Cranky word fascist moment of the day

9 March 2012

Professors get used to feeling exasperation at student malapropisms — like when a student writes, “for all intensive purposes” instead of intents and purposes. One of my friends was baffled by a student paper on the US Civil War that referred over and over to the South succeeding, when he realized the student didn’t understand the word secede. (Now that word switch changes the story of the Civil War considerably.)

We, after all, are word fascists.

But today one of my academic listservs has posted a message from a colleague asking about data on blue-color jobs. Let me be clear: this is from a fellow professor. Someone who studies the topic of blue-collar jobs. A professor who is a native English speaker.

Blue-color jobs!

I’m incredibly, irrationally pissed off about this. Now my English-speaking colleagues are going to send out mass-emailed sloppy messages in which they misuse words? Do I have the energy to deal with this??

Okay, but let me also note that Sesquipedaedalus has a list of the 1,027 prettiest words in English. The list is growing. Perhaps running the word scialytic over my tongue for an hour will dissipate the annoyance.

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16 Responses to “Cranky word fascist moment of the day”


  1. I fear the Ted Baxter’s of the world have taken over.

    • Didion Says:

      Argh! I realize that my crankiness may be excessive given the situation, and given the fact that I’d rather have a few misspellings than really sloppy research or argumentation … but I can’t help but feel that the one facilitates the other. And I do like to think that my colleagues should be counted on for accurate word choices, even if students can’t be trusted.

    • Dienna Says:

      “I fear the Ted Baxter’s of the world have taken over.”

      The apostrophe, Michael, remove the apostrophe!

  2. servetus Says:

    Having just finished grading 70 papers of which at least 50% misspelled either “Inquisition” or “judaizing,” or both, I feel your pain.

    • Didion Says:

      70 papers! Oh my dear friend, I’m so sorry. And yet for some crazy reason I want to count on you for outrage that matches or even surpasses my own. I mean, this guy is a scholar of labor! And he called it “blue color jobs”!! My outrage is utterly unmanageable today…and perhaps misplaced?

      • servetus Says:

        I’m too tired to be outraged about much at the moment :). I think we’re going to see more and more of this, however, as the generation that didn’t study much grammar or spelling in school comes of age. I stood in front of a class of 55 last week and explained to them what the verb “to be” is (and wondered whether I needed to explain what a verb is) and then conducted exercises on how they could avoid it and why. Afterwards five students came up to say, thanks, we didn’t discuss grammar in high school.

        I suppose we could think of it as a renewed period before national / cultural authorities introduced standardized spellings of languages.

  3. Didion Says:

    Fair enough!

    Let me also say I like the idea of countering all the English-only diatribes by explaining that no one here can actually speak English. But then perhaps I will come across as a snob.

    • servetus Says:

      I don’t want to say that there’s no advantage to the reader in being able to distinguish visually between “color” and “collar” (or any of the other homonyms or near homonyms in English) — I do think there is. I find typos and misspellings annoying as h***. On the other hand, all of my primary sources were written in a period before any standardized spelling was introduced in that language. Often words aren’t even spelled consistently in the same text by the same typesetter. So obviously it’s not impossible to navigate and it can be fun at times, figuring out what someone meant to have written.

      Or I could just have Stockholm syndrome from grading.

  4. JE Says:

    My favorite common mistake is “manor” for “manner.” As in, “sorry that I wrote this essay in such a sloppy manor.” I just love that one.

    The most mysterious one I’ve ever seen was when a student complained in an essay of someone making a “folklore.” I was utterly stumped. Finally a friend suggested the student probably meant “faux pas,” which explained everything. The student possibly had just never seen “faux pas” written.

    I make mistakes in my writing often enough. Makes me cringe when I find them (usually after I’ve handed something out to students). Hard to find them when you’re thinking about the content more than the words.

    • Didion Says:

      Ha! these are excellent. I will say that finding these malapropisms is one of the perverse perks of being a professor.

      I heard a story once about an academic who kept referring to himself, inexplicably, as a “debutante.” As in, “I guess I’m just a debutante, because I like dabble a little bit in areas of interest far outside my area of expertise.” His colleagues finally figured out he meant “dilettante.”

      Cringe.

      But then, I remember every single time I misused or mispronounced a word during grad school, and there are words I refuse to use in conversation because although I like them I’m not sure whether I’m misusing them. So I’m prone to shame.

      • servetus Says:

        I SO sympathize. I remember sitting in a lecture course directed at undergrads with a bunch of grads in it as well, in grad school, and the professor kept referring to transhumance (which sounded to me like “trasumahs.” After she used it five times I finally raised my hand to ask what it meant, and she defined it, and then spent a good paragraph on how undereducated grad students were these days. That kept me from ever asking a question like that again. On the one hand, it’s good not to use words whose exact meanings you haven’t mastered. On the other — wow, the insecurity of someone who’s gotta shame a student in such a public way.

      • Didion Says:

        What a horrible response to a good question. Never underestimate how much the deep insecurity of academics can lead them to try to humiliate younger, less powerful people in the profession. Especially because one of the best teaching moments I ever had was when I suddenly paused in the middle of a lecture and said, “Do you guys know what I mean when I use the term liminal?” and no one did, and we spent the next half hour talking about various uses of it and why it was such an important term for the subject at hand. The students were right into it.

        Everyone can be a word geek (and/or fascist) if given the chance to join in the fun, rather than publicly humiliated!

        There’s an amazing scene in the documentary To Be Heard (about a high school program in the Bronx to teach students poetry) in which the teachers harangue their students about developing large and rich vocabularies. They explain that either they can learn these words and be liberated by this knowledge, or have their ignorance help to lock them up. It’s all part of a larger message of the program that “if you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” Gorgeous, brilliant, inspiring.


  5. Being an longtime spelling nazi myself, image recent dismay to discover “dilemma” is not spelled with “mn.” As the online article pointed out there were teachers in the olden days who promoted the latter. And they were mine in various parts of the U.S. sigh.

  6. Dienna Says:

    I guess being a Smurf is a “blue-color job” in itself.


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