Word up! Grammarian Gene Weingarten goes after add homonym attacks


(Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist February 11

Every time I write a column criticizing the misuse of English by “citizen journalists” on the Internet, I get two kinds of reader response. The first are letters of applause, often from prim grammarians pushing their own pet peeves. The second type is scolding me for being a prim grammarian, such as this letter from reader J. Meyers:

“I’m so tired of reading your stupid, nitpicking dribble.”

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

To which I responded:

“Dear Mr. Meyers: I believe the word you are looking for is ‘drivel.’ ”

The dribble/drivel confusion is actually a common one among citizen journalists. It is an example of what I call the Law of Add Homonym attacks, which authorizes the flagrant confusion of words that sound like each other. My favorite among these is “toe-headed” children, suggesting not light blond hair but a rather disturbing birth defect. Google identifies 46,000 of these unfortunates. (Also, tragically, more than 70,000 dogs and cats have been “spaded.”)

Before the Internet, my principal source of add homonyms was my friend Brian, who knew a doctor who worked in the emergency room of a hospital that was not located in an upscale, sophisticated neighborhood. More than once the physicians there treated patients who reported they suffered from “the smilin’ mighty Jesus.” That would be spinal meningitis. Also, several complained of abdominal pain caused by “fireballs of the Eucharist.” Fibroids of the uterus.

But now that we have our posse of citizen journalists, language has been even more savagely spaded. Reader Harry Lauder has been collecting such things for some time. He sent me a list. I thought he had made it up, that no one could possibly actually use these expressions. So I vetted them, one by one. Each of the following expressions appears online at least 10,000 times, and sometimes much more.

Behold:

“Self of steam.”

“Pedal stool.” (As in, not putting someone on a pedal stool.)

“Hammy downs.”

“Lack toast intolerant.” (When I also tried “lack toast in tolerant,” Google produced only 185 hits, but asked me if I meant “lack toast intolerant.”)

“Mind grain” headaches.

“Blood presser.”

“80 HD,” as in the mental disorder.

And:

“Minus well.” As in, we minus well just throw up our hands at all the illiterate idiots out there.

Finally, a tip I got from another reader who offered a corollary to my Law of Incorrect Corrections, in which citizen journalists are autocorrected by a machine but aren’t literate enough to realize the correction is wrong. Sometimes, she told me, it happens not out of illiteracy but simple, spectacular inattention, and pointed me to a great example. Some versions of spellcheck apparently don’t recognize foreign-based words such as “prosciutto.” So they flag it as wrong and substitute an alternative. And so it just so happens that the following has been printed more than once, such as this, still online, on a Web site of Italian recipes:

“Crumble bread sticks into a mixing bowl. Cover with warm water. Let soak two to three minutes or until soft. Drain. Stir in prostitute, provolone, pine nuts. … ”

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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