The whole tooth

You may have noticed a small Google advert on the right-hand side of this page, below the 'language links' panel. The idea behind it is that Google's clever AdSense program works out what the site is about and then displays relevant ads. For example, if the website is about pop music, AdSense might show adverts for CDs or gig tickets.

So far on the Engine Room, we've had adverts for dictionaries (that makes sense), blogging websites, social networking sites and... er... lots of ads for mouthwash. This threw me for a bit until I realised that maybe I shouldn't have been blogging about the back of my toothpaste tube...

The irony now is that next time AdSense takes a look at this blog, it'll see two posts about oral hygiene and serve up yet more mouthwash adverts. Maybe Apus and I have hit a niche - language use for dentists...

Fat's the way to do it

I don't know if you saw last night's Channel 4 programme Fat Man's Warning, but I was amused when the voiceover described morbidly obese American Steve Daly as a "victim of fast food". I would have thought anyone who regularly ate 12 soft-shell tacos in one sitting was more an "abuser of fast food"... But it is a good example of how value judgements hide in language. After all, one man's insurgent is another man's freedom fighter.

Daly also had a good turn of phrase, describing Blackpool as "the shiny toy in the Happy Meal of England"...

Lights out

This was from Friday's Evening Standard:

Bosses are being advised to call the police if workers get aggressive when told to stub out cigarettes to comply with the smoking ban. The government guidance... was branded "heavy-handed" by Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley who said: "The last thing we need is police involvement. Responsibility lies with the individual and environmental health officers."

Violent staff? Sort it out yourself or call environmental health - just don't bother the police!

Umbrella term

I bought an umbrella recently. The label informed me that I was now the proud owner not of an umbrella but a 'rain shield'. That's what I like to think of as the Ronseal approach to language: it does exactly what it says on the tin...

What's in a name?

I am indebted to my colleague for explaining that 'Air' is the name of a young person's popular beat combo but am left pondering the use of the adjective mobile in connection with phones.

JD would doubtless point out that the mobility in this case refers to the fact that the phone does not have to be attached to a landline. However, a landline phone is clearly mobile in that it can be picked up and moved, and surely it remains a phone even when it is disconnected. Similarly, doesn't a mobile phone remain a phone when it has been moved into an area where it cannot transmit or receive messages?

A trivial point, no doubt, but it opens up a wider discussion over defining things and people by their roles. Is a phone a phone when it is disconnected? Is a gunman by profession still a gunman when he has no gun? Are JD and I sub editors when we are not subbing copy? And would I have time to ponder such issues if the writers in our care took less time to return proofs?

Glow in the dark

The adjectival form of 'phosphorus' is 'phosphorous'. Much phosphorus is phosphorous phosphorus, but I wonder what it is that makes the phosphorous phosphorus phosphorous?

Foreign communication

Was just telling Apus that German slang for 'mobile phone' is 'Handy', when our web editor came out with the great fact that the French for 'walkie talkie' is 'talkie walkie' – as in the title of the Air album I suppose.

Showing off with words

As part of our job JD and I have regular recourse to the dictionary, and while checking spellings and meanings we sometime discover obscure words for simple things. Here are a few examples that we found amusing; why not try them out on family and friends?

Absquatulate: "leave abruptly". Eg (possibly during a heated argument): "If I were you'd I'd absquatulate before I lose my temper."
Adumbrate: "give a general idea". Eg (possibly in reply to a tough question): "I have no idea, but I could adumbrate for you."
Adventitious: "happening according to chance". Eg (possibly when accused of breaking an expensive vase): "I do assure you it was entirely adventitious."
Aleatoric: "random". Eg (possibly when accused of dealing cards from the bottom of the pack): "My choice of four aces was completely aleotoric."

Are these words genuine? That, I assure you, is apodictic*; watch this space for more show-off words.

*Apodictic: "beyond dispute".

Word pairs

Some pairs of words seem made for each other, but that doesn't mean they belong together. Earlier today I was rewriting some copy and used the phrase "a safe haven". Then I checked my trusty OED, confirmed that if it isn't safe it isn't a haven, and deleted the word "safe".

A reminder that we should always think of the exact meaning of the words and phrases we use – and that subs need subbing too... as JD is always happy to remind me.

Word of the day: diarise

Further to JD's mention of ruggedise (ugh!), today a writer came with "diarise", meaning to note a date in a diary. Fortunately those nice people who compile the Oxford English Dictionary confirm that diary is a noun which has, thus far at least, escaped being 'verbed'.

In fact "verb" is offered in the OED only as a noun so officially, at least, verb has yet to be verbed. But while the word has yet to force its way into the dictionary the practice (or in this case practise?) is widespread.

Is this a sign of a vigorous, evolving language, or simply a reflection of lazy thinking and lazy writing? I suspect the latter. This magazine, at least, is definitely not ready for verbisation, though the OED does list "verbalise" as "excessive or empty use of language"... which seems to say it all.

Open and shut case

sApus took exception to my earlier suggestion that he was struggling to turn his computer on. Yesterday he told me that he was quite able to "open his Mac".

Our boss Windy reminded him to "turn off the door" on his way out...

Word of the day: ruggedised

I came across the word 'ruggedised' on a manufacturer's website today, and was surprised to find it in the OED. It means "designed or improved to be hard-wearing".

I suppose then that we could talk about the process of ruggedisation, or about ruggedisationary effects. Should that be ruggedisedory?

Black museum

JD and I keep a record of the more memorable solecisms submitted by the writers in our care. We call it the black museum; here are some recent arrivals:

armed gunmen
today’s modern engines
Inside, the interior has been dramatically revised
after carrying out evaluation trials
general consensus
anti-smoking bans
32 million metric tonnes
he was acquitted of a joint conspiracy

Word of the day: geofencing

The word of the day today is 'geofencing'. It sounds very sci-fi, doesn't it? It means:

restricting the movement of a vehicle or other object to within a specified area. The location of the vehicle is monitored by telemetry and an alarm is raised if it goes outside that area

Might be useful with cats, or toddlers.

There are some other great geo words, if you are interested...

Fresh breath centres

My toothpaste is "endorsed by fresh breath centres worldwide". Not just one fresh breath centre – oh no! – but fresh breath centres all around the world. It must be special.

Out of curiosity, I googled 'fresh breath centre'. The informative fresh breath centre website has a 'could you have bad breath?' online test. The first question: "Has anyone ever told you you have bad breath?"

I can see why that might be a clue...

To be advised

Someone I know recently received an email invitation to her work Christmas party. The invitation said:

Date - 22 December
Venue - TBA

I imagine she felt a bit embarrassed after asking a colleague where TBA was...

Don't lose your head

Free London paper thelondonpaper reports that:

A woman's corpse, with its head and hands hacked off, has been found in a binbag at a London marina. Detectives believe the victim was killed before her attacker removed the body parts

I suppose it's difficult to remove someone's head and kill them afterwards...

Thinking bigsmall

A great sentence in some copy today:

The approach massively minimises errors

What, as opposed to slightly minimising errors? That's like being slightly dead.

Just the ticket

Taking a train out of Finsbury Park, North London, last night I noticed that the ticket inspectors are now badged Revenue Protection Inspectors. Nice!

It does raise the question, though, that if ticket inspectors inspect tickets, do Revenue Protection Inspectors inspect revenue protection? If so, what does that mean? The RPIs certainly weren't inspecting any tickets on my train..

A lack of conviction

We had this in one of our news stories today:

Having overturned his false conviction, John Smith is...

Would you make any changes?

I took out 'false' – it's not wrong, but it's pretty self-evident. After all, the conviction has been overturned. I don't think there's anything wrong with:

Having overturned his conviction, John Smith is...


Hello, and welcome to The Engine Room. I'm JD, and I'm a sub-editor (copy editor if you're American) on a weekly magazine we dare not name. My chief sub, Apus, will be joining me on this blog in a few days, when he's remembered how to turn his Mac on.

We love language. Its intricacies, idiosyncracies, other things ending in 'acies'. We're the kind of people who point out misplaced apostrophes in shop signs. And this is our blog on language use - hope you enjoy.

One last thing. Feel free to leave comments or contact us on - we'd love to hear from you. As long as you know what a non-defining relative clause is...

Yes, I am joking.