Crime and prevention purposes

Near where I live is a cash machine (ATM) with the following warning:

This ATM is monitored for crime and prevention purposes

The way I read this, the bank is monitoring the cash machine for two reasons: 'crime purposes' and 'prevention purposes'. The first is illegal, the second nonsensical (prevention of what?). Perhaps the bank means it is monitoring the ATM for 'crime-prevention purposes'...

Then again, if I wake up tomorrow to find I haven't got a penny in my account, I can't say I haven't been warned.

Incidentally, it's interesting the number of terms there are for ATMs, at least in the UK. As well as 'cash machine' and 'cashpoint', there's also 'hole in the wall' - and the OED adds 'cash dispenser', which to be honest I've never heard used. Any more out there?

Our mag: par for the course

The magazine that Apus and I work for, like many magazines, has a column that lists events and courses. In the column this week, one company is offering a "five-day initial course" in a particular subject, as well as a "six-day refresher course" - in the same subject!

So it takes five days to learn, and six days to be reminded of it when you've forgotten it...

Don't get fresh with me

Further to JD's remarks on the word 'new', this very day I came across an interesting use of the word 'fresh'. During my lunchtime stroll I spotted a new restaurant with a sign promising "Only FRESH food grilled on FRESH charcoal!"

Let me through – I'm a dendrochronologist...

My pet hates: the word 'new'

All subs have their bugbears or pet hates, and one of mine is the misuse of the word 'new'. For example, London free newspaper Metro today carries a small science story saying that:

Cannabis has new healing properties - it can treat severe eczema and other skin complaints.

Er, yes, cannabis probably does have those properties, but I doubt they are new. They're just newly discovered.

And when the word 'new' is appropriate, the papers seem reluctant to use it. Also today, the Mirror talks about "Paris Hilton's new-style humility" since being released from prison. What, as opposed to her old-style humility?

Update: just thought of another example. In our work, Apus and I often come across phrases such as 'manufacturer X is launching a new product'. Well, if the product is just being launched, it's probably safe to assume that it's new...

Shampoo is not a food product

It seems I'm not the only one who reads packaging. Gingerous Humerous Maximus has e-mailed in to tell us that the back of his shampoo bottle contains the statement, "this is not a food product".

Worryingly, this suggests two things. Firstly, that people have mistaken the shampoo for food in the past (or that the manufacturer believes they are likely to do so in the future); and secondly, that the manufacturer feels a warning is likely to dissuade people from eating the shampoo.

I wonder what sort of person thinks, 'I'll eat this shampoo, but before I do so, I'll read the small print on the back of the bottle just in case it isn't edible'.

Gingerous, your attention to detail has saved you once again...

Mafia insurance: an offer I can't refuse

I've had a letter from UK insurer Norwich Union Direct that reads more like a threat from the Mafia. Alongside a picture of an 'In Loving Memory' bouquet it says:

Accidents happen

Each year in the UK, hundreds of people fall on the stairs. Some are lucky and walk away. Others, however, aren't so lucky...

For peace of mind and to ensure "my loved ones will be properly looked after", I should pay Norwich union £2 a month. Sounds like protection money to me.

Most hated web words

An Engine Room regular has written in to tell us about a recent YouGov poll in which 2,000 web users voted for their most hated internet word or phrase. The top ten are:

1. Folksonomy (a user-generated classification system)
2. Blogosphere
3. Blog
4. Netiquette
5. Blook (a book based on a blog)
6. Webinar
7. Vlog (a video log)
8. Social networking
9. Cookie
10. Wiki / podcast / avatar / user-generated content

Not bad that only one of them has been an Engine Room 'word of the day'! Any other hated web words out there?

Chunk down and front-load your copy

Yesterday I wrote about the 'sticky content' course I was about to attend. It turned out that, rather embarrassingly, the course wasn't about sticky content at all. I was misled by a classic piece of corporate miscommunication, an email that read:

Sticky content Web Training
I am pleased to confirm you are booked onto the above course

In reality - as I found out once I had taken my seat - the course was called 'Writing for the web' and Sticky Content was the name of the company running it. Never mind...

However I did learn a couple of new buzzphrases on my non-sticky content course. They are two things you should do to your copy when writing for the web.

  • Chunk down: break your copy into chunks; try to use lists, bullets (like this for example), smaller paragraphs.
  • Front-load: Put the most important words at the beginning of your title or heading; put the most important part of the story at the beginning as well.

So there you go. My content is not sticky, but it will henceforth be chunked down and front-loaded (and there's a sentence I've never written before).

Sticky content

Not much of a post today I'm afraid because I'm about to go on a work-related course - on the interesting subject of 'sticky content'.

I'll know more about it by the end of the day, but sticky content, as I've had to explain to several people already, is content on a website that has the purpose of getting users to return to that website repeatedly. And no, not necessarily porn - forums are a good example of sticky content, as are games and competitions.

According to Wikipedia, sticky content is also rather suggestively known as 'sticky gear' or 'sticky tools'...

What a state (capital)

After my recent post on city and town motto(e)s, I did a little research and found that many places in the US are self-proclaimed 'state capitals' for certain things or events. For example, the confusingly-named town of Cheshire is 'the bedding plant capital of Connecticut', and Front Royal is 'the canoe capital of Virginia'. Gays Mills has a slightly more excited motto: 'The apple capital of Wisconsin... come see it!'

Other towns and cities believe they have a national rather than state significance. Gueyden, Louisiana is 'the duck capital of America'; one of my personal favourites is Melvina, Wisconsin, 'the frog capital of the USA'.

A select few places, most of them seemingly in Michigan, see themselves as global leaders. Eau Claire, Michigan is 'the cherry pit spitting capital of the world'; Sturgis, in the same state, is 'the curtain rod capital of the world'.

But the winner of most pretentious town motto has to be Thomasville, North Carolina; not content at being the best at one thing, the 'furniture and hosiery capital of the world' claims two.

Word of the day: lucidiots

If Apus can come over all literary, so can I. I came across today's word of the day, 'lucidiots', in a novel - Sacrament by Clive Barker. It's probably easiest if I just quote the relevant passage:

"Glenn's got a great new word, by the way, which is kind of appropriate. Lucidiots. That's what he calls people who talk too fast, seem to be perfectly lucid -"

"-and are, in fact, idiots. I like that. Where'd he get it from?"

"It's his. He made it up. Words beget words. That's the cri du jour."

"Lucidiots," Will said again, most entertained.

So there you go. Lucidiots. Googling it throws up almost no hits at all, so it may well be a Clive Barker neologism.

Nice city, shame about the motto

It seems a very American thing for cities to have mottos (mottoes if you prefer) - and many US cities even have more than one. San Diego, for example, confidently claims to be 'The Place Where California Began', 'Plymouth of the West', 'The First Great City of the 21st Century' and, perhaps most contentiously, 'America's Finest City'.

British cities also have mottos, but they tend to be in Latin, or unknown to the general public, or both. Wolverhampton's motto is 'Out of darkness cometh light'; Sheffield goes the Latin route with 'Deo Adjuvante Labor Proficit' (with God's help our labour is successful); Birmingham laconically chooses 'Forward'.

My nomination for the British city with the worst motto is Derby (which, for all our non-British readers, rhymes with 'Barbie'). Its motto, in full, is 'DerbYes! The city where you can'. My first objection is to the 'DerbYes' part. I am assuming this is a combination of 'Derby' and 'yes', but it is easy to read it as the nonsensical two-word phrase Derb Yes, or possibly as a misspelling of 'Derbies'.

Secondly, 'the city where you can'? Can what? Get mugged? Stabbed? Be homeless? Jobless? Even assuming the motto writers intended something positive, what is it that you can do in Derby than you can't do anywhere else? Except, perhaps, be ashamed of having the worst motto in the country...


I'm off on holiday for a week, and am feeling demob happy. So let me share two genuine quotes from BBC Radio 7 which brought me wider awake while half listening to talking books in the small hours. Both are from authors I admire and both made me chuckle.

From The 39 Steps (John Buchan): "I tossed a knife in the air and did the old Mshona trick of catching it in my teeth."

From Sharpe's Fortress (Bernard Cornwell): "He cast a morbid eye over Sharpe's bullocks."

Enormity and enormousness

This is a post about the word 'enormity'.

At work, our intranet is being migrated to another server "to improve back-end performance". On the intranet itself an IT spokesman is quoted as saying: "This has involved over 50 people from across the company due to the enormity of the project."

Enormity? Really? According to the OED, enormity means "the large scale or extreme seriousness (of something bad)". The migration does seem to have a large scale, but I'm not sure whether it is something bad - or if so, whether the spokesman would want to draw attention to this aspect of it.

Perhaps the IT spokesman meant 'enormousness' not 'enormity'.

To be fair, the dictionary does list a secondary meaning of 'enormity' as "(in neutral use) great size or scale", which reflects the changing meaning of this word. The OED even says that this secondary meaning is "now broadly accepted in standard English".

However while the word 'enormity' retains negative connotations for many people, it is probably better and certainly safer to use a different word in a neutral context - enormousness, or hugeness. The IT spokesman could have just used the words 'scale' or 'size'.

Monetary but not financial

Why do some writers believe that archaic or overly formal language improves their copy?

In a perfectly reasonable feature I was subbing yesterday, the writer referred to someone having "a pecuniary interest" in a project. The OED defines "pecuniary" as "(formal) of, relating to, or consisting of money". So "pecuniary" is accurate, but at least some readers would be left scratching their heads – or they would if I hadn't replaced it with "monetary".

My first choice, by the way, was "financial" but when I checked with the OED I discovered that "finance" is "the management of large amounts of money, especially by governments or large companies". So while all financial transactions are monetary, not all monetary transactions are financial.

In everyday speech such differences are hardly earth-shattering. But these subtleties are what makes English such a fascinating language, don't you think?

UK Newspeak

After being overcharged for a train ticket, I went to a Southern railway ticket office and asked for a complaints form. The man in the ticket office gave me, instead of a complaints form, a 'customer comments form'. Apparently Southern no longer has complaints forms, only comments forms.

Apus observed that this is an example of Orwell's Newspeak - as if Southern, by replacing complaints forms with comments forms, can also replace the complaints themselves with comments.

On a similar note, it is interesting that the upcoming smoking ban in England is being brought in under the 'Smoke-Free Regulations 2006'. The title suggests freedom (freedom from smoke) - and freedom is good. If the regs had been called the 'No Smoking Regulations', this would have suggested restriction - and restriction is bad.

Remember children, language is never neutral.

Both or (n)either

While travelling to visit my dear old mum by tube over the weekend I noticed a poster warning that the Circle Line was closed for repairs so "no trains will be travelling in both directions".

Which appears to mean they have one set of trains running clockwise and another widdershins. Yes, I know, the poster's author meant "either" rather than "both", but why didn't he just say "The Circle Line is closed for repairs"?

Pedantic? Certainly. But remember, this isn't a slip of the tongue - it's a publication from a major company and it shouldn't be that hard to use the right word for the job.

Word of the day: Wiiitis

Back in the early 1990s, a US doctor identified a medical condition among the video-game-playing community called Nintendinitis. This is the thumb soreness caused by too much controller button-bashing, and I'm sure many Engine Room readers can relate.

Now gamers are suffering a new condition: Wiiitis (pronounced 'wee-EYE-tis', I presume). This has been identified by a Boston doctor called Dr Bonis who gave himself a form of tennis elbow through hours of playing simulated tennis on his Nintendo Wii games console.

Fortunately, the treatment for acute Wiiitis is simple: "ibuprofen for one week, as well as complete abstinence from playing Wii video games", according to the doc.

(Incidentally, I wonder if there is a medical name for the red weals in the centre of the palm many gamers gave themselves rotating a controller thumbstick in games such as Mario Party? And on a personal level, I once suffered from 'Sensible Fingers' - my digits cramped playing too much Sensible Soccer on my PC keyboard...)

Thanks to Sarah for bringing this to our attention!

Putting the 'help!' in helpdesk

An Engine Room regular (with the unlikely moniker of Gingerous Humerous Maximus) has submitted some of his favourite misuses of the English language as directed at IT helpdesks. Here in his own words:

"The Internet is down." Really, the whole internet has gone down? I know this is probably the natural thing to say, but it would be better to say, “Our internet connection has gone down,” or ask, “Is there currently a problem with our internet connection?”

"Something's wrong with the windows." OK, surely this is a facilities job and nothing to do with IT...

“My mouse keeps doing strange things.” Wow, a piece of computer hardware has come to life – call the government before all the machines arise to destroy us!

"There’s some sort of jam in the printer.” What type of jam? I'm not leaving my desk for anything less than strawberry...

Contributions are always welcome at the Engine Room - it saves Apus and me having to write so much! Feel free to email us and don't forget to check out the comments for each post.

Word of the day: smirting

Today's word is something that people in England are going to be a lot more familiar with come July 1, and which is already a common phenomenon in the rest of the British Isles and in certain other parts of the globe. Yes, it's smirting.

Smirting is a portmanteau word (another one!), a combination of smoking and flirting, and refers to the practice of smokers flirting outside public places where smoking is banned, such as pubs and restaurants.

According to Wikipedia, the term is thought to have originated in the Republic of Ireland some time after the public places smoking ban came into effect there in March 2004. An article the following year in the Observer suggests "having a quick drag has replaced speed dating as the best way to spice up your love life".

England, get ready to smirt!

Beckham: true to himself

From the Engine Room inbox:

Spotted this little gem in a particularly bad local magazine that drops through our door every month or so.

“Of course, David Beckham is first and foremost a footballer, and every youngster who ever kicked a football will harbour the desire to play like Beckham. The young David Beckham was no exception to this desire...”

Ignoring the mangling of the various tenses in this statement, and the suggestion that youngsters born in 1900 would have subliminally wanted to play like a man who wouldn’t be born for 75 years, I particularly enjoyed the suggestion that David Beckham’s only ambition when growing up was to play like David Beckham. Well, I wanted to play like me, and I achieved that, but it didn’t do me a whole lot of good!

We're all alcoholics now

I know I've written a lot about shoddy language use in newspapers recently, and about the woolly use of figures, but this is a particularly fine example of both so bear with me.

I'm a "dependent drinker". So are you. At least according to free London paper Metro today.

Its lead story is about "problem drinkers" in the UK costing the health service £1.3bn a year. It goes on to talk about "dependent drinkers"- even worse than problem drinkers - who "down up to 50 pints a week".

Now think of a number up to 50. I choose, um, 10 - but you may have a different number.

So far this week I've drunk five pints and no doubt will drink a few more by the end of the week - quite possibly 10 in total. That's a number 'up to 50', as we've just established. So that makes me a dependent drinker. Thanks, Metro.

In fact, by this logic, the only people who aren't dependent drinkers are those who drink - or rather, down, which is quite a feat - more than 50 pints a week.

(Interestingly, the version of the story on the Metro website doesn't include the offending phrase, so maybe they realised their mistake.)

Precision... we can and must achieve it

Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it correct. I'm referring to the sloppy use of "can".

A senior writer in our care presented the magazine's comment piece this morning, including the exhortation: "We cannot let this affect our decision". This was changed to "We must not...". Why? Because the OED defines "can" as "be able to". The writer did not mean "We are unable to let this affect our decision" so she shouldn't have written it.

And yes, I do know that recent editions of the OED give credence to sloppy usage by admitting "be permitted to" as an alternative meaning of "can". Even Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition) accepts this usage "in informal circumstances". But the 2nd edition on JD's desk doesn't, and neither do I.

English abounds in such subtleties as the difference between "may" and "can". We should not sacrifice precision simply because a generation of schoolkids (and graduates) have not been taught to pick their words carefully.

Daily Mail fashion advice

According to a 'Did You Know?' sidebar in a Daily Mail feature on recycling yesterday,

It take just 25 two-litre pop bottles to make one adult-size fleece jacket

Yes, possibly – but even if you could find something to glue the bottles together with, you'd end up looking like the Michelin Man. And it would hardly be comfortable...

(Seriously, a company called Greenpac does make clothing from plastic yarn taken from melted-down drinks bottles, but there was no explanation of this in the Daily Mail story – hence the strange mental image. With language, context is everything.)

My good friend Mr Wholesale

An Engine Room regular has suggested that Apus and I are a little too critical of the writers we work with. By way of apology, I'd like to share an anecdote showing that sub-editors are fallible too.

I was checking a page proof when I came across the sentence: "The licence was lost by Mr Meats Wholesale" - 'Mr Meats Wholesale' of course being the name of a wholesaler. However I read it as the name of a person: first name Meats, surname Wholesale.

As a result I was left wondering why Apus, who I knew had subbed the copy, had used 'Mr' before this person's name, as it isn't our house style to use titles.

Eventually I reached the conclusion that 'Meats Wholesale' could be the name of either a man or a woman, and therefore the 'Mr' was necessary to indicate the gender of this person called Meat. Well, it made sense to me...

When bacteria tastes good

Despite the flak I got a while back for reading - and blogging about - the back of my toothpaste tube, today I've decided to write about a yoghurt pot (or 'yogurt', if you prefer).

Yesterday I ate a Yeo Valley Organic Strawberry Bio Live Yogurt, and noticed that the packaging claims that

the fresh, mild taste comes from using the friendliest bacteria and the juiciest fruit

I can understand the correlation between the juiciness of the fruit and the freshness and mildness of the taste, but where does the friendliness of the bacteria come in? Do friendly bacteria really taste fresher and milder? And if so, how exactly is the friendliness of bacteria measured?

But I suppose that making your yogurt taste fresh and mild is in itself a friendly act, and therefore the friendliest bacteria are the ones that taste the best. QED.

Tesco teaches teenagerese

The Daily Mail yesterday carried a story about Tesco issuing "a phrasebook of 'teenagerese' to its growing band of workers over retirement age to help them understand their younger colleagues and customers".

The paper listed some of the words and phrases in the phrasebook (plus definitions), including 'wack', 'buggin' and 'phat'. However two of the words given were 'vexed', and 'rank' (with the meaning of 'disgusting, horrible'). I didn't think either of these were slang - and the OED agrees with me.

But next time you admit to being vexed by a rank smell in Tesco, don't be surprised if you see the supermarket's more mature employees reaching for a phrasebook...

Finance can be fun

I came across a great financial acronym yesterday.

I'd already heard of management buy-outs, or MBOs, which is when a company is purchased by its existing management. However, when a company is purchased by a combination of its existing management and an external management team, this is known as a 'buy-in management buy-out', or - wait for it - a BIMBO.

"We bought the company through a BIMBO." Immortal words.