Cars, drugs and hyphenation

Tricky thing, punctuation. One of our reporters came into the engine room today gleefully brandishing a press release promising "free drugs and driving leaflet".

Yes, we all understand that the press release is referring to a leaflet warning of the hazards of driving while under the influence of recreational drugs. But as written it seems to be offering free drugs in addition to a leaflet on driving. The author of the press release would no doubt point out that the meaning is clear in its context, and all the ambiguity does is raise a cheap laugh. But in many contexts, from technical manuals to legislation, meaning must be made unambiguous.

In the case of that drugs leaflet all that's needed is a colon or, if you take the belt-and-braces approach, a colon and a brace of hyphens so the phrase reads "free: drugs-and-driving leaflet".

Alternatively, recast the phrase along the lines of "free leaflet on the danger of driving under the influence of drugs".

In my case an English teacher rammed home the importance of punctuation with the sentence: "King Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off." This apparent claim of regal life after death can be sorted out with a single full stop: "King Charles I walked and talked. Half an hour after his head was cut off."

Your number's up (or down)

Accuracy is important, especially when dealing with statistics. I just had this phrase in some copy:

Approximately up to 25%, and in some cases more

So that would be 25%, or a number close to 25%, or a number less than 25%, or a number more than 25%. So it could be any number really. That's useful.

White of the egg

The other day I talked about buzzphrases, and one buzzphrase I've been hearing a lot recently is 'the white of the egg'. If the readers of a print publication, for example, are the yolk, then the additional audience that a web-based publication can interact with are 'the white of the egg'.

Yes, I think it's a horrible analogy too. And haven't these people ever heard of the word 'albumen'? Mind you, I can just imagine some sales manager standing up in a meeting and saying 'we need to attract the albumen' - not sure it would convey much meaning...

More protective nuances

Another email scam sneaked through the company spam filter; yet again even the most gullible reader (and did you know the word "gullible" was accidentally dropped from the 10th edition of the OED?) could hardly fail to be alerted by the standard of English.

For example: "we have also increased more security" and "you are advice to follow the link below".

Could it be that naughty children who fail to pay attention in English lessons are laying themselves open to computer fraud?

Bean and gone

A message on our work intranet 'swap shop' reads:

Runner beans. Runner beans 50p each. Just a few available

I assume the person who posted the message is selling plants, not just beans - otherwise even a small meal would work out as quite expensive...


We had this sentence in some recent copy:

'Carbon footprint' is among the latest crop of buzzwords

That got me thinking: 'carbon footprint' is not a buzzword, it's a buzz phrase. And 'buzz phrase' could itself become a buzz phrase, unless it was written as 'buzzphrase', in which case it would be a buzzword... or do I mean buzz word?

Comment is free

You will be pleased to note that comment approval for the Engine Room is now turned off, which means that as soon as you leave a comment, it will appear on the blog.

Of course, as sub-editors Apus and I have an eye for the legally contentious, and we reserve the right to pull anything that might get us sued. No, don't take that as a challenge...

Probably a sub's fault

Talking of news headlines, this is from the Engine Room postbag:

I often wonder about the quality of the writers in the local press, particularly the Cheltenham Echo, but the front-page headline in yesterday's edition was an absolute belter. Some 'have a go heroes' stopped somebody being mugged in the high street and they came up with the headline of "Oi - leave that old man alone!"

Journalistic brilliance! Sounds like a Pink Floyd song.

Killer headline

I've just seen a great headline on the BBC News website: "Lack of nurses killing Africans"

I can imagine there is a shortage of African-killing nurses, but that's probably a good thing as far as Africans are concerned.

Who needs enemies?

As JD's henchman I share his responsibility for keeping our esteemed editor out of court – specifically by keeping libellous comments out of our magazine.

So when our news editor filed a story describing the defendant in a court case as "shoddy and dodgy" we subs insisted that the source of this derogatory remark be revealed. Even defendants in court cases have their rights, after all.

She was soon back in the engine room with the answer: "It was his solicitor". Well that's OK then, but you have to wonder how the alleged miscreant felt when he heard the lawyer he was paying for describe him thus.

Slang: hench

Recently I've come across the current youth slang word 'hench'. It's an adjective meaning 'well-built' or 'muscular' (used to describe men only!). Sadly I haven't been able to find much about the origins of the word except for a few suggestions on the web that that it derives from "black English". Can anyone help here?

Much more rarely, I've also come across 'hench' used to mean 'mate', but I think this is a more recent development. A colleague suggested that 'hench' may be related to 'henchman', meaning "a faithful follower or political supporter, especially one prepared to engage in dishonest practices" (OED).

I'm not convinced by that argument - although it is interesting that 'henchman' is from Old English 'hengest', or male horse, plus 'man' (obviously), and may originally have meant 'horse attendant'.

If I were to choose someone to look after my horse, I'd probably pick someone who was a) well-built and b) a mate, so maybe there is a connection after all...

So near and yet so far

Today I have a few nice examples of intelligent writers choosing the wrong word. I don't know if these were just momentary lapses – and we've all been there – or if they came out of confusion over the phrase in question. Either way, they make me laugh.

We'd be hard-pressed to make a decision based on the facts we garnished

Should be 'garnered'...

Many sufferers tend to suffer in silence, which can only exasperate the problem

'Exacerbate', perhaps?

We need to set a president as to what technology should be used

'Precedent' is the right word here.

Plain words

One of the games JD and I play to get through long shifts in the engine room involves translating the high-falutin' phrases some of our charges inflict on us into plain English.

Today, for example, I was presented with "higher levels of inventory".

JD being away from his desk, I tried it on our art editor, who immediately (and in my view correctly) replied "more stock". If an artist can translate waffle into English, why does it seem to be beyond some professional writers?

I fear JD is right when he warns me I'm becoming embittered!

Word of the day: rumpsprung

JD has been picking some technically interesting words of the day; this one simply made me smile. I came across rumpsprung while looking up another word; the OED defines it as "(adj) informal (of furniture) worn and in poor condition".

Clever, isn't it?

Protective nuances

In a recent post I mentioned that the subtleties of the English language do at least make it hard for scam artists who do not have English as a first language to rip us off via emails. And no sooner had I posted the blog than an email sneaked past the company's spam filter from "Mr Steven Kenneth".

Mistake number one: who uses the Mr in this context?

What follows is the usual appeal to the recipient's greed: in this case 45% of "a huge amount" in return for no more than my bank account details. But Mr Steven Kenneth describes himself as "a senior staff with a bank in Scotland, UK". Clearly you can't be a senior staff – but neither would you say, or write, "Scotland, UK". It's not wrong, it's just... wrong.

There's more of the same and you might argue that anyone who falls for such a sloppy scam deserves to be ripped off. But thank goodness these emails are so poorly written. And in case any overseas conmen are interested, JD and I might be tempted to reword your emails, just as an intellectual exercise you understand.

Simply send us your bank details and we'll get back to you. Honest.

Hear we go

While we're on the subject of mishearings influencing spelling, I had an email from a friend recently saying he'd "left the tickets in the Chester drawers". Sadly, the drawers in question were not from Chester at all, but were simply a 'chest of drawers' spelt as heard.


Some copy I was subbing this morning advised readers to "be aware of the pitfuls". That left me scratching my head and wondering – pitfuls? Pitfuls of what? That weren't any pits in this story...

It took a moment for me to realise that our writer had meant 'pitfalls'.

Word of the day: hobophobia

Looking through the list of phobias I linked to in a previous post, I was surprised and amused to see that the fear of tramps or beggars is given as 'hobophobia'.

But I was also sceptical. The word 'phobia' is from Latin via Greek, and most words ending in '-phobia' also have their roots in the classical languages, whereas 'hobo' almost certainly does not - its origins are uncertain but it seems to date from the 19th century. As a result 'hobophobia' seemed to me to be a most unlikely word – after all, we say 'arachnophobia' not 'spider phobia'.

So I decided to Google it. The results suggested that 'hobophobia' is indeed widely accepted as the name for a fear of tramps or beggars (or 'bums' if you prefer).

In my search I also came across a pseudo-scientific site promising to offer a cure to sufferers of hobophobia. I found the whole site amusing but let me quote you just a little:

Your fear of bums or beggars can result in the following symptoms: breathlessness, excessive sweating, nausea, dry mouth, feeling sick, shaking, heart palpitations, inability to speak or think clearly, a fear of dying, becoming mad or losing control, a sensation of detachment from reality or a full blown anxiety attack.

You are not the only one to suffer from hobophobia. Most sufferers are surprised to learn that they are far from alone in this surprisingly common, although often unspoken, phobia.

Hobophobia is an intense fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. While adults with hobophobia realize that these fears are irrational, they often find that facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

A library by any other name: Idea Store

Gareth has sent this email into the Engine Room:

Underneath our office building is the recently-opened Canary Wharf library. However, some marketing whizz-kid somewhere has decided that the word "library" is somehow off-putting and old-fashioned, so it's not called a library. It's an "Idea Store", complete with a vile, lime-green logo, and snazzy corporate uniforms for the poor sods that have to work there.

The only problem this then leaves is that people don't actually know that this new building is in fact a library. So after the first few weeks, when the place was almost completely empty apart from the odd person who wandered in looking for a cappuccino, they adjusted the logo so that it now tells you what it's actually for. Well, almost. It now reads "IDEA STORE" and underneath that, "Library Learning Information".

I'm quite impressed that they have developed a sentient library that's capable of assimilating information all on its own. Beware, for one day the libraries shall inherit the earth. (Although I for one welcome our new literary overlords.)

Every word should earn its keep

As mentioned in previous posts, one of my many bugbears is the use of words in news stories that don't earn their keep. Flowery language is OK, even welcome on gossip pages, or blogs, but not in news.

JD and I keep a selection of these redundancies in our black museum; some have been published here. But this very day I was presented with: "He had lent his licence temporarily." The OED confirms that lend means: "grant to someone the use of something on the understanding that it will be returned". The redundant qualifier was duly chucked over the side.

I was happier, the story was happier, the author didn't notice the difference. Which is why they pay JD and I a pittance to ply our trade in the engine room.

More nuances

While subbing a news story with deadline fast approaching I came across the following: "The judge was concerned to ensure no unfair advantage had been gained." A simple enough sentence, nothing wrong there.

Normally copy flows into and out of my short-term memory (and as JD would be only too happy to confirm, my memory's awful at the best of times) but a couple of paragraphs later it was still niggling away at me. When in doubt, check it out.

Sure enough, the OED confirmed that ensure means "make sure that something will occur". The judge had no intention of ensuring anything at all; that wasn't his job. What he was doing was checking, or confirming.

Yes, I felt a smug for a second, until I reflected on how many similar nuances must pass me by during a frantic pressday, despite every effort to ensure they don't.

English as she is spoke

Ploughing though yet another feature earlier today I came across the phrase "this highlighted the problem" and left it, highlighted being the correct past tense of highlight. Yet lit is the past tense of light. Similarly, the past tense of hang is hung, unless you are being hanged by the neck until you are dead.

English has so many foibles of this kind that it must be a nightmare to learn as a foreign language, but I have found one advantage of this.

Now and again dodgy emails sneak past the company firewall, telling me of the vast riches awaiting me if I will only supply my bank account details. Some of them are virtually gibberish – the mind boggles at the thought of anyone taking them seriously. But even the best of them, while perfectly understandable, strike false notes here and there. They use words that aren't actually wrong; they're simply not the words a native english speaker would use.

So if you're learning english as a second language and are struggling with what are, after all, trivial points of style and vocabulary, take heart from the fact that this sometimes irritating language can serve as a remarkably effective security device.

Can't keep a good beard down

For a brief period yesterday, Google searches for 'pogonotrophic' put the Engine Room as the number one result – ahead of such respected sites as Being an authority on all things pogonotrophic (as a result of choosing pogonotrophy as a word of the day), we can presumably expect beard-related Google ads on the blog before too long...

Coincidentally, a friend of a friend of mine was pogonophobic – pogonophobia being the fear of beards. Eventually he grew a beard himself in what I can only surmise was a form of immersion therapy. Too late – he had already acquired the nickname 'Poggy' (and bears it to this day).

Perhaps you'd like to learn the names of some other great phobias...

Meal portmanteaux

Yesterday I mentioned portmanteau words - words that are a combination of the sound and meaning of two other words. 'Brunch' is a good example, combining the sound and meaning of 'breakfast' and lunch'.

But when I was in Moscow a few years ago I came across another meal portmanteau - 'linner'. Linner is afternoon meal somewhere between lunch and dinner which many of the more upmarket hotels in the city offered.

Having never come across linner in the UK, it was strange to see it regularly in a non-English-speaking country. Perhaps it is a word – and concept – the American expats brought over with them. Can anyone shed any light on this?

I think I'm done with portmanteaux for the moment – but if you're not, there are plenty of others to choose from...

Word of the day: webinar

Those of you who are internet-savvy will doubtless be familiar with the word 'webinar'. However I've chosen it as word of the day because it is new enough not to appear in many dictionaries, Google has just invited me to attend one, and I like the sound of it. So there.

'Webinar' is a portmanteau word, so it is made up of the sounds and meanings of two other words - in this case 'web' and 'seminar'. As you might expect, a webinar is a type of internet conference, which may be highly interactive or may be more like a presentation.

Another internet portmanteau I am sure you are familiar with is 'blog', a contraction of 'weblog' – which of course is a blend of 'web' and log'. It's interesting that my edition of the OED lists 'weblog' but not 'blog'. Dictionary writers must have a hard time with all these web words...

Good school, bad school

I was talking last night to someone who works for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease. I'm still not sure whether the school works to promote hygiene and tropical disease, or to prevent them...

Who nose who'll win?

An Engine Room regular has e-mailed in the following prime piece of garbled English, taken from Mark Lawrenson's football predictions on the BBC Sport website:

Chelsea v Everton

There will be probably be all sorts of players missing in the Chelsea line-up, as they will have more than one eye on the FA Cup final.

Everton's place in the Uefa Cup is safe, and I can see Chelsea just nosing home in this one.

In summary: Chelsea has more than one eye (both eyes?) on the FA Cup final, but will still, erm, nose home.

It looks like Paul was right when he commented that we're "going to need a medium larger than the vastness of the internet to cover all the nonsense spoken by sports commentators..."

Doubly new; doubly redundant

The following was penned by a senior journalist among our charges: "New enhancements were brought about by the new changes."

The trick is, when you've finished writing a story sit back, take a deep breath – and READ IT before you inflict it on the subs, let alone your readers.

Keep it simple

In a report on a company closure I came across the phrase: "approximately 81 positions were lost". Obviously "approximately" doesn't belong next to 81 so I changed it to "approximately 80". Then I thought for a moment and changed the phrase to "about 80 jobs were lost".

Why do some writers instinctively assume that longer words are somehow better?

Use your judgement

Today I was faced with a story about a legal case which went to appeal. In his judgment, according to our reporter, the judge criticised an individual's lack of judgement.

Now the OED simply lists judgement, with judgment as an alternative. But I was taught, many years ago, that legal judgments lose the 'e' so I turned to that font of wisdom, Fowler's Modern English Usage, to find yet another difference between UK and US usage. It seems judgement is common usage in the UK while judgment has won the day in the US.

Dropping the 'e' in legal contexts is described as "just one of convention in various publishing houses". My Fowler's is the 3rd edition so I checked with the 2nd edition on JD's desk where I found that this convention extends to the Oxford University Press.

That was good enough for me so I had the pleasure of leaving both spellings in a single sentence. Life's never dull in the Engine Room...


In some recent copy I came across the word 'disbenefit' for the first time. It sounded strange to me - my first instinct was to replace it with 'disadvantage' - but the OED had no problem with it, and Googling it displayed tens of thousands of results, so I let it stand.

Admittedly, as an exclusively British English word, 'disbenefit' may also sound strange to American ears, but that gives an Englishman such as myself no excuse.

My discovery of 'disbenefit' has made me wonder how I could go for so long without coming across such a relatively common word - and consequently, what other common words I am unaware of. Has anybody else had a similar experience?


First, a confession. I originally headed this post "Nuances of meaning". But the OED defines "nuance" as "a subtle difference in meaning" so this would have been a redundancy – as JD would have been quick to point out.

The nuances in question came my way while looking up the usage of judgement/judgment in Fowler's.

On the facing page I noticed the following: "jocose, jocular, etc. These and several other words – arch, facetious, flippant, jesting, merry and waggish – are difficult to separate from each other." After some wise words on the usage of each word Fowler's concludes: "All of them are usable in contrast with 'serious' but for most a more appropriate opposite may be found."

To prove its point, Fowler's lists them with their respective antonyms: arch, staid; facetious, solemn; flippant, earnest; jesting, serious; jocose, grave; jocular, prosaic; merry, melancholy; and waggish, sedate.

In other words, one way to highlight these subtle differences in meaning is to look at their opposites. In some situations this might be a handy way to check you're picking the right word... assuming you have time as a deadline approaches.

Mixed metaphors

The writers on our magazine try to make their copy as descriptive as possible, but sometimes they get carried away with this and a mixed metaphor is the result.

For example, one of our writers last week wrote that an interviewee "cut his teeth on the coalface of the parcels industry", which brings an interesting image to mind. Taking out "cut his teeth" still left us with a parcels industry that had a coalface, so in the end we recast the sentence completely: "learnt his trade on the operations side of the parcels industry".

Seatings and standees

An upmarket Chinese restaurant near to my flat has a sign outside saying "15 more seatings downstairs". Why is it that I like the word 'seatings' but detest the word 'standees', which is becoming increasingly common in a public transport context?

Incidentally, 'seatings' doesn't make it into the OED, but 'standees' does - albeit as "chiefly North American".

A question about nothing

We've had an email from a regular visitor to the blog asking the following:

"What is the plural of the word 'zero'? I'd always understood that it was 'zeros' not 'zeroes', but I'm starting to see both forms crop up with increasing regularity. Is this a US English/UK English difference or just errors?

"If it is zeros, why do we then refer to heroes and not heros? (Could be worse I suppose, at least I've never seen anyone write hero's... yet). Don't both words have Greek origins?"

My first instinct was 'zeros', and this was confirmed by my Concise OED, which doesn't give 'zeroes' at all. However Webster's and the American Heritage Dictionary give equal weight to both variants, suggesting it is a difference between British and American English.

As for the etymology of the words, hero is indeed from Greek, whereas zero comes from the Arabic 'sifr', which means 'zero' or 'nothing'. It also gave us the English word 'cipher'. So 'hero' and 'zero' have different etymologies as well as different plural forms.

So why are both 'zeros' and 'zeroes' in use Stateside? I'm not sure, but it could well be out of association with 'heroes' and similar '-oes' plurals. Not that all nouns ending in 'o' take 'oes' in the plural; some take just 's' (logo – logos), and others can happily go either way according to the OED (mango – mangos or mangoes).

Put it down as just another irregularity in English spelling – albeit one that may disappear over time, as the increasing use of 'zeroes' suggests is already happening.

If the shoe fits...

Yesterday one of my housemates received a catalogue from a certain clothing company, the front cover of which boldly proclaimed that the firm's footwear was "better than bare feet".

If shoes were better than bare feet, surely everyone would be wearing shoes... wait a minute...

So the company in question is actually saying that its shoes are "better than nothing" but not necessarily "as good as other shoes". Admirably honest marketing there.

Stationary and stationery

Last Sunday I caught a train to visit my dear old mum (contrary to what many writers believe subs do have mums too) and noticed a sign warning against use the toilet "while the the train is stationery". An enjoyable mistake in the circumstances, bringing to mind images of trains changing into piles of envelopes (which would indeed become soggy if used as a toilet).

But it's faintly depressing that a major company could produce a printed poster with a schoolboy howler.

In case you hadn't come across the dodge for remembering when stationary becomes stationery, simply remember e for envelope. It worked for me, possibly because the teacher who passed on the tip reinforced it with an accurately thrown blackboard duster. If only JD and I could do likewise with the writers in our care.

Sound over meaning

Further to JD's remarks on a tautologism that nearly got past us, earlier today I read straight through this: "...its importance to the economy cannot be underestimated". This phrase means the exact opposite of what the author intended.

And only minutes later one of our designers (highly creative chaps, of course, but not employed as wordsmiths) was checking a page proof for correct use of pictures and so on when he noticed the phrase "off my own back". He asked if it should read "off my own bat". He was quite right, of course; the error reminds us how easy it is to half hear a word or phrase and forget its roots.

For example, many youngsters say and even write the phrase "I should of done that" rather than "I should have done that". Having heard and used the elision "should've" they are guided by the sound without considering the meaning.

Huge influx

We were nearly caught out by a tautology this morning: 'huge influx'.

It surprised us, but the OED says an influx is "the arrival or entry of large numbers of people or things".

That means it's not possible to have a 'small influx', and it's tautologous to say 'large influx' or 'huge influx'...

Learn to speak British

Today I thought I'd tell you about a great English to American dictionary which Engine Room regulars on both sides of the Atlantic might find interesting. Yes, I know it should be called a 'British to American' dictionary, but it was written by a Brit and I have to respect his choice of title...

Anyway, as well as the obvious Britishisms such as bloke, the dictionary also lists less well-known differences that sometimes throw the writers on our magazine (paraffin vs kerosene, for example).

I'm adding it to the list of language resources over on the right.

Incidentally, the blog is starting to get picked up by the search engines now. If you search for 'British word bloke' on Google, for example, we're tenth. Wooh.

Burns and the phone

Our web editor came out with a good fact last week.

The Simpsons character Mr Burns answers the phone by saying 'ahoy, hoy'. In the early days of the phone, there was much discussion about what the standard telephone greeting should be - and 'ahoy, hoy', or just 'ahoy', was proposed by inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Of course the telephone greeting that eventually became standard is 'hello' – as proposed by another inventor, Thomas Edison.

The French market is here

Yesterday the French market came to Sutton, the town where Apus and I work. One of the stalls was selling savoury pasties made with with "cheese from our mounty region".

French Canadian perhaps?

What's in a name?

One of our colleagues is working on her family history and, using the internet, has more than 3,000 people in her extended family tree. One of the many family names she has encountered is Bottle, including a father and son back in the 19th century with the first names Walter and Arthur. Who says Victorians didn't have a sense of the ridiculous?

Inspired by the Bottles I Googled 'silly names' and came up with the following in a long list of real people whose births were registered in Cornwall during the 19th and early 20th centuries:

Reginald Thistlewayte Cocks
Urania Emma Hodge Button
Orchard Betowing Champion
Adolphus Segro Palmiston Stinton
Wesley Mendelssohn Valatart Barrett the V

Imagine trying to convince the cops that any of the above is a real name...

Have your cake and eat it

Apus' post on flipped phrases reminded me of the saying '(you can't) have your cake and eat it', which is an inversion of '(you can't) eat your cake and have it'. The original version, in my opinion, is superior; it is easy to have a cake then eat it, but quite a feat to eat a cake and still have it.

However I doubt we can blame our colonial cousins for flipping this particular phrase – first recorded in 1546, 'eat your cake and have it' was the more common form on both sides of the Atlantic right through until the 19th century. Quite what prompted the inversion I haven't been able to discover... can anyone help?

Pogonotrophic derivations

As JD has mentioned, I hide behind a beard and as a young shaver was inordinately proud of some rather impressive sideburns. Inspired by his use of a sesquipedalian word for bearded I looked into the etymology of sideburns and discovered they're named after the hirsute American Civil War General Burnside.

Our colonial cousins seem to have a penchant for flipping phrases in this way.

For example, the phrase "lock and load" so beloved of Hollywood scripwriters dates back to instructions issued for users of the US Army's Garand rifle in World War 2 – but the original instruction was to "load and lock".

More from the black museum

The writers whose copy is subbed by JD and I are a pretty competent bunch. But (you knew there was going to be a but) sometimes they forget that every word in a story ought to earn its keep. Further to our first offering from the black museum, here are a few more examples of redundant words we've encountered recently:

Previous history
Future plans
Submerged under the water
International business to and from the UK

Word of the day: pogonotrophy

Pogonotrophy – too little-used make it into the Concise OED but a fabulous word that means 'beard-growing', or 'the cultivation of a beard'.

Apus, for example, is an expert in the art – or is it science? – of pogonotrophy. I assume that makes him a pogonotrophist.

Why not read about this and other pogo- words?

A cat by any other name

Walking to the station this morning, rain shield in hand, I came across the following handwritten notice on a lamp post:

Missing kitten! An 8-month-old kitten who answers to the name Ginger or more likely Billy

If the cat answers to the name of Billy, its name probably is Billy – so why insist on Ginger? I'm not surprised it ran away...

Hyphenation hazards

Life's not easy on the subs' desk (as the apostrophe implies, we share it).

A page proof came my way today which had been read by our magazine's webmaster. As well as his webbing skills, the webmaster is a wordsmith of the first water so I was surprised to see he had inserted a hyphen between the words 'well' and 'established' in the phrase "a well-established favourite".

Having checked with JD that he too eschews hyphens between verbs and their adverbs, and being reluctant to gainsay my erudite colleague without ammunition, I checked my Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd edition) and found: "When the first word of the compound is an adverb no hyphen is ordinarily needed, though one may often be found there." In support of this Fowler's quotes Sir Winston Churchill: "Richly embroidered seems to me two words, and it is terrible to think of linking every adverb to a verb by a hyphen."

Assured of victory JD and I brought this to the attention of the webmaster, who cooly pointed to the Fowler's use of the word 'ordinarily' and pointed out that the prime use of a hyphen is to avoid confusion. He cited the phrase "a little-used car", where the absence of a hyphen would clearly shrink the automobile in question.

We accepted this as a valid exception to the no-hyphen rule and beat a hasty retreat. Belatedly checking JD's 3rd edition Fowler's we discovered that all reference to verb-adverb hyphens, or their absence, had been dropped.

But our challenge had obviously got under webby's skin. Having scanned previous entries in our blog he posed a question: "Does your job title take a hyphen – sub editor or sub-editor?" It seems we've used both forms – JD inserted a hyphen; I didn't. When in doubt, check the OED... where we discovered that we are actually subeditors. Even webby was surprised by this rather ugly word so he checked his Chambers dictionary which gave the same spelling.

The Fowler's section on hyphens opens: "No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description." And on that, at least, the webmaster, JD and I are in full agreement.

Feeling worn out

According to some copy today, a certain component provides a "10% increase in wear and durability".

I can only assume that is an increase in wear resistance not in wear rate. 'Yes, our component is very durable, but wears out quickly...'

Besides, the OED definition of durable being 'hard-wearing', it's a tautology to say something offers an increase in wear [resistance] and durability: just say the thing is "10% more durable" and have done with it!

Two TV bloopers

During yesterday's ITV coverage of the Liverpool vs Chelsea Champions League match, one of the commentators came out with the following phrase:

15 minutes of all-out attack would put the icing on the game

This isn't even a proper mixed metaphor! And afterwards, an ITV newsreader using an autocue referred to:

survivors and relatives of the July 7 attacks

Not wanting to make light of anyone's suffering, but how is it possible to be a relative of a terrorist attack? "I am the second cousin of September 11..."

Yes, I am having a quiet week and watching a lot of TV.

Word of the day: bloke

I assume that most of you are familiar with the word 'bloke' (informal British English for 'man'), but you might not know where it comes from. I didn't until yesterday.

I was doing some background research for a Daily Mail-style gypsy-bashing story – we're not the most PC of publications – when I read on Wikipedia that the word 'bloke' comes from the language Shelta.

What's Shelta? "An ancient secret language used by Irish and Welsh tinkers and gypsies, based on altered Irish or Gaelic words," according to the OED, which dates 'bloke' to the 19th century. You might know Shelta as Pavee, or The Cant. Parts of the Irish Traveller community (gypsies if you like) still speak it.

Some more digging shows that the term 'bloke' (or 'bloak', as it was sometimes spelled) was even once popular in America. This may or may not help the next time your American friends laugh at you for using funny words...