Eudemonic neoteric year!

A eudemonic neoteric year to all our fellow English language energumens. And if you'd like your own guide to Wordsmanship, the book of that name (subtitled The Art of Verbal Conquest) was published in 1984 by Angus & Robertson (ISBN 0-207-14915-1). While JD and I have sworn the subbing guild oath to keep English lucid, sometimes it's nice to be able to stop an argument with a word or two that your opponent doesn't know.

Here are a few more examples you might like to drop into conversation:
hepatic disagreeable
edacious greedy
incondite crude
hebetudinous thick-headed
hebdomadal weekly
nugatory trifling
iracund irritating
oscitancy lazy
nocuous harmful
irrefragable undeniable
vilipend slander
thrasonical boastful

Wordsmanship has its roots in the concept of one-upmanship, for which we are indebted to the late, great Stephen Potter. His books, Gamesmanship (1947), Lifemanship (1950), One-Upmanship (1952) and Supermanship (1958) explain "how to win without actually cheating" by taking psychological advantage of your opponent at every possible opportunity.

Also well worth tracking down is the smashing 1959 film School For Scoundrels, an archetypal British comedy co-written by Peter Ustinov with a tremendous cast including Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas, the incomparable Alastair Sim (as Stephen Potter), Dennis Price, Peter Jones, John le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques Hugh Paddick and Irene Handl.

Google reveals there was a US remake in 1996, which strikes me as being about as worthwhile as a British remake of Casablanca. Nuff sed.

Arise, sir Terry: former sub Pratchett is knighted

I know Apus will be pleased to learn that Terry Pratchett (pictured below) has been made a knight in the New Year Honours list.

Photo by: Sutton-Hibbert / Rex Features

Of course, the novelist was awarded his knighthood for services to literature, rather than for his early work as a sub (and reporter, I believe) on the Bath Chronicle.

BBC News – Profile: Terry Pratchett
The Engine Room – Independent: Pratchett blooper

Support lung disease, help the genocide

Here at The Engine Room we appreciate all your contributions, especially those we sit on for six months. Gareth sent us this email back in July:

A few weeks ago, I took part in the ASICS Great British 10K run through central London. As you'd expect, there were lots of teams of charity runners taking part.

At one point I ended up following a team of people in matching orange sweatshirts with the slogan "Breathtakers - Supporting Rare Lung Disease". Which seemed a little harsh. I was hoping they'd meet a team of people supporting research into preventing rare lung disease, and they could have had a big punch-up.

Anyway, joking aside, they are a good cause and they've got a website - I've chucked them a few quid just for giving me a good laugh. Maybe if your readers are feeling charitable then they'd like to do the same!

Shortly after this, and rather coincidentally, Lynneguist (from Separated by a Common Language) emailed us with the following:

Was driving through Palmyra, New York (the birthplace of Mormonism!) yesterday, and spotted a handwritten sign affixed to a telephone pole near a traffic light. It said:

"Children are being hurt and killed in Darfur. Donate money to help the genocide." (I think it gave a phone number at the end.)

Now, the handwriting was rather childish, so I feel a little bad poking fun at what is probably a heartfelt desire to do good. But still, I thought it was funny.

But now I've just googled "help the genocide" and found examples from people who ought to know better:


None of us is immune from making this sort of mistake. Recently I caught myself telling someone that I was "raising money for male cancer" – as if cancer needs the cash...

A firm grasp of history

Sharpe's Rifles
I just heard the following in a preview for this afternoon's entertainment on the History Channel: "Forget fantasy! Richard the Lionheart, Napoleon Bonaparte and Sharpe are real superheroes!"

Jason and the mystery of the pigs in blankets

We recently had an email from Jason regarding two kinds of own-brand bacon-wrapped sausage (pigs in blankets, if you prefer) that are available in Sainsbury's. He wrote:

One is 37cal per roll and shows as red on the traffic light system. The other is 40cal and shows as green. One is 6.7g salt and is red; the other is 6.7g salt and amber. Is it me or does this not make sense as a quick-glance guide to healthy eating?

All I can imagine, Jason, is that the second type of bacon-wrapped sausage weighs much more than the first (per sausage, that is, not per pack). Although the heavier sausage has a similar calorie count and salt content to the lighter one, it has fewer calories and less salt per 100g (or any other fixed weight) and is therefore 'healthier'.

To me, the real question is: why does Sainsbury's go to the trouble of offering two types of own-brand bacon-wrapped sausage?

These are actually pigs in blankets from a recipe on the Waitrose website. I don't know how they fare on the traffic light system, but they certainly look tasty...

Holiday round-up

Here are some oddments that have caught my attention over the past few days...

From Mrs Apus's favourite property programme:

we took the doors to a recreation yard
we haven't seen any unforeseen problems at the moment

Newspaper reports of a woman arrested for claiming her aunt's pension for 10 years after the lady died... aged 98 (you have to wonder how long she thought she'd get away with it for)

The Sunday Times report that a British yachtsman who suffered a broken leg in a round-the-world race had been rescued by "an Australian navy frigate" (as distinct from all those civilian frigates in private hands)

And lastly, an issue that, as JD knows, has irritated me for years. As widely reported, just before Christmas four people were convicted of conspiracy to commit blackmail and other offences during a campaign to stop suppliers working with Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tests drugs on animals.

The Engine Room is not a forum to discuss the case for or against such tests; my quarrel is with the media's description of the perpetrators as animal rights "activists" or "extremists".

The court heard that the campaigners had "made the lives of some families and employees a living hell" during "a campaign of fear" including bomb threats, office invasions by masked gangs, damage to homes and posting needles said to be infected with AIDS.

The OED includes the following definition: "One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of coercing government or community" and the word, of course, is not "activist" or "extremist" but "terrorist". Activists and extremists argue in favour of their causes; terrorists use force or the threat of force.

Even when the cause involves cute furry animals, a terrorist is a terrorist.

'Subway' and 'underpass' in British English

Something else Christmassy, this time spotted in Forest Hill, London:

This interested me because of the use of 'subway' to refer to what I would call an 'underpass' (namely a tunnel that enables pedestrians to cross under a road).

Googling reveals that the two terms are often used interchangeably in British English. For example, I found an article in the Barking & Dagenham Post which begins:

A 71-year-old man was beaten to the ground by a group of thugs as he walked past a notorious subway.

The pensioner was attacked near the underpass linking the Mark's Gate Estate to East Road, Chadwell Heath.

The OED Online indicates that 'underpass' originated in the US – where, of course, 'subway' is used to mean "underground railway" (again, OED Online).

I wonder whether 'underpass' is ousting 'subway' here in Britain.

So a couple of questions, mainly for our British readership: would you use 'subway', 'underpass' or both? If both, is there any difference in how you would use them?

No jokes about sandwich shops, please.

(Oh, and I appreciate that 'subway' is a shorter word than 'underpass', and therefore easier to fit on a sign.)

Gold, frankincense and myrrh Christmas menus

Something appropriate for Christmas Day:

One of the bars near to my place of work has been offering 'three tailored Christmas menus', named 'gold', 'frankincense' and 'myrrh' (or rather 'myrhh', but let's not be picky).

Some browsing on the internet reveals the following:
  • Gold is toxic if consumed in high quantities. And prohibitively expensive, of course, so not many people get the opportunity to test that.
  • Myrrh, which often cost more than its weight in gold in ancient times, has a bitter taste and is traditionally associated with funerals and cremations.
  • Frankincense... is actually edible, although chewy and sticky. Mmmm.

So it looks as if the frankincense menu wins the day.

(This is just for fun, and I wouldn't be surprised if any or all of these facts were incorrect.) Can you eat gold? Gold, Frankincense, & Myrrh

Oh, and one last thing: Merry Christmas!

Half baked potato

I didn't manage to take a photo of it, but Monday's menu at work included "blackened chicken with half baked potato".

Half baked potato? Not sure they thought that one through...

WordNet Search: half-baked

Wonderfully silly

Any reader from outside the UK with an interest in the very best of wordplay silliness would be well advised to check out BBC Radio 4's "antidote to panel shows", I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Last April the show ended a run of more than 35 years following the death of its chairman, national treasure Humphrey Littleton (Eton, Brigade of Guards and world class jazzman... well worth a google).

Last night I happened to catch a repeat of the final broadcast including a regular feature, the Uxbridge Dictionary of new definitions for existing words.

Here's a sample:

gurgle to steal a ventreloquist's dummy
sanctity a multi-breasted frenchwoman
fastidious ugly sprinter
tallyho loose woman who keeps count
cursory where toddlers learn to swear
semolina form of signalling with puddings

Over the years I'm Sorry spawned a series of books, including a couple of editions of the Uxbridge Dictionary. I selected the following from my copy for your delectation:

halitosis bad breath brought on by a comet
baccanallian to bet on a martian
canape Scottish inability to settle bills
acne a dyslexic's walking stick
navigate scandal involving road menders
senile what to while holidaying in Egypt

and, the caulkheads' fave:

insolent fallen off the Isle of Wight Ferry

RIP Humph, you were one of a kind.

Christmas in the office

It's a strange experience being in the office just a few days before Christmas, as we use the same workflow but have only a skeleton staff. That means everyone has to wear more than one hat, as the metaphor goes.

For example: a writer writes a story for our website, then sends it to me for subbing. I sub the story in one program, then send it to... myself, for classification in another program. I classify the story, then send it to... myself, for final approval before it goes live. And then, should it need pulling or updating, that's done by... me.

With no content editor, no web editor and no digital assistant (great job title, huh?) to contend with, everything runs that much more smoothly – but then, I have fewer people to share the blame with when it all (inevitably) goes wrong. Still, after today I'm not back in until New Year's Eve.

It's on the house

I'm becoming addicted to Mrs Apus's favourite TV programme about house auctions, not least because one of the presenters is showing encouraging signs of having attended the Murray Walker school of rhetoric. Today's offerings included "this looks like a job half started" and the glorious double tautology "this property has a maximum ceiling bid price".

The Engine Room will follow her career with interest.

Antique etymology

Plenty of words have more than one meaning (I believe 'set' has most of all, so it sets a record) but one that's always puzzled me is cabinet. As the OED tells us, it's "a case or cupboard... for storing or displaying articles" and it's an "inner circle of ministers controlling government policy".

And today I finally learned the link between them, thanks to a furniture expert on The Antiques Roadshow. It seems that in the 18th century a gentleman would keep his fave trinkets in a cabinet to be displayed only to his inner circle of friends. They became known as 'cabinet friends' and from there it's only a short jump to a cabinet of the Prime Minister's closest associates.

English really is an unending source of small pleasures, don't you think?

A problem with using syndicated news... quality control.

Spotted this on the front page of the website yesterday:

"Paris Hilton Robbed of $2 Million in Jewl Heist"?

Clicking on the headline took me to Hollywood - where the 'Jewl' typo obviously originated.

Hollywood seems to have picked up the story from the Los Angeles Times - which at least managed to spell its headline correctly.

Perhaps should get its news from the LA Times rather than from Hollywood

And I do appreciate the irony of writing about this story myself. Blogging can be so parasitic...

Ennnui on Wii

Amid the torrent of pre-Xmas adds pouring forth from the telly my attention was caught by a rather sweet homonym, courtesy of the oddly named computer game company Wii. The phrase was "Wii music! Only on Wii". Yes, the idea of pretending to be a musician by waving my arms about holding an electronic toy certainly engenders a feeling of ennui.

Photo special: '20p per unit'

Spotted this in a hotel room recently (the Cathedral Gate Hotel in Canterbury, if I recall correctly):

Photo of phone taken in Cathedral Gate Hotel, Canterbury
The note on the phone reads '20p per unit' - but what does a unit get you? There's no indication, so the information that a unit costs 20p is entirely unhelpful.

Or is there such a thing as a widely known, standard 'telephone unit'?

Dangling modifiers and BK's meat scent

Spotted a couple of good dangling modifiers in BBC News stories today.

The Road to Bethlehem says of Jenin: "Known in the Bible as En-Gannim, a large refugee camp lies adjacent to the town."

Wow, that is one old refugee camp.

And in Burger chain markets meat scent, we are told: "Called Flame, the company says the spray is 'the scent of seduction with a hint of flame-broiled meat'."

The company in question is Burger King – it's the scent that is called Flame. But what a great story...

We got shortlipude

Our company had its annual awards bash/Christmas do earlier in the week, and quite an extravagant affair it was too.

At some point during the proceedings I appear to have texted my significant other with the informative message 'Ah we got shortlipude'. I'm attributing this to my mobile's dictionary not knowing the word 'shortlisted' rather than to the complementary complimentary champagne.

Incidentally, we were the only production desk in the company to be shortlisted for an award. Sadly, I think this says more about the awards that were on offer than it does about us.

He's a daedal geezer

Mrs Apus interrupted my musings this morning by asking if I knew the meaning of a word she'd just encountered in her current read, Andrew Taylor's The American Boy (not only a winner of the Historical Dagger award, but shortlisted by Richard and Judy's Book Club, no less).

Now Mrs A's vocab is at least as extensive as mine so I was surprised, and asked for the word and its context, which is: daedal, "It was a daedal maze of chambers..." The OED Concise defines daedal as: (literary) "skillful, inventive, complex, mysterious; of the earth etc adorned with natural wonders."

Goodness knows what Mr Taylor thought it meant when he used it to describe a 19th century London slum but I plan to drop in into conversation on a regular basis. JD, for example, is in my experience a skillful and inventive wordsmith so daedal would seem to be a fair adjective... and if that means he's also complex and mysterious, well, why not?

Project Gutenberg really takes the cake

I wrote a while back about some of the great project names we have at work, including Project Platypus and Project Prometheus.

One that I neglected to mention was (the sadly non-alliterative) Project Gutenberg, which is currently providing editorial teams with "a clutch of exciting new tools and resources".

You may know that there exists a better-known Project Gutenberg, according to Wikipedia "a volunteer effort to digitize, archive and distribute cultural works". And that, presumably, takes its name from Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the mechanical printing press.

So I have high expectations for my company's own Project Gutenberg. Not so some of my colleagues, who have taken to referring to it as Project Battenberg...

Office jargon: go-live

A colleague recently received a work-related email that included the following sentence:

I’d love to get this up and running before the go-live

It seems that phrases such as 'go-live date' are being shortened to give a new noun, 'go-live'. Well, new to me at any rate.

I've even found a Computer Weekly article that uses 'go-live' (as a noun) in the headline:

Screengrab from

Auntie's bloomers

There was a sad story on today's daytime BBC TV news about a bride and her father who were en route to the church in a horse and carriage when the nag bolted, leaving the poor girl with concussion. Fortunately she and her dad have suffered no permanent damage. None of which would be of relevance to this blog, were it not for the reporter's breathless announcement that the nuptials have been "cancelled for the time being".

Makes you wonder what they invented the word "postponed" for. And this from the organisation that has always been widely accepted as an arbiter of correct usage.


This evening, while half listening to the evening news, I was brought to a state of shudderation by a sports reporter's use of the phrase: "...Brighton and Hove Albion's unwinning streak". The word is LOSING, dammit – unwinning is not only a pointless neologism, it is also a prime example of Orwellian Newspeak, and the great man invented that tortured language as a dystopian warning, no more; no less.

A common subbing pitfall as shown by the BBC

Screengrab from may have to take my word for it (unless you click on the screengrab to see a larger version), but the fourth and eighth pars of the BBC News story shown over on the right are identical.

Both pars read: "Pipistrelle, a smaller animal, is among the few species found on the isles."

I'm blogging about this not to mock the BBC but to highlight a common pitfall for busy subs – only completing the first step of a two-step operation.

I have no way of proving it, but I imagine this is what happened in this particular case:

While working on the story, a sub decided to move the 'Pipistrelle...' par. He* completed the first stage of the operation, copying the par and pasting it in a new location. But he was then distracted and failed to complete the second stage, namely deleting the par from its original position.

Anything could have distracted him: an urgent phone call, a crisis meeting, a breaking story, a box of mince pies in the far corner of the office. I speak from experience...

Oh, and here's the link to the BBC News page so you can check whether the story has been fixed yet:

Bat 'may have been blown' from US

UPDATE 13/12: The BBC story has indeed been changed - now it's the third and eighth pars that are identical.

*Yes, I know, I haven't used singular 'they'. Please don't flame me.

Oxymorons: 'And now for our morning matinée..'

While JD spends his days plying his trade in the engine room we used to share I've fallen into bad habits, such as watching too much daytime TV. Most of it slides into one ear and out t'other but this morning I caught a presenter introducing what turned out to be a dismal Randolph Scott western with the phrase: "And now for our morning matinée..."

This had me smirking because everyone knows that a matinée is an afternoon performance so a morning matinée is, like military intelligence, an oxymoron*. The funny thing is that matin being French for morning, the English usage of the word matinée is in itself a solecism, if you happen to be a Frenchman (perish the thought).

While I had my OED Concise to hand I looked up the word oxymoron to find it's derived from the Greek words oxy (sharp) and moros (dull) so the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron, which will hardly be a coincidence.

From the numerous lists of oxymorons online I culled a few that, while not necessarily accurate, made me smile:

  • accordion music
  • active retirement
  • airline food
  • French resistance
  • German humour
  • American culture
  • adult male (courtesy of Mrs Apus)

* Confession: With my brain softened from inactivity I couldn’t bring the word oxymoron to mind. Fortunately JD’s younger, more agile mind was only a phone call away.

Pipped to the punch?

Recently, one of our publications ran a headline that contained the phrase 'pipped to the punch'.

Although the headline in question had nothing to do with me, I thought 'pipped to the punch' was interesting because it seemed to be an amalgamation of two common idioms: 'pipped to/at the post' and 'beaten to the punch'.

In one sense, 'pipped to the punch' was a good choice as it filled the space on the page better than 'pipped to/at the post' would have done while retaining the alliteration.

In another sense, it was a bad choice as 'pipped to the punch' isn't a recognised idiom (although its meaning is easily deducible, I would hazard, to native speakers).

Interestingly, Google returns just four results for 'pipped to the punch'...

Survivors: wearing glasses can harm your health

Slightly off-topic today in that this post is about the media rather than language use, but...

...have you been watching the remake of Survivors currently showing on BBC1? And if so, have you noticed how few of the survivors wear glasses?

None of the main characters in the TV programme is bespectacled, as the photo below shows. Dexter's group, from the second episode, is similarly lacking in glasses-wearers. Two of the elderly folk at the eco-centre (episode three) have specs on, but that's it, and they hardly have a speaking role anyway.

Screen grab from

So why, when around two thirds of the UK population wear glasses or contact lenses? Possible reasons:
  • The programme-makers didn't consider glasses cool enough. Unlikely, seeing as Doctor Who often wears specs and he is the sexiest man in the universe (apparently).
  • Wearing glasses puts you at an increased risk in a world "with no society, no police and no law and order". True, someone might be able to sneak up on you if you were busy cleaning your bins, and it could make life very difficult if you happened to break them, but I don't think this can account for the almost total absence of glasses-wearers in the programme.

  • The virus that struck down 99% of the UK population is especially dangerous to the myopic. This seems the most likely explanation - perhaps someone should tell the scientists working on a vaccine (incidentally: why bother, when almost everyone who was susceptible to the virus is now dead?). And this explanation would account for the two elderly folk at the eco-centre: they were wearing reading glasses, and weren't short-sighted at all.

Of course, it could be that the survivors are all wearing contact lenses: but really, in a post-apocalyptic world, would you bother?

"We must defy Dexter's thugs and mount a raid on the supermarket!"
"Why, what do we need: food, fresh water, medicines?"
"No, I'm nearly out of contact lens solution..."

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

UPDATE 10.15pm: You can watch the Survivors remake on the BBC's iPlayer.

News from the island: 1

Fed up with being bombarded with big stories? In the first of an occasional series, here's a news brief from the local paper that serves my adopted home, the Isle of Wight:

A child became stuck in a trolley at Sainsbury's, Newport on Thursday morning last week. She had been freed by the time the fire brigade arrived.

Well, it made me smile.

Word of the day: Obamania

Obamania photo from, this post would have been more timely had I written it in the run up to the US election, but better late than never.

Today's word of the day is 'Obamania': perhaps obviously, a portmanteau of 'Obama' (as in Barack Obama, the next US president, not pictured) and 'mania'.

As such, it follows in a long line of 20th and 21st century '-mania' words, from Beatlemania to Spicemania and beyond.

Discounting Urban Dictionary, the only definition I could find of 'Obamania' was on Wikipedia - but the page on which it featured seems to have been deleted.

When it did exist, the page made mention of:

The unprecedented enthusiasm and depth of grassroots support that some believe Barack Obama’s candidacy has generated

Anyway, I've chosen 'Obamania' for two reasons.

Firstly, I love the way that it competes with the longer 'Obamamania'. A Google search gives the former 591,000 results and the latter 437,000, so there's not a lot in it. And if the search is limited to pages from the UK, the position is reversed - Obamania scores 7,340 to Obamamania's 8,500.

And secondly, 'Obamania' doesn't work very well for me as a portmanteau because the stresses seem all wrong. 'Obama' has its main stress on the second syllable; 'Obamania' seems to be stressed on the first and third syllables, at least judging by this footage from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

To my ears, Obamania is more suited to describing a passion for aubergines than one for Barack Obama. But that's probably just me.

(Photo of Obamaniac taken from:

Literal meanings

For some time I've been meaning to write about the way advertising copywriters take advantage of the fact that, in general, people don't consider the literal meaning of the words they read. Take sale posters promising "up to 50% off". Hopeful shoppers read that as a promise that all goods will be half price. In fact the only promise being made is that no discount will be greater than 50%. "Up to 50%" could mean a price cut of 50%, 49%, any other figure down to zero.

With this in mind I couldn't help but chortle into my morning weteepops at a report in today's Sun under the damned clever headline "Plunder of Woolies".

It seems that Woolworths' closing down sale posters promised price cuts of up to 50% and, as the Sun puts it, "shoppers branded the sale a con after hundreds of items were reduced by only 10%" and "many shoppers put products back on the shelf in disgust after realising not everything was half price".

Nonetheless the day's takings topped £25 million, making it the best day's trading in Woolies' 90-year history. A spokesman for the administrators must have had trouble keeping a straight face when he said: "It's unfortunate if people find it misleading."

Two other examples of carefully crafted ad phrases have caught my eye recently.

First is a Halfords advert promising that every bicycle the firm sells will be put through a full safety check. Commendable. Except all this means is that Halfords doesn't intend to lay itself open to prosecution under the Sale of Goods act by selling bikes that aren't of merchantable quality. It's about as meaningful as a supermarket promising that the food it sells isn't poisonous.

Then there are those ads for painkillers, shampoo and other products in which copywriters solemnly promise: "No other pill/shampoo etc is more effective." Which simply means there are legal limits on the strength/amount of the active ingredients and every manufacturer follows those rules.

Better a poor, honest sub than a rich, cynical copywriter says I.

PS Apropos of nothing at all, another headline I spotted recently in The Independent left me grinning in appreciation. Over a story about a comely young opera diva who has, to put it mildly, been burning the candle at both ends, was the exquisite "Excess all arias". Now there's a sub worthy of his salt.

Photo special: ceramic views across London

I've got quite a backlog of language-related photos now so I'm going to start posting some at weekends.

Spotted this advert in the window of a local estate agent's:

For those who can't see the photo, the text reads in part:

A beautiful spacious 2 Bedroom Flat with ceramic views across London is situated on 3rd Floor

Ceramic views? Perhaps the flat looks out on to a pottery - not that I know of any in Forest Hill.

And presumably the writer meant 'scenic', but is 'ceramic' due to the careless use of a spellchecker's suggestions list?

Person-first language and Down('s) syndrome

Today I stumbled across a BBC News page entitled Down's syndrome: Your comments.

Unsurprisingly, several commenters point out that 'it's Down syndrome, not Down's syndrome'.

More interestingly, others express disappointment with the BBC for not using "person-first language" (also known, it seems, as 'people-first language'). One US-based commenter says:

These children are NOT "Down's syndrome babies" but instead babies with Down's syndrome.

Another, this time from Saddleworth here in the UK, writes:

People really should get used to the idea of naming people who have down syndrome as 'a person who has down syndrome' and NOT a 'down syndrome person' – they are people first and should not be called according to the condition they have, this is prejudice.

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. After, all, talking about 'British people' rather than 'people who are British' is not in itself prejudicial. I am almost certain the same is true for 'black people', 'young people' and so on.


And is person/people-first language more of an American phenomenon than a British one? I've never come across it before.

There's no place like ohm

While I'm mostly retired I do take on the odd subbing job and today encountered this rather sweet unintentional pun:

Amperage and voltage commands are set in the same way as the analogue interface, providing easy integration into current operations.

Hyphens: 'big fish processing plant'

Just a quick one today as I've been on a CS3 training course all afternoon.

Here's a phrase from recent raw copy that could have benefited from a hyphen:

big fish processing plant

Is that a big plant that processes fish, or a plant that processes big fish? The former, I would assume...

Ingersoll Rand or Ingersoll-Rand?

Whenever I'm unsure how to spell or punctuate a company's name, one of my first ports of call (after checking our house style guide) is the company's own website. After all, if I write the name how the company itself writes it, I can't go far wrong – can I?

Recently, however, I have been frustrated with (and by!) companies that use their own names inconsistently. Take this screengrab from Ingersoll Rand's website:

Screengrab from Ingersoll Rand's website
So is it Ingersoll Rand or Ingersoll-Rand? The former, not that you would know that from the corporate website.

I wonder whether Ingersoll-Rand is hyphenated in the above example because the writer is treating it as a compound adjective? Not common practice with company names!

Stating the obvious with Barack and Britney

According to a current BBC News story:

Of the billions of searches carried out on the portal,, over the last year, Mr [Barack] Obama was third behind [singer Britney] Spears and World Wrestling Entertainment.

Mr Obama was, however, the most searched-for politician during 2008.

Isn't that second par rather obvious, seeing as neither Britney Spears nor the WWE are politicians?

BBC News: Britney more popular than Obama

The perils of daytime TV

Apus here. As a retired wordsmith I'm no longer dealing with solecisms in an engine room. But having spent so many years looking out for them I find it hard not to spoil Mrs Apus's enjoyment of her favourite house-hunting TV programme by repeatedly pointing out that the presenters deserve prosecution for language crimes.

The following ARGHHHH-inducers were noted in no more than five minutes, at which point Mrs A took my pencil away and sent me out for a walk to calm me down:

  • "peaceful and tranquil"
  • "they have lengthy criteria"
  • "it's a place full of local shops"
  • "future plans"
  • "unexpected windfall"

The walk helped.

Office jargon: 'oven-ready' and 'staff buy-in'

A friend of a friend of The Engine Room works at the Home Office, and she was recently told at a conference of managers to ensure that all policy delivery was "oven-ready before getting staff buy-in".

What does oven-ready mean? That something is "ready for people to work on immediately rather than being a work in progress," according to our mutual friend.

And staff buy-in? "Getting people to support any new policies rather than having them do something they think is stupid."

Note from a small island: cyberchondriac

Apus here, JD's retired former fellow stoker, now living on the Isle of Wight, with one of those portmanteau words that JD is so fond of.

This one surfaced on a Radio 4 health programme and describes anyone who has decided they have a dreadful disease after logging on to a self-diagnosis website: "cyberchondriac".

Apologies to my esteemed colleague for not blogging for so long; to avoid confusion I'll sign off future blogs so readers won't blame JD for my ramblings.

"Indians of all races - Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs"

On Friday, foreign secretary David Miliband was quoted by Metro as saying: "The majority of people killed [in the Mumbai attacks] were Indian – Indians of all races – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs."

"And I thought those were religions," says Jason, who alerted The Engine Room to the quote.

David Miliband with Indian minister of external affairs Pranab MukherjeeMiliband, right, with an Indian (race unknown)

Metro: World condemns Mumbai terror attacks

Friday roundup: watching me watching you

The Engine Room may only be the 118th best language blog out there, but it's the 53rd most clipped Blogspot blog - at least according to UKNetMonitor.

Who is it that has such an interest in what I write? Perhaps the London Lite, thelondonpaper and Metro are planning their revenge...

In other news, The Engine Room has been chosen as one of's '10 Great Blogs about Grammar, Writing & Language'.

Most of the others blogs in this list are already in my blogroll but two new ones on me are Talk Wordy to Me, by a young* copy editor on a US paper, and Regret the Error, which "reports on media corrections, retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press".

Actually, I'm going to add both of these to the blogroll.

*By which I mean younger than me, of course.

Time for a terrible magazine-related pun

After my post earlier in the month, the burning question is: who would like their Asphalt Now?

Asphalt Now, winter 2008

And no, it's not one of our publications!

(Thanks to our web editor for this truly awful pun.)

Help! Multiple meanings to 'milking parlour'?

Can anyone out there help an Engine Room regular? Roz has written in with the following query:

Recently my work supervisor asked me whether I knew what 'milking parlour' meant. She thinks it could be a euphemism for some sort of tax dodge or other criminal activity. We don't even use the term 'milking parlour/parlor' in Australia – it's a cow shed! I was wondering whether you and/or your readers would have any idea.

I haven't been unable to unearth anything except the obvious "shed or building specially equipped for milking cows" (OED Online). Nothing about tax dodges or criminal activities, anyway.

Cow's udder, pic from MorguefileUdderly stuck...

'Objective' opinion on Strictly Come Dancing

There was a brilliant letter in yesterday's Metro newspaper regarding the recent John Sergeant / Strictly Come Dancing fiasco. I say brilliant, because it ended:

And before anyone comments, I don't watch the show so my opinion is objective – neither am I a dance purist.

Objective? That's like saying your opinion on a novel is objective because you've never read it, or your opinion on a political party is objective because you don't know what its policies are.

Palin as president of Campaign for Better Transport

One of our news stories today mentioned Campaign for Better Transport, an organisation that speaks out against "excessive flying" and encourages individuals to reduce their carbon footprints.

I was amused to read that the president of Campaign for Better Transport is travel presenter (and comedian) Michael Palin.

Although Palin is a supporter of 'greener' forms of transport, especially rail, he must have one of the largest carbon footprints in the history of humanity – having travelled around the world, from the North to the South Pole, around the rim of the Pacific Ocean, and through the Sahara and the Himalayas – to name just some of his adventures.

Website: Palin's Travels

Product review: Azor from King of Shaves

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about blogging and product reviews, and how through Fuelmyblog I've been given the chance to review some slightly more mainstream products than pinhole glasses and e-books about facial tics.

Hopefully I can use this opportunity to find out more about the whole 'blogger review' business, as well as get some goodies to give away to Engine Room readers.


I can reveal that the first product I've been sent for review is an Azor razor (as pictured on the right) from King of Shaves. It came in a nice little media/presentation pack with shaving gel and a CD of logos and images - plus-points for KOS there, as it means I don't have to inflict my photography on anyone today.

I have to admit that I already use King of Shaves tea tree shaving gel (although the company didn't know that). Being tea tree, it's quite tingly, and it doesn't foam much, so I can see what I'm doing when I'm shaving. That's all I have to say about shaving gel.

As for the razor itself, it looks like something from a 1970s vision of the future - a good thing in my book. It's light, and being smooth plastic it doesn't get grubby. Most importantly, I've not managed to cut myself with it once in three weeks of use. This might be down to its rather odd 'tuning fork' shape, which means I have to hold the razor quite far down the handle. Makes shaving my top lip a bit tricky, though.

Moving on to the marketing side of things, I'd like to mention one of the slogans KOS is using to promote the Azor: "Prepare to shave closer, longer, for less." Shave closer: well, yes, great, as long as I don't cut myself more. For less: less money or less effort, either is good. But shave longer? Why on earth would I want to do that?

(I can only assume that it means the blades and/or handle last longer than the competitors'.)

And in the promotional material I was sent there's a quote that includes a nice portmanteau. "'Wilkinette' have a brilliant future behind them'," says the designer's dad.

Lessons learnt:
  • Companies with good products are indeed willing to send them out to blogs for review.
  • Those companies should include media packs with information and photos.
  • Portmanteaux are good. Ambiguous promotional slogans, less so.
  • It's OK to quote your dad sometimes.
Overall, I have to say the Azor is a winner. Hopefully I'll be sent something bad to review next time so I can really slate it and see whether that effects my chances of getting further products.

One last thing. I know I said I would try to give away any review copies of products to readers of the blog, but I doubt anyone would want a used razor. And if anyone did want a used razor, that would suggest they were exactly the sort of person not to be trusted with a used razor. So I'm keeping this one for myself.

The Engine Room, eLearning and the apostrophe

Just a quick one today. One of the photos from The Engine Room's Flickr account has just been used (with permission) in an "eLearning module on the apostrophe".

The module is actually quite fun, if you like answering multiple-choice questions on apostrophe use. OK, maybe not for everyone but I think it's snazzy.

To see it, go to and click on 'Apostrophe Review'. The Engine Room's photo is on slide number 15 (and originally featured on this post).

I feel strangely proud, seeing as I took the snap with my cameraphone and I'm certainly no photographer.

Alphabet fun with MAN

In the course of my job this week I found out that German truck manufacturer MAN offers 'driver behaviour analysis' in which it rates HGV drivers from A (the best) to G (the worst). Not so interesting, perhaps. But I'm tickled by what the ratings stand for:

A – absolute stars
B – benchmark performers
C – competent and could do better
D – development required
E – economically and environmentally expensive
F – frightening
G – goodbye!

Obviously someone at MAN likes playing with language. And is it GCSEs or A-levels that have a grade of 'N' for 'nearly a pass'?

I'm half a headline, get me out of here...

Right. After today I'm going to stop picking on the freesheets for a while.

Spotted this on page three of yesterday's London Lite (and sorry about my wonky cutting and scanning):

Scan from the London Lite, 18 November 2008

Yes, there's part of the headline missing. Is this an honest mistake (and we've all made them) or the result of a sub trying to suggest that the celebrities in reality show I'm a Celebrity... are actually nonentities?

(For those who can't see the scan, the headline reads: "Deadly storms threat to the I'm A ".)

McCain makes high-profile apostrophe error

I don't want The Engine Room to become one of those blogs that is fixated on misplaced, missing or inappropriate apostrophes (not that there is anything wrong with that in itself, of course; it's just that other blogs do it so much better).

However, this one is a real cracker (click for a larger image):

McCain advert scanned from the back of the London Lite, 17 November 2008 issue

So this is an ad by multi-billion-dollar food company McCain. A full-page ad, on the outside back cover of the London Lite newspaper – which has a readership of 1.1 million. And look at that apostrophe.

I suddenly feel much better about my own mistakes. And can anyone come up with a higher-profile apostrophe error?

I do quite like 'caressive', though.

(For those who can't see the image, the copy in the advert reads: "Stop! Stop! I lied, as I bit into the pert roundness of the goose fat smothered potato, instantly sending caressive plumes of steam gushing from it's soft, fluffy centre like a hot breath on my lips.")

Text messaging: Gingerous makes 60 sounds while martial arts drinking

We've had an email from Gingerous regarding a couple of unintentionally amusing mobile phone text messages (SMSs) that he wrote recently. Fortunately he remembered to check them before sending them.

Gingerous says:

The first was a simple grammatical error. When describing my plan for a particular evening I wrote “martial arts drinking”. As exciting as this sounds, it should have read “martial arts, drinking”. Still, it amused me.

The second one was a predictive text error. Instead of “Today was a good day, I made 60 pounds whilst off work”, I ended up saying “Today was a good day, I made 60 sounds whilst off work”.

I think both of these highlight the importance of checking your texts.

When I was at university I used to frequent a club called 'The Rig'; more than once I texted people to tell them that I was 'going to the pig', or more worryingly, 'already in the pig'. Predictive texting, eh?

'More people living in Britain'

An unintentionally ambiguous start to a story in today's Metro (under the headline 'We are, in fact, proud to be British'):

More people living in Britain see themselves as British first and foremost - whatever their background.

Is that 'more' as in the majority, or 'more' as in more than before?

The former, according to the rest of the story, although I would have assumed the latter.

Friday roundup: Damp Squid and Adam Smith

Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, by Jeremy ButterfieldSpotted this week:


1. A widely reported story on the 10 most irritating expressions in English. It's another book tie-in, the book in question being Damp Squid (pictured) by Jeremy Butterfield.

There's a related quick quiz on the OUP blog and it's also worth checking out the Underwire coverage (thanks, Harry) simply for all the comments.


2. An even more widely reported story concerning Adam Smith, a reporter for the Birmingham Mail (that's Birmingham in England!). While in Miami, Smith got drunk celebrating Barack Obama's election victory and was filmed:
  • jokingly admitting to cutting and pasting from the BBC website – while filing copy
  • swearing at the camera
  • resigning from his job to set up his own magazine
  • referring to himself as 'Steve Zacharanda' (I'm not sure why... he may have had a reason)
We've all had nights like that.

UPDATE 18:30 - Yes, I know it's not a Friday. But it certainly feels like one...

'Average credit card interest rates have surged'

Spotted on the front page of yesterday's thelondonpaper:

Average credit card interest rates have surged from 17.2 to 17.6 per cent since May, according to banking research experts Defaqto.

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a surge as "as a sudden powerful forward or upward movement... a sudden large temporary increase".

I'm not sure that an increase from 17.2 to 17.6% over a six-month period is either large or sudden. In short, not what I would call a surge.

Following on from that, I think 'surge' is one of those words that is massively overused by newspapers, not just in headlines (because it is shorter and sexier than 'increase') but also in body copy.

UPDATE 14/11/08: Our web editor points out that a key attribute of a surge is its temporariness. So does thelondonpaper believe that interest rates will soon decrease? I'm sure the writer didn't give it that much thought when he chose the word 'surge'.

Hed, dek, graf, lede and so on

It's a custom on some publications to write 'hed' instead of 'head' or 'headline', 'graf' instead of 'paragraph', 'dek' instead of 'deck', and so on. Not in the copy itself, of course, but in notes for the production staff and when labelling up copy.

I've read that the deliberate misspellings are to make sure that these words don't get mistaken for copy and accidentally printed.

We don't use 'hed', 'graf' and so forth on our publications – perhaps it's only a US custom and not a UK one. (Having said that, I've never worked for one of the big papers here in the UK, so I can't really say either way.)

Instead, what we do when labelling up copy or introducing notes into copy is to use [SQUARE BRACKETS AND ALL CAPS]. For example:


This is the headline

And this is the slightly longer standfirst...

These [SQUARE BRACKETS AND CAPS] really jump out at you and are very unlikely to sneak into print. It hasn't happened in the three years I've worked for the company, anyway.

And yes – we use 'standfirst' rather than 'deck'. I assume they are similar. I've also heard them referred to by freelancers as an 'intro'.

On our publications, we don't have an equivalent term for another common journalise misspelling: 'lede' (the leading sentence in a story). And we use 'lead' to refer to the main story on a page or spread.

If anyone could shed any more light on the 'hed, dek, graf, lede' practice I would be grateful. I'd also like to hear what production staff do on other publications.

And here are some interesting links I've found:

'Acronym' in Simon Spurrier's novel The Culled

Since my discussion with 'Anonymous' over the meaning of 'acronym', I keep finding examples of writers using 'acronym' when others would prefer 'initialism'.

The latest example comes from Simon Spurrier's post-apocalyptic novel The Culled. I quote:

We reached the front of the queue and caused something of a commotion. For a start, Nate's branding could hardly be covered with a simple piece of rag – unless he was prepared to submit to blindfolding, which he wasn't – but it was the nature of the mark itself that really got them riled. They kept exchanging looks, clenching their jaws, wondering out loud if they should fetch the 'Em-Bee'.

More f***ing acronyms.

Obviously, this novel is written in the first person so it could be that the narrator's understanding of 'acronym' differs from the author's. MB (or 'Em-Bee') here stands for 'master of bids'. Oh, and the stars are mine – I try to keep the blog reasonably safe for work.

The Culled, by Simon Spurrier

UPDATE 23/11/08: Thanks, Harry, for lending me this book in the first place!

The serendipity of Wikipedia

The serendipity of Wikipedia. Today, while carrying out my subbing duties, I accidentally learned the following:

  • The king of Georgia from 1089 to 1125 was David the Builder, otherwise known as David IV, David III or David II. Great with cement, not so hot at counting (or so I assume).
  • In the 17th century, the landlord of the Ostrich Inn in Berkshire killed 60 of his customers by dropping them through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling beer.
(I haven't verified either of these with other sources. This is just for fun.)

So what have you found out today?

Everyone is out to protect their own ass

A scanned letter from thelondonliteI spotted this letter in thelondonpaper the day before yesterday (click the image for a larger version).

The letter-writer may have been North American, but I suspect this is an example of the creeping ass-isation of British English.

For those who don't know, 'ass' in British English usually refers to the animal, whereas 'arse' (not 'ass') is used to refer to "a person's buttocks or anus" (Concise OED).

Whenever I see the word 'ass', I think first of all of the animal. Which leaves me wondering why everyone in the City is out to protect their own ass. Perhaps they need it to cart their stuff away after they've been made redundant?

(If you can't see the image, the letter reads in part: "At least there are people like you in the City who really care about the welfare of your colleagues. From what I've found, everyone is just out to protect their own ass. ALICIA")

UPDATE 8.10PM: On reflection, I realise that the letter-writer may have chosen 'ass' because it is less offensive in British English than 'arse', and therefore more likely to make it into print. It's even possible that thelondonpaper made the change for the same reason.

Jeffrey Archer: the ultimate storyteller

In the advertising for his latest novel, A Prisoner of Birth, Jeffrey Archer is described as "the ultimate storyteller". Does this mean that once you read one of his books, you'll never want to read another novel?

The advertising also makes reference to "the ultimate crime". Writing A Prisoner of Birth, perhaps?

Screengrab from Jeffrey Archer's website

(Sorry; this is a screengrab from Archer's website. I wanted to take a photo of a poster I saw at my local station but it came down before I got round to it. And I have to say that I haven't actually read A Prisoner of Birth; I was just amused by the advertising.)

The Engine Room and product reviews

One consequence of writing an even slightly popular blog (and trust me, The Engine Room is only slightly popular) is that manufacturers ask you to review their products in the hope of a favourable write-up and some cheap publicity. In return, you get to keep the copies or samples of whatever it is you review, and – hopefully – give your readers some valuable information.

In my time with this blog, I've been asked to review a few unusual things, including a pair of pinhole glasses and an e-book about facial tics.

I did say yes to reviewing the pinhole glasses – not least because they were said to help with eyestrain, which is something that subs can suffer from – but when they arrived, I so utterly failed to get on with them that I could only attribute it to my short-sightedness (literal, not metaphorical). As a result, I felt it unfair to review the product.

I said no to the e-book about facial tics because I've never had a facial tic and know no one with a facial tic. Unsurprisingly, I felt unqualified to review the book.

I've also said no a couple of times to manufacturers asking me to review their products in return for a payment. This seems to me tantamount to bribery.


Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to review some bigger-name products through Fuelmyblog. I said yes to this, and received my first sample late last week (more on that in another post).

I'd like to take a moment to explain why I said yes to reviewing products that will often have no direct connection to language use, publishing or the media.

Firstly, I like free stuff. There, I admit it. And it's not like I get paid for writing this blog. However I'm sure you like free stuff too, so I'm hoping to give away as many of my product samples as possible to readers of The Engine Room – and I'm thinking of possible competitions as I write this.

Editrix gives away mugs to readers who spot mistakes on her blog, but I'm not brave enough to do that...

Secondly, I'm fascinated by this whole 'blogger product review' business and want to find out more about it. What's the best thing I can be sent for review? What's the strangest? And if I write negative reviews, will I be sent fewer products? In short, can blog reviews be trusted?

Thirdly, most products come with packaging and that means marketing. Could be some fun there.

The only thing left to say is that I'll try to review products fairly, if somewhat idiosyncratically. And I'll never take cash for a product review (cheques are fine).

Monday roundup: inline comments, chicken foetus

Too many bits and bobs to wait for a Friday roundup, so here's a Monday roundup instead.

  • I've just enabled inline comments on this blog, so you'll no longer be taken to a non-blog page when you comment on one of the posts. Please let me know if it causes you any problems. I found it a bit fiddly to implement, so if you want the same functionality on your Blogger blog, I strongly recommend the Blogger Buster guide to inline comments.
  • A good British spoof news website I've only just come across is The Daily Mash. Current lead story: 'Hamilton wins world car pointing championship'.
  • One recent story that isn't a Daily Mash spoof but sounds like it should be concerns a chicken foetus found in a Liverpool alleyway. "Stop grieving, it's only a chicken," the Metropolitan Police tells the people of Liverpool in what could be the quote of the year. Thanks for this one, Harry.

The Times: coldest temperature on record

Advert for The Times weather forecastsI was a little confused when I first saw this advert for The Times – especially by the fourth paragraph, "The coldest temperature on record is -27.1C, in Braemer, in February 1895 and January 1982."

I lived in Russia for a little while and certainly experienced temperatures lower than -27.1.

It was only when I read the fifth paragraph ("The hottest UK temperature recorded...") that I realised that the previous par was referring to the coldest UK temperature on record.

Even then, isn't the name of the Scottish village in question Braemar, not Braemer? (I may be wrong about this – possibly both spellings are acceptable, although my gazetteer only lists the former.)

I also want to know exactly where in February 1963 "enough snow fell to bury a double decker bus in an hour" – again, presumably this par is referring to somewhere in the UK, rather than somewhere in Antarctica...

(Click the image for a larger version.)

Names: Crook and Fear, Tinkler and Fidler

A while back I came across a news story in which a courier firm employed a transport manager called John Crook and then ended up being called before the authorities for various offences.

It gets better: the company was defended by a solicitor called Jeremy Fear.

Kent courier disqualified for hours offences

And from the same site, here's a story in which a haulage firm chief executive called Andrew Tinkler meets a government official called Stephen Fidler.

Tinkler pushes ahead with LHV prototype trial

Little things like these help me get through the day...

Acronyms: AM, MP, MEP and MSP

Raw copy today made reference to:

Plaid Cymru’s Chris Franks, South Wales Central AM

Who is this man, I wondered – a politician or a Welsh radio station?

AM is actually an acronym for Assembly Member; that is, a member of the National Assembly for Wales.

As such it is akin to MP (Member of Parliament), MEP (Member of the European Parliament) and MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament).

But I think that AM is less widely understood than the other acronyms, at least outside Wales...