Issue 136, page 4

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From Steve Parks:

Red Ingle, sometime musician with the great Spike Jones, formed his own band, Red Ingle and the Natural [occasionally "Unnatural"] Seven in 1947. In 1947 or 1948 he recorded Serutan Yob, a send-up of the popular contemporary song Nature Boy. I won't attempt to reproduce the whole of it here, but there's a bit of "patter" in the middle which starts off "The boy I mean was oh so peachy keen ..". There you are: irrefutable proof that the expression was alive and well in the late 'forties!

Spelling has always been a mystery to me - not because it's difficult, but because it's easy!  I can't remember a time, even as a small child, when I ever misspelled a word more than once; I just assimilated the correct spelling straight away.  I can spell any word (if I know it), however long, out loud, rapidly - but I have to listen carefully to know what I'm saying. It's a pity I can't make a living from this wonderful skill!

There are only two words I have trouble with: I have to stop myself writing "T" before the "CH" in "ATTACH"; and (let's se if I can get this right) I have to PRACTISE my guitar at home to be able to PRACTICE it well in public.

Funnily enough, while my brain can spell almost perfectly, my fingers can't. Maybe if we'd learned typing at school ...

From Richard Timberlake:

I received a reply from my dad. He apparently used "ginger peachy keen" in the 1950s or 1960s. Unfortunately, he somewhat vague on its origin in his idiolect. Here is his account:

I now remember "ginger-peachy-keen," but I don't remember how I got started on it. I think that "ginger-peachy" was an expression that some comedian used a lot - a sort of dim-witted associate of some major character, but I am not sure now. I think I added the "keen." Was it discussed in your etymology journal? I must have used the expression in the 1960s, or even the 1950s.

From Wendy Quinones:

I'm interested that you say the apostrophe in fox's takes the place of the "e".  I'd always thought the earlier possessives took the form of "the fox his beautiful tail."

And you were not alone.  This belief, though erroneous was quite widespread.

From Tess:

So what is the correct singular of data? Is there one?

Technically, datum is the singular, but these days very few people speak of a single piece of data, so it's not heard very often.  

From 'beth Hayes:

Just a quick comment on Ian's article. A few years ago I was touring a bookshop sale rack and saw a book that was probably about misused words. Various writers were asked whether data is/are singular or plural. I remember reading responses from Isaac Asimov and Richard Lederer, but there were many others offering answers and reasons. 

Have you ever heard of this book? I think of it every time I read this argument about data and regret not buying it at the time.

By the way, thanks for the explanation of the apostrophe. Mine replaces the 'Mary Eliza' part of my name and was adopted in art school because it was easier to sign on multiple copies of small etchings.

We asked Richard Lederer and he replied:

Almost certainly the book you have in mind is Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, with a panel from Isaac Asimov to William Zinsser -- but not Richard Lederer. On data are/is, the panel was completely split. 

Hmm, well, you should have been on the panel, Mr. Lederer!

From Laura Osborn:

I have always had trouble spelling the word necessary.  In fact, I just had to look it up in order to send you this message!!! I'm never sure if the C or the S comes first. Once I figure that out, I have to decide whether there are two Cs or two Ss!  Thanks for a great site.

From David Helm:

Itís been close to thirty years ago now, but the word I missed in my last Spelling Bee in grade school is one I would nominate as one of the worst ó "accommodate".  The combination of double Cs and Ms, and a single D makes it confusing. In Eighth Grade, I think I forgot the second M, since then I invariably double the D and/or leave out the second C or M.

Iíll take fuchsia or mnemonic anytime!

From Georg Trimborn:

I always thought that 'Boxing Day' was the first work day after Christmas (normally the 26th, but not always). In any event, if I'm right, then bankers couldn't be given 'Boxing Day' as a holiday, since then it would no longer be a working day - a nice paradox! 

As always, "Thanks, and keep up the good work!"

Well, if we are going to be utterly pedantic (and if we don't who will?), then Boxing Day is the first weekday after Christmas.

From Mike Lee:

[Regarding the font problems at TOWFI] If you hold down the control key and roll the scroll wheel on your mouse, you get the same effect as going to Internet Explorer and clicking View->Text Size and selecting a larger or smaller font size. 

If you change your font size to read different web pages, you often forget to change it back.

When TOWFI is read in the smallest font, you get the problem where the o and a can be mistaken for each other. Nevertheless, I enjoy the font you've chosen. 

Great web site, Mel & Mike! Love your material.

From Brad Daniels:

If the people experiencing the font size problems are using Internet Explorer, they can get the proper font size by going to the "View->Text Size" menu, and selecting "medium". A setting of "smaller" or "smallest" will produce the effect they describe.

Thanks, guys!  We've since received several more messages on this topic and we will publish those containing new information next issue.

From Jean Jacobi:

Having never encountered the color name "Isabella", I really thought you were taking your readers for a ride with the story of its derivation. My dictionary didn't list it, but then it's not the OED. I did a little searching on the Web and found the term in several places, describing the color of horses, dogs and Elizabethan costume. The following site ( claims that it was documented as a color name in a volume called "Elizabethan Costumes from 1550 - 1580", which would place it before Isabella the Infanta's distasteful underwear episode. Any thoughts on that?

From Jan D. Hodge:

Your story of the origin of the color name "isabella" is, well, delicious.  Unfortunately, it is specifically refuted by the OED:

Various stories have been put forth to account for the name. That . . . associating it with the archduchess Isabella and the siege of Ostend 1601-1604 is shown by our first quotation to be chronologically impossible.

The word appeared in an inventory of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe ["Item, one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten, . . . set with silver spangles."] in July 1600, before said siege began. Likely, the story was a delightful instance of etymological imagination derived from the color, rather than vice versa.

Doh, busted!  Yes, further research shows that you are indeed correct, Jan.  

In our defense we can only point out that we introduced the discussion on isabella with the [weasel] words "It is said to derive..."

From Dan Tilque:

About your use of the word metonym in issue 135. To quote Inigo Montoya, I don' think that word means what you think it means.

Inigo also said, "You kill' my father.  Prepare to die."  That's how we felt (as though we should prepare to die!) when we caught that brain fart (or "senior moment" or whatever you'd like to call it) in last week's issue.  We know what metonym means.  The word we intended, (and which Dan mentioned later in his message) was eponym.

By the way, don't bother checking - we've changed it.

From Sam Bankester:

Just a humble thank you to those who correctly corrected my careless case confusion in Issue 135's Sez You. 

Chin up, Sam!  We all make mistakes!  (See previous letter.)

From Richard R. Hershberger:

I wonder if your curmudgeons, guest or regular, who object to the mass noun "data" also feel nauseous about "a pea"? (Linguistically, that is: their culinary opinions are not the issue.) If not, why not? Why is the change of "data" from a counting noun to a mass noun a cause for distress while the change of the mass noun "pease" to the counting noun "peas" just peachy? I would guess that the answer is that the latter change occurred centuries ago while the former is recent. Why this makes the one good and the other bad is left as an exercise for the student. 

The irony is that the change with "data" isnít really a linguistic change at all. It is a change in how information is perceived in our society. Where once we thought of discrete pieces of information, we are now inundated with huge quantities and perceive it as a mass of information. Just as we can speak of grains of sand when the need arises we can speak of individual data points or facts, but the data itself is, like sand, seen as an uncounted mass. What some people see as a change in the language is only so in a superficial sense. Once the perception of data shifted the grammatical form shifted with it in a strictly regular fashion. It is absurd to insist that we retain the older form because there was once a time when it correctly matched perception. Even in the transitional period this is perfectly regular: if John perceives data as individual pieces of information he should use "data" as a counting noun; if Susie perceives data as a mass then she should use "data" as a mass noun. They should say what they mean. Those who complain about Susieís usage are implicitly asserting that she should have said what they believe she should have meant, an assertion which is at once absurd and offensive. Of course one can also discuss whether the altered perception is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, but that is only indirectly a linguistic issue. To discuss the linguistic aspect in isolation is to mistake the effect for the cause. 

The shift from mass "pease" to counted "peas" was, on the other hand, simply a misinterpretation of the final consonant as a grammatical suffix. Anyone wishing to complain about grammatical ignorance has a much stronger case here. Good luck on convincing people to change!

People get up in arms about incorrect usage today, no matter how prevalent, because the usage is still considered incorrect, and many folks don't like having incorrect usage forced on them by the "ignorant" masses.   You can tell them over and over that it's "the evolution of language", and you can cite examples like "pease" to "peas" until you are crimson of visage, yet they will not sway from their position.  Something like the pease to peas error became entrenched long ago.  No one today was alive when pease erroneously became peas.  However, many today were alive when data were data and a datum was a datum, and so the incorrect usage hits them more profoundly.

There will always be at least two camps on this issue.  Those who prefer to use data as a plural noun will do so, and those who prefer to use data as a singular collective noun will do so, all until one eventually disappears (or mostly disappears).  And we all know which one will win.

We've received quite a few letters since our last issue, and we'll try to get them all published here next issue.  We're fine, by the way.  The hiatus was due to Melanie being out of town in September on business.  We will be on holiday next week, so no new issue until the week of October 14.  Thank you for your patience!  


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Last Updated 10/31/01 06:22 PM