At death's door... potentially

Last night while listening to BBC Radio 4, which is normally the home of good English, I heard a doctor say: "To resuscitate or not is a potentially life and death situation."

Potentially? Nope, I reckon once you're heart's stopped there's nothing potential about it.

Worldwide wondrous words

JD and I take delight in the idiosyncrasies of English, but a recently published book serves as a reminder that weird and wonderful words are uttered wherever people speak.

The book in question is Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words To Change The Way We See the World, by Adam Jacot de Boinod (published by Penguin).

How long is pisan zapra?

Here are some examples:

Pisan Zapra (Malay) – the time it takes to eat a banana
Tartle (Scottish) – to hesitate when about to introduce someone whose name you can't recall
Jayus (Indonesian) – someone who tells a joke that's so awful you have to laugh
Kaellig (Danish) – a woman who stands on her doorstep screaming obscenities at her progeny
*Rombhoru (Bengali) – a woman with thighs as shapely as banana trees
*Baffona (Italian) – an attractive moustachioed woman
And from Cameroon, a phrase that's almost too nice to be believable: Wo-mba... the smile of a sleeping child. Aaaaaah...

*PS Baffona Rombhoru makes an interesting name which would be perfect for an attractive moustachioed woman with thighs as shapely as banana trees.

Triple mixed metaphor strikes back

I blogged a while back about a triple mixed metaphor from one of our senior writers.

The same writer has done it again!

Operators will be buried under a mountain of data, glued to their PCs trying to unravel the mysteries of their operation

It would be difficult to unravel anything while buried under a mountain and glued to a PC... And I wouldn't mind all these metaphors so much if they weren't such cliches.

Bloody coincidental

Giving blood the other day I was amused to note that the air-conditioning unit in the blood van (sorry: mobile unit) was called a 'Fujitsu Plasma Clean'. Perhaps it's not just the air that it conditions?

Yes, I know it's a strange thing to spot but then there wasn't a lot else to look at...

And on the subject of giving blood, I am always a little concerned when the nurse tells me to 'make a fist to get the blood pumping'. I thought that's what my heart was for. Still, good to know I have a couple of back-ups...

Typo of the week: tea-hee

A small but amusing typo in a Times Online article about afternoon tea in London. Here's the relevant paragraph:

Afternoon tea is served daily at 2pm and 4pm (plus a noon sitting at weekends) and costs £31.50pp, or £38.50pp with a glass of bubby: book on 020 7420 2669. You've got until December 15, when the Savoy closes for a 16-moth, £100 million refurbishment.

It seems that 16 moths can do a surprising amount of damage...

Obscure but satisfying: quota and quotient

An obscure solecism helped me finish the working week on a high note.

One of our techies remarked in a feature that a number of otherwise similar vehicles "varied in their poshness quota". A rather clever phrase, I thought approvingly, and moved on. But something wasn't right. I looked again, reached for the OED and confirmed that he meant quotient, rather than quota.

Which is the first time I recall that word dropping into the engine room. Small victories... but as subs and copy editors out there know, in the engine room that's all you can expect.

Here's to the weekend!

The sign of the relieved canine

I've just re-read Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett in which he makes a (to me) delightful reference to his days as a sub, before he introduced a grateful public to the delights of Discworld.

Interesting Times is set in a fantasy version of medieval China, complete with complex pictograms. One of his characters is puzzled by an oft repeated pictogram that seems to show a dog urinating.

As any sub of my advancing years would recognise, Mr P is sharing an in-joke with with the likes of JD and I because 'dog's cock' is time-honoured engine-room slang for an exclamation mark.

Good to see the great man hasn't forgotten his roots!

Visuwords vs Erin McKean

A while back I wrote about a speech by Erin McKean, editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary, in which she talked about the future of the dictionary. One of the things McKean said was that the current crop of online dictionaries did not live up to their potential; apart from being searchable and having a few links, they were just the same as their print equivalents.

Evidently McKean hadn't come across Visuwords, which is the fantastic 'online graphical dictionary' pictured here (although in practice I've found it works better as a thesaurus). Type in a word and Visuwords graphically shows any related words in an expanding spidergram. Parts of speech (noun, verb etc) are indicated through different colours, and hovering over a word brings up a definition.

If nothing else, it's incredibly pretty (it even impressed one of our designers), although words with many associations tend to bring the web browser on my Mac grinding to a near halt.

I'm adding Visuwords to our list of production desk tools, which you can find on the panel to the bottom right of the blog. Alternatively follow the link in this post.

The logistics space

One of the stories I subbed this morning talked about:

clerical and administrative roles in the logistics space

Um, 'the logistics space'? Surely 'the logistics sector' or 'the logistics industry' or simply just 'logistics'...

But maybe I'm wrong. Googling 'the logistics space' throws up quite a number of hits – and I even found one site that talks of a firm "acquiring a global footprint in the logistics space".

Horrible, or acceptable?

Len Jones' double burglary

I was a little bemused by a story in the UK newspaper the News of the World at the weekend. Here it is, in full:

World War II veteran Len Jones, 80, was burgled TWICE while in hospital after a fire at his home.

Former soldier Len got back to Colaton Raleigh, Devon, and found thieves had stolen his £12,000 record collection and then returned for his cameras.

My question is: when Len returned home, how did he know he had been burgled twice? The thieves could easily have taken the records and cameras in the one burglary.

Of course, Len's friends or neighbours could have been watching the property for him, and simply told him when he came out of hospital that he had been burgled twice.

But if so, those friends or neighbours did an exceptionally awful job of looking after his house, despite knowing it well enough to be able to identify which items were stolen in each burglary. And they evidently didn't tell Len about either burglary until after he was out of hospital. I am sure they would say that was because they didn't want to worry an old man who had recently been through a traumatic experience, but I have my suspicions...

Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat for a moment, I say the most likely explanation is that the friends or neighbours that were looking after Len's house were the ones to steal his records and cameras. And the whole 'double burglary' scenario was just a fabrication to throw the police – and Len – off the scent.

A bigger engine room

JD and I labour in the hot and sticky engine rooom of a trade magazine, but it's good to know that our exalted counterparts who pace the gleaming engine rooms of the national press are also no more than human.

Last week one of the tabloids informed its readers that a man had been found hanged from the bannister of his (presumably single-storey) bungalow, and on the following page was the revelation that the Tory party had been denied a surprise windfall. As distinct, presumably, from an eagerly awaited windfall.

But it goes to show how easy it is to forget the exact definition of the words we all rely on.

Album titles: Shut up and sub...

I recently mentioned that I've been reading a biography of musician Steve Earle. However what I forgot to add is that I was very taken with the title of a Steve Earle live album: Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (pictured).

This got me thinking about my all-time favourite album titles. I have a soft spot for Welsh band Mclusky's: My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours is probably the best, although The Difference Between Me and You is That I'm Not on Fire is also a belter. (As you can tell, long album titles appeal to me.)

Any favourite album titles out there?

Here's to the beer!

This being a Friday evening, beer is on the engine room agenda and on the all-too-rare occasions when our esteemed editor takes the team drinking he refers to going for "a couple of scoops".

JD was intrigued enough to research this use of "scoop" and discovered it has an Irish derivation. No surprise there then, as Mrs Editor hails from Erin.

But while this is doubtless a well established phrase, some of our younger charges refer to going for a Britney (from Britney Spears = beers). It's good to see that rhyming slang had not been consigned to history, but we were wondering if anyone out there has their own local phrases for this time honoured pastime.


Pronouns: ambiguity

Today I have a good example of how dropping pronouns in copy can lead to ambiguity. The following was taken from one of the questions submitted to our regular 'Readers' Q&A' page:

I have children who are under 18 and would like to work flexible hours

Of course, it's the author who would like to work flexible hours, not his or her children – although the lack of an 'I' before 'would' makes this ambiguous.

This example was written by a reader, not by a journalist, so I can't be too critical. But perhaps it shouldn't have reached the subs' desk in this state...


Sensible people, the Spanish. When greeting each other we Brits routinely shorten good morning/afternoon/evening to morning/afternoon/evening.

Spaniards do it the other way round and truncate buenos dias/tardes/noches to buenos at all times of the day or night. It does make life that bit easier for visitors to their fine country and there's something delightfully optimistic about people meeting and simply saying "good", don't you think?

Don't worry, it's not your eyes

Yes, I've been tinkering with the blog – apologies for any disruption experienced yesterday. The Engine Room is now decked out in more autumnal colours and hopefully is more legible to boot.

You may also notice that we now have a poll on the panel to the right. If you think of any good questions for the poll, don't hesitate to send them in, as quite frankly 'This is a test poll...' isn't going to set anyone's pulses racing.

We also have more social networking functionality (ugh) than ever – you can share posts on Facebook, add them to your Technorati favourites, or even use Sphere to search for related content. I'm not sure how many Engine Room readers use this sort of thing, but it's there if you want it.

A late addition – a summary of recent comments, again on the panel to the right. There's quite a lot of stuff on the blog now, so let me know if it's taking too long to load up for you. Thanks.

Surplus words: it's worth noting that...

My first day back from Spain and the first story to come my way contained the phrase "it's worth noting that...". If it's in a news story JD and I have to assume it's worth noting. One thing's for sure: this is a phrase that will never make it into our magazine while JD and I lurk in the engine room.

It's good to back. Honest.

Shotgun house

Reading the biography Hardcore Troubadour: The Life & Near Death of Steve Earle, by Lauren St John, I came across the following:

Like most of the houses of Steve's youth, it had three bedrooms, a bathroom, and a living room, all arranged in shotgun fashion off the main passage

Shotgun fashion? As a Brit, this was the first time I had encountered this American English term. Wikipedia explains that a shotgun house is "a narrow rectangular domestic residence... consisting of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways", and discusses the etymology of the term. I even found some plans for a shotgun house on an architectural website. And, of course, there is the lovely picture you see here.

But a bit of a discrepancy: the house described in the book has a "main passage", yet a shotgun house has "no hallways". Was St John using the phrase simply to mean that the rooms were arranged in a row? Can any American readers help? And how well known is the term Stateside? Any Brits come across it before?

Blu-ray: not so clear?

I just saw an advert on the side of a bus for the latest Spiderman film – "available on Blu-ray". Blu-ray, of course, is one of the new optical disc formats (the Playstation 3 is shipped with a Blu-ray drive).

However as the word 'Blu-ray' was capped up and written in an unfortunate choice of font, it looked for all the world like Spiderman 3 was "available on BLU-RRY'. Not really the format to be watching high-definition video on...


One of our sales reps is renowned for his interesting turn of phrase and ability to mangle idioms. For your pleasure, here are a few his best expressions from over the years:

  • A bit old in the tooth and green behind the ears
  • He's ruffled my cage
  • He's as sharp as a button
  • What's the point in shooting yourself in the back?
  • I wouldn't trust them with a bargepole
  • I bet he's spitting chips

Bugbears: SVO,O,+VO

Taken from a recent BBC News technology story (which appears to have been taken down, but you can still Google this phrase if you don't believe me):

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books and plays music.

I see this type of sentence construction a lot, even from professional journalists, and I believe that most people don't have any problem with it. But I do.

This gadget reads labels and plays music, but what does it do with audio books? 'Read them', I hear you say. But, except as a headline, you would never write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books.

Instead you would write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books.

This suggests the original construction needs another 'and'. Giving you:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books, and plays music.

I suppose the comma is optional, but it helps indicate a change of verb is coming.

Spelling can be (pomer)grate

My local Sainsbury's supermarket is currently selling a type of fruit called, according to the printed labelling, a 'pomergrate'. I can only assume that it's like a pomegranate, only better.

Just a shame the pomergrates aren't pomergratis...

And no, they aren't part of the SO RAS range.

They're grate...

Impossible quiz question

Found in the book Total Trivia: Over 2,000 Zany Quiz Questions:

Q. What percentage of British Engineers, to the nearest five, are women?

A. Two and a half per cent.


Recent gems

Jut to end a long working week on a high note, here are a few gems that have oozed under the engine room door:

  • "But now motor insurance readers last week agreed"
  • "The company began in humble beginnings"
  • "This agreement is expected to result in 5,000 units being produced annually per year"
  • "In a statement the company says"

And they wonder why JD and I sometimes growl at our charges.

Right that's it; my turn to hide in Spain for a week. Hasta la vista! (what does that mean, anyway?)

Headlines: children job seekers

A couple of dodgy headlines today. The first, from yesterday's Daily Mail (October 4):

Agony of the children job seekers leave in Romania

The first time I read this, I wondered who these children job seekers were, and why the headline didn't appear to make grammatical sense. Of course, the Daily Mail has elided a 'that' between 'children' and 'job', presumably for reasons of space. Very confusing.

And Gingerous sent in the following headline from the BBC News website:

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has been involved in a car accident with a 10-year-old boy

He asks: "Why was a 10-year-old driving a car?"

Wikipedia says that "sometimes a 'car accident' may refer to an automobile striking a human or animal" but I agree that it's not the most common use of the phrase. It does have the benefit of not implying that Gerrard was to blame, unlike a lot of alternative phrases.

The Engine Room: a mystery explained

You may be wondering why sometimes Apus and I refer to 'the engine room' (no caps) and sometimes to 'the Engine Room' (initial caps). After all, it's not like subs to be so inconsistent, is it?

Well, Apus and I work for the production desk of a particular publication. Long before I joined the publication, Apus had developed the habit of referring to the production desk as the engine room of the magazine, for obvious reasons. I picked this habit up from him, and when we came to start the blog, it seemed the perfect name.

So when we refer to 'the engine room', we mean the production desk on our magazine; when we refer to 'the Engine Room', we mean the blog you are reading. Of course, you may ask why we don't cap up the 'the'...

Australian business-speak

It looks like business-speak isn't limited to the US and the UK: Roz has written in with some examples heard during a one-hour 'Dialogue Day' session at the Australian Taxation Office. Here they are, with Roz's comments in brackets.

  • Key drivers
  • Key deliverables
  • Key strategies (why can't they use some synonyms for 'key'?)
  • ...sessions around delivery plans (whatever happened to 'about' or 'regarding' or 'concerning'?)
  • At the end of the day
  • Cascade down corporate messages (well, cascades don't often go up do they?)
  • Efficiencies made to business (how do you 'make' an efficiency?)
  • Big ticket item
  • Co-design session
  • Impacting on all the messages out there
  • Hip pocket
  • Value-adding
  • A deliberate service model (what – as opposed to an accidental one?)
  • Sophisticated profiling and risk
  • Level playing field
  • The tax agent community (yeah, there's probably an axe-murdering community too. Everything has a community these days)
  • Principles-based
  • Penalty 'safe-harbour'
  • Grass-roots issues
  • Base tenants (I think the $120,000-per-year idiot meant tenets)
  • Capability-building projects

Thanks for those, Roz. 'Level playing field' is one that often appears in our publication; we hear all sorts of gubbins about 'communities'; and 'impacting' is one of my personal bugbears. So I feel your pain...

Spanish: dos servicios

Biggest language blunder while on holiday in Spain: confusing 'dos cervezas' with 'dos servicios' – yes, I went into a bar and asked for two toilets instead of two beers.

I then compounded my error: attributing the barman's look of confusion to my poor Spanish accent, I repeated my request several times, each time slightly more loudly and clearly.

I never did get my 'dos servicios'.

Two please – large ones

It's just fortunate that, before I left the UK for Spain, one of our reporters took me aside and warned me not to confuse 'pollo' with 'polla'...

Blog update

I'm back from my holiday now, so thanks to Gingerous for uploading my posts for me.

The blog has gone from strength to strength in my absence: last week was our busiest ever, in terms of both hits and visitors. Partly this is due to another good mention on BuzzFeed – this time it was Apus' post on the OED dropping hyphens that hit the limelight.

We've also had a fair smattering of blog cross-pollination: see this post on Villa Grammatica, or this one on Although who jessihempel is, I don't know.

My next task is to persuade Apus to install Firefox so he can put pictures on his blog posts (at the moment he is posting solely through the power of righteous indignation).