limitations)

title after a name …
Capitalize only national-level titles (Cabinet-level or above) that appear after a name: Jane Doe, Minister of Defense. Lowercase and set off with commas most other titles that appear after a name: John Doe, the deputy assistant minister of culture, arrived yesterday.

title before a name …
Capitalize a formal title appearing before a name: President Jane Doe, Assistant Secretary John Jones. Do not capitalize a title that serves primarily as an occupational designator: astronaut John Doe…. See the entries for courtesy tjtles, military rank, and religious titles.

totalitarian …
Avoid. See the entry for authoritarian.

The document also contains an appendix on abbreviations and acroynyms.

So, what’s your favorite entry?

NY Times ignores AP, clings to “e-mail” and “Web site”

As you know, Bob, most newspapers follow the AP Stylebook, but the New York Times has its own famously idiosyncratic style. Though the AP dropped the hyphen from “e-mail” a few days ago, the Times is keeping the hyphen, according to a blog post by Phillip B. Corbett (associate managing editor for standards) describing some recent revisions to their in-house stylebook. Here’s an excerpt:

We no longer have to write about people sending “an e-mail message” — we can call it “an e-mail.” The term is also acceptable as a verb. (For now, at least, we are keeping the hyphen for this and similar coinages like e-commerce and e-reader.)

Some of the changes simply acknowledge the cultural ubiquity of digital technology. Most of our articles followed popular usage long ago in dropping the “World Wide” from “World Wide Web.” Now the stylebook has caught up: just call it “the Web” outside historical references. Keep in mind that it is just part of “the Internet.”

For now, we’ll continue to capitalize Web and Internet, and we’ll keep “Web site” as two words. But “webcam” is one word, lowercase….

While writers are still urged to avoid some of the newer fad words and jargon, the ubiquitous “app” is now acceptable in all references to software applications, particularly for mobile….

As with PDF, we are no longer requiring points in USB or URL. (The same goes for fanciful texting abbreviations, should you feel the need to ROTFL. Sparingly, please.) We have given up on the insistence that “firewall” always be two words….

Note that the Times alone continues to use “Web site,” though common usage and all of the most recent editions of major stylebooks (including AP, Chicago, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple) use “website.”

The AP Stylebook is dropping the hyphen from “e-mail”

Last August I compared how a number of new style manuals treated tech words. In 2010, both the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and the AP Stylebook Online finally changed their style recommendations from “Web site” to “website,” reflecting what has long been common usage.  But there was disagreement over other terms. Most notably, Chicago and AP still used “e-mail,” but the tech/digital style manuals (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) all dropped the hyphen (“email”)

Today Jim Romenesko reported that the AP Stylebook editors just announced a series of new changes— including the dropping of the hyphen from “e-mail”–  at the American Copy Editors Society Conference. Here’s an excerpt from the ACES 2011 post:

David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, editors of the AP Stylebook, brought with them to ACES 2011 in Phoenix some of the changes that will be effective as of 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, March 19.

They are:

• email, instead of e-mail. (Other “e” terms, such as e-book and e-commerce, retain the hyphen,)

• Kolkata, India, instead of Calcutta, India. To follow local style.

• cellphone, smartphone become one word. (No longer cell phone and smart phone.)

• handheld, n., hand-held, adj.

Most news organizations follow AP style, but book publishers usually follow Chicago style, so the hyphen isn’t dead yet. (See my April 2010 post for more on “e-mail” vs. “email” and Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index.”)

The combined online Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Thesaurus has launched

The new  and improved OED website ( has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. You can now quickly and easily search, browse, and cross-reference the two works. (For background, see my earlier post on the OED relaunch and my review of the print version of the Historical Thesaurus.)

Here’s a message from the Chief Editor about the relaunch, describing some of the new changes.

If your library has a subscription to the OED Online that you can access remotely from home (like the Seattle Public Library and King County Library systems do), you can get free, full access to the OED website by entering your library card number.  If not, you can get an individual subscription for $295 a year or $29.95 a month.

Go explore!

Journalism warning labels and “unsucking” business jargon

Here are two great things featured today on BoingBoing.

Tom Scott’s journalism warning labels, complete with a PDF template so you can print your own set. I particularly like this one:

Unsuck It, a website created by Mule Design that translates business jargon into English. You can search by clicking the “unsuck it” button, but I suggest browsing through the long list of terms. Here are a few examples:

At [company X], we take [Y] seriously.
Unsucked:  We don’t care, but our lawyers do.

Content Creation
Unsucked:  Writing.

Consume Content
Unsucked: Read, watch, or listen.

Creative (n.), Creatives
Unsucked: Professional designer, illustrator, composer, filmmaker, or writer. Not your magic pixel-monkey.

Unsucked: Edit or choose.

We need to ideate on how to use social media to promote our brand.
Unsucked: Think.

Unsucked: Affect.

Make It Pop
This looks great, but if you can make it pop a bit more, we’ll be done here.
Unsucked: Add cliche elements to a site’s visual design (e.g., ribbon, drop-shadow, bevel).

Move Heaven and Earth
AT&T “will move heaven and Earth” to meet its customers’ growing data needs, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan said.
Unsucked: Try.

A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words

Though two of the most influential style manuals (Chicago and AP) recently changed from “Web site” to  “website,” they still differ in their treatment of other tech words, which won’t be a surprise to writers and editors who work with different styles.

Below I’ve compared the current recommendations for tech words from new editions of four style and usage guides.

Chicago is the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (published August 2010), the authoritative style guide used by most of the publishing world.

AP is the AP Stylebook Online (updated April 2010), the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists. (The New York Times uses its own idiosyncratic style.)

Yahoo! is the Yahoo! Style Guide (published July 2010), a new style guide for digital content.

Garner is the 3rd edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (published August 2009), an excellent book that tracks recent changes in usage and language.

The results:

  • All four agree on “website,” “World Wide Web,” and “the Internet.”
  • All except Chicago capitalize “the Web.”
  • Chicago, AP, and Garner use the hyphenated “e-mail,” but Yahoo! uses “email.”
  • Yahoo! and Garner use “webpage,” Chicago uses “web page,” and AP uses “Web page.”

It may look like consensus has finally been reached on “website,” but this is not the end of “Web site,” as it is still the standard in older works like the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (which hasn’t been updated since the 2004 3rd edition) and both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, published in 2003) and Merriam-Webster Online. (By the way, the December 2009 Apple Publications Style Guide uses “website,” “webpage,” and “email” without the hyphen.)

What does this mean for you? If you are using an older style manual, you should probably get a more current one. Which style manual you use will depend on the kind of writing, editing, or publishing you do. Chicago will likely be your primary style manual unless you work with specialized fields or content, such as technical writing, journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, etc. If you are working for a publisher or company, use the style manual and/or “house style” they specify. (Some use a hybrid, based primarily on a particular style manual but customized for internal preferences.) If you are writing for yourself, you can do what you want, but try to be both consistent and open to change. (Though Chicago is my default style manual, I’ve been using “website” and “the web” since I began this blog two years ago. Though I’m tempted to eliminate the hyphen from “e-mail,” I’m not quite ready to do so.)

So, in light of all this, are you going to make any changes to your style or try to convince your employer to modify the house style?

For more on style manuals, see my previous posts.

Update, 8/11/10: In the comments, Delf notes that though Microsoft’s published style manual hasn’t been updated since 2004, their style guide for internal use continues to be updated, and the latest version (June 30, 2010) specifies the following:

World Wide Web
the Internet
the web

Note that all of the tech/digital style guides (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) have dropped the hyphen from “email,” which I don’t think we’ll see adopted quickly by Chicago and AP.

Update 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

Word lovers rejoice: the Historical Thesaurus will be added to OED Online in December

Last October, I blogged at length about the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was only available in two massive print volumes priced just under $400 (though discounted at As I wrote at the time:

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time….

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

Christian Kay, the editor of the HTOED, read my post and sent me an email noting that there were plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED Online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away.

The good news is that you’ll only have to wait until the end of this year. John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has announced that the OED Online will be relaunched in December 2010 with major changes, including an integrated online edition of the HTOED:

It’s now just over ten years since the OED first went online in 2000, and these ten years have seen remarkable changes in the number, style, and functionality of online reference sites. The OED Online was a ground-breaking site when it was first launched online, and it has steadily received very positive responses from users.

Later this year we are taking the opportunity to make some major changes to the OED Online, taking into account readers’ comments and our own sense of how we would like the site to develop.

When the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED was published in October 2009 we were immediately asked whether it could be incorporated into the OED Online. At the time, we were testing the feasibility of this, but now we can confirm that the relaunched OED site will contain an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. This means, for instance, that a user viewing the entry for halberd (the early modern weapon combining a spear and a battle-axe) can click to reach the related entries langue de boeuf, glaive, budge, poleaxe, ox-tongue, and partisan—to list only those first recorded between 1450 and 1611.

Here are more details from the OED Online relaunch FAQs:

Q. When will the new OED site launch?

A. The OED site will relaunch in December 2010. As well as the new-look website, the regular quarterly update will be published with new words and revisions of entries across the alphabet.

Q. What new content will be added at launch?

A. The most significant new content is the integration of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED) into OED Online. This will allow readers to click through from entries to synonyms by date. The new site will also offer publicly-available feature pieces, providing guides to the OED content and regular commentaries on topical issues in the story of the language.

Q. What new functionality will be added at launch?

A. Amongst other things users will be able to search and browse the OED by a wide variety of criteria including subject, region, usage, or language of origin; see detailed information about the major sources of the OED; view search results as a timeline; and be able personalize the resource by saving searches and entries to their own profile.

Q. Will I have to take out a new subscription to access the HTOED?

A. No, it will be fully integrated and therefore accessible as part of your current subscription.

Individuals can subscribe to the OED Online for $295 a year or $29.95 a month. But you may not need an individual subscription, as many public and university libraries subscribe to it, and some (like the Seattle Public Library) offer free online access from home if you have a library card.

For more about the HTOED, see my original post, “Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Update, 11/30/2010: The new OED website has launched, and it fully integrates the Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

AP Stylebook surrenders the battle over “Web site” vs. “website”

I was very pleased to read today in this post on Poynter Online that the Associated Press Stylebook (the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists) is finally changing from Web site to website. This change now appears in the AP Stylebook Online and will be in the printed 2010 AP Stylebook.

It’s about time, as common usage long ago moved to website, a fact acknowledged by Bryan Garner in his excellent 2009 third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage:

website. One word, lowercase. But some stylesheets and dictionaries specify Web site (a clunker). When Web stands alone, it is capitalized. Cf. World Wide Web.

The New York Times, which has long had its own rather idiosyncratic style rules (see my 2009 post on the subject), uses Web site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to do so long after everyone else has abandoned it.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style Online says about the issue:

Q. Which is currently accepted: Web site, web site, website, or Website?

A. A lot of people are writing “website.” A lot of people have come to prefer “website.” But formal usage still calls for “Web site,” in recognition of the initiatives of the World Wide Web Consortium (write “Web-site” as an adjective). The most elaborately formal modern American publication I can think of, the New Yorker, still writes “Web site,” but then again, they also write “E-mail,” “coördinate,” and “reëxamine”—they are very particular. We at Chicago are very particular too, and we recommend “Web site.” But our press as a whole is not in the position of publishing a single, unified publication—such as a magazine. It is easier to apply a set of standard rules and never vary from them for one publication, but rules applying to all sorts of books, articles, and other writing must be a little more flexible. Moreover, when a word gets used a lot it tends to lose any awkward edges (and what could be more awkward than a compound formed of one capitalized word and one lowercased word?). Each new book that appears on the scene presents an opportunity for an author to express a usage preference or to demonstrate a familiarity with changing usage.

But generally, I would recommend “Web site” for formal writing, but “website” for informal writing or friendly writing. Unless, of course, you prefer “Web site” even when you’re being friendly.

It’s a fact that style and usage change over time, though it often takes time to filter up to the guardians of language. One of the things I really like about the new edition of Garner is that he includes a “Language-Change Index” to “measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.” His Index has five stages:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts….

Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).

For example, email for e-mail is in Stage 4, and he explains in detail in the entry:

e-mail; E-mail; email. The first is the prevalent form in print sources. The letter e–short for electronic–is sometimes capitalized, but the trend is to make it lowercase. The unhyphenated email is unsightly, but it might prevail in the end. In print sources, e-mail is five times as common as email. Ultimately, the hyphen may well disappear–since that is what midword hyphens tend to do–but for the time being it is more than holding its own.

Of course the reason e-mail is much more common in print sources is that the style manuals used by print publications specify that as the correct usage.

For more on style manuals, see one of my earliest posts, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), or some of my other posts on the subject.

Update, 8/5/10: The new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now embraces “website,” as I noted in the post I wrote after receiving my print copy.

Update, 8/6/10: See my new blog post, “A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words.”

Update, 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

A dignity of dragons, a lunacy of werewolves, a craving of golems, a tizzy of fairies, a vexation of zombies…

Thanks to this i09 post, I discovered David Malki’s fantastic index of “Supernatural Collective Nouns”:


(Click on the image to make it larger.)

This comic (#566) is available for purchase on Malki’s Wondermark website as a print or a poster.

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation                                    endeavour                             searching/seeking (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)|10               accidentally (subcategory)|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Wikipedia kid: “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically”

Thanks to John McIntyre’s language and editing blog, You Don’t Say, I discovered the new term “Wikipedia kid.”

According to the website Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words, a Wikipedia kid is “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.”

Word Spy lists the earliest citation as an April 6, 2009 report from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations:

Students less prepared for university education than in 2005, according to Ontario university faculty

Wikipedia kids less mature and lacking required skills

..First-year students are less prepared for university education than students from just three years earlier, according to over 55 percent of Ontario university faculty and librarians who responded to a recent questionnaire. Respondents reported declines in writing and numeric skills combined with lower maturity among students who believe that good grades are an entitlement…

Respondents most often reported the following challenges among first-year students:

Lower level of maturity

Poor research skills as evidenced by an overreliance on Internet tools like Wikipedia as external research sources

Expectation of success without the requisite effort

Inability to learn independently…

Playing with Wordle

Thanks to Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith, I spent the morning playing with Wordle,  which creates word clouds from text, blogs, or websites and allows you to change the font, colors, layout, and other elements. This is the Wordle I created from my blog:


“…a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…”

As most of you may know by now, author David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th at the age of 46.

My husband and I did not know him, nor had we ever quite gotten around to reading our copy of Infinite Jest, but we were both stunned by the news, especially coming so soon after 9/11. He was only a few years older than us, and he had achieved the kind of success (both critical and commercial) most authors can only dream of, with a MacArthur “genius grant” as the icing on the cake. I can’t help but think about the wife he left behind and the books he’ll never write, and I fear the way he died will eclipse his talents as a writer and teacher.

In my first “Writer’s Bookshelf” post, I highly recommended the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. David Foster Wallace was one of the contributing editors, and it was he who wrote the word note for “utilize” (“This is a puff-word…”) that I quoted to illustrate the style of the work. These are the other word notes written by him:  all of, beg, bland, critique, dialogue, dysphesia, effete, feckless, fervent, focus, hairy, if, impossibly, individual, loan, mucous, myriad, noma, privilege, pulchritude, that, toward, unique.

Here are a few more quotes from David Foster Wallace’s word notes:


This is a medical noun with some timely nonmedical applications. Educated writers already use aphasia to refer to a brain-centered inability to use language, which is close but not identical to the medical meaning. Dysphesia can be similarly extended from its technical def to mean really severe difficulties with forming coherent sentences. As anyone who’s listened to our current president knows, there are speakers whose lack of facility goes way beyond the range of clumsy or articulate. Our president’s public English, like that of his father before him, is dysphesiac.


This is one of those adverbs that’s formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs–impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex–is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can’t use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it’s trying too hard.


A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote…. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 2)

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their actual or virtual bookshelf.


You should have– and use– a good dictionary. (You are only asking for trouble if you rely on spell-check.) A recent edition is preferable, as new words are added over time, and changes can occur in spelling, hyphenation, plurals, usage, etc. For example, the current edition of my dictionary lists the word “online” (both the adjective and adverb) as one word, no hyphen. The previous edition of the same dictionary published a decade earlier lists the word (adjective and adverb) as “on-line,” two words, with a hyphen.

There are a number of good dictionaries out there, but many copy editors prefer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (the most recent edition, revised in 2003), which is what I use. It is available in multiple formats: hardcover book (in various bindings, generally priced $22 to $27, but available online for $15 to $20), CD-ROM (which allows you to save the entire dictionary to your computer and easily search it without ever having to load the CD again), and web subscription (for $14.95 per year at You can also get them in combination– the edition of the book I bought included the CD-ROM and a free one-year subscription to the website for a total of $27 (less than $20 online).

If you need an unabridged dictionary (most people don’t, though copy editors sometimes do), Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary is a classic, but it is expensive. It is available by web subscription at for $29.95 a year.

The mother of all dictionaries is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, which provides the meaning and history of over half a million words, past and present. The OED tells you when each word entered the language and provides over 2.5 million quotations illustrating word usage over time. The OED is available in many formats, all of which are expensive: book form (the 20-volume full set, a two-volume abridged set), CD-ROM, and web subscription (monthly or annually) at The great news is that many public libraries subscribe to it, so if you have a library card, you may be able to access it for free from your home computer through your library’s website. (For example, on the Seattle Public Library website, the OED is in their list of databases and websites, so if you enter your library card number and PIN, you’ll have full access from home.)

There are many free dictionaries on the web, but I’ll only list a few here:

  • Merriam-Webster offers free web access to an online dictionary and thesaurus at, though access to their premium works (the Collegiate and Unabridged dictionaries) is by paid subscription only.
  • OneLook Dictionary Search ( is a special search engine which has indexed over 1000 online dictionaries. By entering a word or phrase into one search box, you can view results from many different online dictionaries.
  • A free online dictionary and thesaurus can be found at

Choose the dictionary that best suits your needs. For the casual user, a simple print or online dictionary may suffice. If you write or edit, you should use something more substantial and authoritative. If you are a professional writer or editor, check with your publisher or employer, as they may specify one as part of their house style.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 1)

Anyone who writes or edits should have at least a few essential references close at hand. This is the first in a series of posts about useful reference works for the writer’s bookshelf.

The references I’ll be posting about are in book form, though some may also be available on the web or on CD-ROM. These different formats have their strengths and weaknesses, and though I generally prefer having books I can keep within arm’s reach of my desk for easy access and browsing, you should use whatever works best for you.

Some references, such as dictionaries and thesauruses, are available in a dizzying number of editions and formats, in print and online. I may recommend a particular edition I like and use, but you should compare a few directly (pick some sample words, look them up in different works, and compare the results) and choose the ones that meet your needs. The best references are ones that have the information you need in a format you find easy to navigate so that you’ll actually use them.


For years I used a classic Roget’s Thesaurus, the kind that arranged words in categories according to their meaning rather than in alphabetical order. I never gave it much thought, and I wasn’t looking for a new thesaurus, but a few years ago I discovered something much better, and I haven’t opened poor Roget’s since.

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus has become my thesaurus of choice for a number of reasons. It contains over 300,000 synonyms, arranged alphabetically, and features contributions by working writers, including Simon Winchester, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, David Auburn, Francine Prose, Michael Dirda, and Stephin Merritt. This work places a great deal of emphasis on distinguishing between the different word choices and explaining how they should be used, making it much easier to find just the right word. I particularly like the special features, the notes and mini-essays giving a writer’s perspective on particular words and their usage, explaining fine distinctions in meaning among closely related synonyms, and clarifying easily confused words.  The book also contains concise guides to grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, as well as important points of American English usage by Bryan Garner.

Here are a few examples to give you a sense of the style and usefulness of this work:

From the “word note” for utilize*:

This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. Rather, using utilize makes you seem like either a pompous twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart… What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “Formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

From “the right word” note for plot:

If you come up with a secret plan to do something, especially with evil or mischievous intent, it’s called a plot (a plot to seize control of the company). If you get other people or groups involved in your plot, it’s called a conspiracy (a conspiracy to overthrow the government). Cabal usually applies to a small group of political conspirators (a cabal of right-wing extremists), while machination (usually plural) suggests deceit and cunning in devising a plot intended to harm someone (the machinations of the would-be assassins). An intrigue involves more complicated scheming or maneuvering than a plot and often employs underhanded methods in an attempt to gain one’s own ends (she had a passion for intrigue, particularly where romance was involved).

From the “easily confused words” note for incredible and incredulous:

Believability is at the heart of both incredible and incredulous, but there is an important distinction in the respective uses of these two adjectives. Incredible means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘not convincing’ and can be applied to a situation, statement, policy, or threat to a person: I find this testimony incredible. Incredulous means ‘disinclined to believe, skeptical’–the opposite of credulous, gullible— and is usually applied to a person’s attitude: he managed to look simultaneously incredulous and bored by her story.

This work is not only informative, it is also fun to browse through, which isn’t true of any other thesaurus I’ve ever seen.

The first edition of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus was published in 2004 and it is still in print. (The retail price is $40, but Amazon sells it for $24.) A second edition is scheduled for November 2008.

There are, of course, many other thesauruses, in print and online, so find one you like and use it.

* The word note for “utilize” was written by David Foster Wallace. To read some other word notes by him, see my September 14th blog post.