It’s bugbear season again. Actually, bugbear season is year-round, but as bugs gather to bite us and bears circulate looking for food, the bugbear – originally a hobgoblin, and now more of an obsessive annoyance – comes into its own.
The Word Play mailbag fills up each week with protests against misspellings (it’s “anointed,” not “annointed”), grammatical missteps and a disregard for idiom that may be an error or may signal a shiny new idiom.
In the spirit of sharing, here is an assortment of items from newspapers and other sources that have driven readers round the bend or, if you prefer, round the twist.
Someone suggested in an affidavit that former media baron and ex-con Conrad Black wasn’t a model prisoner. “His lawyers refuted their claims,” said the article. Well, no. His lawyers challenged the claims, or argued against them, or discounted them. To refute is to prove a statement wrong, and the proof was not on offer in the article.
Is the idiom shifting from the traditional “bored with” to “bored of”? Increasingly, instead of saying they are bored with a subject, writers are saying they are bored of it. Playwright Paul Colaizzo, in a column in Entertainment Weekly magazine, said he “checked his Facebook account whenever I would get bored of reading.” Refer this one to the bored of directors.
She shrinks. She shrank. She has shrunk. In a long-established North American variation, many people bypass the middle form, using the past participle for the past tense: She shrunk. This past Monday, even as comedian Howie Mandel was telling Ellen DeGeneres on the TV show Ellen that an airplane passenger’s “ankles just stunk,” an article about the show House said it “sprung from the creative mind” of David Shore. Shrank. Stank. Sprang. Ah, that feels better.
Then there are the WonderTypos, those errors that brighten the day with their unintentional humour. Anson McKim was amused by a writer’s report a while back that she had entered a cryotherapy sauna’s “two anti-chambers.” McKim’s comment: “In spite of her enthusiasm it makes me wonder if she was before or against.”
Often what seems a mistake turns out not to be one. A columnist recently wrote, “These opponents are going to do what they can to stick spokes in the industry’s wheels.” A reader commented, “Seems to me they would want to stick sticks in the spokes of the industry’s wheels.”
The reader has logic on his side, but the columnist was using an accepted expression. For more than 1,200 years, a spoke has been one of the rods extending from the hub of a wheel to its rim. By the 1500s, however, spoke had acquired the additional sense of a rod that could be jammed through the spokes of a wheel to halt a vehicle. The Oxford English Dictionary says this may have been a mistranslation of the Dutch phrase “een spaak [bar or stave]in ’t wiel steeken” – to stick a bar in the wheel.
Perhaps someone misspoke himself.