Collective nouns: subs and designers

As you may be aware, Apus is soon leaving for pastures new and he is currently enjoying a round of leaving dos.

Yesterday it was the turn of our esteemed freelancers to be taken to lunch – and I thought at the time that never before had I seen so many subs in one place. That led me to wonder what a good collective noun for a group of sub editors (or copy editors, if you prefer) might be. A proof of subs, perhaps? A correction of subs?

I don't want to leave our design colleagues out, so perhaps we should come up with a collective noun for them too. A scribble of designers? A scrawl of designers?

I'm sure your ideas will be better than mine...

Childhood memories: Sophie Ellis-Bextor naked

Sophie Ellis-Bextor naked in a tonne of 'hundreds and thousands' sprinklesUK charity The Children's Society has launched a campaign to gather "hundreds and thousands of childhood memories that will contribute the Good Childhood Inquiry, the UK’s first independent inquiry into what makes a good childhood. This will help us understand how to make childhood better today."

Fair enough, but to promote the campaign the charity has photographed elfin pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor naked in a tonne of multi-coloured 'hundreds and thousands' sprinkles (pictured).

Does this strike anyone else as slightly inappropriate? I assume the charity would want to associate childhood with wholesomeness and innocence – not virtues that the promotional photos really convey to me.

I'm not complaining too strongly, mind.

Feeling puntillious: Shakespeare

This post was a race between my esteemed colleague and me as the following snippet, culled from a column in New Scientist magazine, was sent to both of us by a fellow galley slave in the adjacent engine room:

Sign spotted at a camping shop in Beverley, East Yorkshire: "Now is the Winter of our Discount Tents". No doubt they're designed to withstand a Tempest – as long as the guy ropes are nice and Titus Andronicus.

PS: What did the barman at the Globe say when Will Shakespeare misbehaved? "You're barred!" Homophonic levity... JD will be impressed.

Phabulous frases

Here are a few phrases that have brightened up life in the Engine Room over the past few days – all from our charges, who never seem to notice that JD and I have made any changes to their prose. Which is as it should be, of course… I mean, why should a sub (or copy editor) mind that we do the work and they get the awards? At least it's never made me bitter.

  • "it is, so far, the first of its kind"
  • "imminent in the near future"
  • "orders were worth nearly £12.7bn in value"
  • "registrations are up by 76% year on year compared with last year"
  • "the plight of a midlands company hangs in the balance"

Webcams in the workplace

Slightly off-topic, perhaps, but here goes:

Today I discovered that the company Apus and I work for has set up two webcams in our building: one in the staff restaurant, and one in the coffee shop franchise on the ground floor.

The feed can be viewed live via the company intranet, although is only by chance that I came across the link to do this: it hasn't been advertised at all. And it is intranet only, I'm afraid, so I can't give you the link.

But in effect this means I can sit at my desk, subbing copy, and spy on my workmates as they buy a latte or eat a sandwich. The truth of this has already been brought home to me: as I returned to my desk this lunchtime after buying a cup of soup in the staff restaurant, a colleague whom I had earlier told about the webcams remarked that I had been a "bit heavy on the croutons".

Trivial stuff, but slightly disturbing nonetheless. If nothing else, it lets my line manager see whether I really am 'just popping downstairs to get some more milk'. Again.

And being mature, sensible journalists, we already have a bet going to see who will be first to moon at one of the webcams...

Fire engine, fire truck, fire brigade vehicle

I was subbing some copy recently that used the uncomfortable phrase "fire brigade vehicle". I changed this almost automatically to "fire engine" but then started wondering whether I'd done the right thing. Two issues were on my mind:

1. 'Fire engine' might be a totally or predominantly British English phrase. The Concise OED doesn't say so, although Googling 'fire engine' throws up a suspiciously high proportion of UK pages. I know that Americans might refer to a 'fire truck' but I don't know what the difference in usage is between 'fire truck' and 'fire engine' Stateside. 'Fire truck' doesn't appear in my Concise at all.

(Of course, the publication I work for is aimed at a British readership so really this isn't a big factor, but it's still interesting – and might explain why the writer shied away from using 'fire engine' in the first place.)

2. I don't know enough to say, but it could be that "fire brigade vehicle" is a more general term than "fire engine", covering vehicles other than those used to carry "firefighters and their equipment" (OED again). There was no way to tell from the story what type of vehicle was being referred to, so perhaps I should have played it safe.

My questions to you are: was I right to make the change? And what do you personally consider the difference is between 'fire engine', 'fire truck' and 'fire brigade vehicle'? Thanks!

Malapropisms: execrators

Roz has emailed us the following job advert which contains a "lovely malapropism":

Opportunities exist for skilled people to undertake roles within the Mining industry in Regional WA. Our company is currently seeking individuals who have the following abilities: Machine operation tickets such as Dump Trucks, Execrators, 992 Loaders, Drills Graders, Dozers and Water Karts with 6 wheels and also able to undertake a Manager or Supervisory role.

Roz adds: "For much of the day thereafter, I daydreamed about what it would be like to actually be paid for cursing mine sites..."

(We seem to be having a glut of malapropisms recently. For anyone not in the know, a malapropism is "the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one" (OED). The term itself comes from the character Mrs Malaprop in an 18th-century play. Hence the title of Apus' blog post the other day...)

Prehistoric giant salamander!

Free London paper Metro recently published an article about the Zoological Society of London's Edge project – which seeks to protect 'evolutionary distinct and globally endangered' species.

The print version of the story carried the following caption (you'll have to imagine the pictures here, I'm afraid):

Freak show: Some of the creatures on the Edge list – the olm (top), a blind amphibian which hunts using electric pulses; the Chinese giant salamander, a pre-historic creature (left); Darwin's frog (below left); and the Gardiner's Seychelles frog, which is smaller than a fingernail

Disregarding the hyphen, why refer to the giant salamander as prehistoric? The OED says 'prehistoric' is "of or relating to prehistory", 'prehistory' being "the period of time before written records". So this particular species predates writing – which has been with us for around 5,000 years. In evolutionary terms, that's not long at all.

The OED does give a second definition of prehistoric: "very old or out of date (informal)" – as in, 'Wow man, that salamander is prehistoric."

Here's a web version of Metro's Edge story, obviously without all the pictures and the caption above. The Metro site did include a gallery of 'ugly amphibian pictures', but that doesn't appear to be working at the moment. So instead here is a photo of a Chinese giant salamander (he's the one on the right):

Here's to Mrs Malaprop!

Following JD's reference to a Dutch correspondent's use of "exceedings", here's a malapropism that made me smile from an English writer who should know better:
It’s led to a shortage of 12 to 36-month-old vehicles, exasperated by people holding on to them.

Yes, of course the author meant "exacerbated", but as written doesn't this sentence paint a wonderful picture of exasperated vehicles desperate to find new homes?

Noise exceedings

One of our regular contributors is a Dutch writer who certainly speaks English much better than I will ever speak Dutch. However English not being his native language he occasionally employs an unusual – albeit charming – turn of phrase. Recently, in a piece about a trial of noise-reducing technology, he wrote:

no more than five complaints on noise exceedings followed

I think that is just lovely. "Don't make any noise exceedings, you'll disturb the neighbours..."

Palm visible on Google Earth shock

Today I was planning to write about a BBC News story on a species of giant palm recently discovered in Madagascar. The reason I chose this particular story was because it described the palm as being 'so large it could be seen by satellite', or something to that effect. Odd, because I know you can see quite small things by satellite – certainly things much smaller than a reasonably sized palm.

However, when I went back to the BBC News site to check the story today, I found that the offending copy had been rewritten to remove any mention of satellites. Just when I was thinking that I would have to come up with a new subject to write about, I spotted that one of the captions read:

The palm is said to be so big it can be seen on Google Earth

Brilliant! I have three problems with this. Firstly, I've checked on Google Earth and it is quite possible to make out the sunroof on the car parked outside my flat – not a very large object at all. Admittedly the satellite coverage of Madagascar may be worse than that of South London, but without knowing whether this is true it is impossible to use the caption to gauge the size of the palm. And since when has an object's visibility or otherwise on Google Earth been used as a common indicator of its size anyway? Or is the BBC suggesting that the scientists were lax for missing something that could quite easily be seen by satellite?

Secondly, 'is said to be'? Can't the BBC check? Presumably it could find out whereabouts in Madagascar the palm tree has been discovered and then use Google Earth to verify the claim. Said by whom, anyway?

Thirdly, why rewrite the body copy to make up for your mistake and then leave the caption? That's just shoddy... it would never happen on our publication (ahem).

(And now I am off to eat a biscuit so big it is said that someone in the building opposite looking through a telescope would be able to see it with one eye shut – as long as the weather was fine and I was holding it at a certain angle...)

Some other palm tree that may
be visible on Google Earth,
if that helps you in any way

Plain English Guide: tautologies

A regular Engine Room reader who has asked to remain anonymous has emailed me a local government 'Plain English Guide'. At 27 pages, it is perhaps a little long-winded but then again it is still shorter than the style guide and glossary of the magazine that I work for.

I was particularly struck by its list of tautologies (or as the guide says, "words that mean the same thing"). It includes:

  • free gift
  • new innovation
  • pair of twins
  • past history
  • vast majority
  • brief moment
  • circle round
  • join together
  • repeated again
  • mutual co-operation
  • whether or not
  • a dead corpse
  • added bonus
  • revert back
  • future prospects
  • early beginnings
  • unite together

Now, I'm not sure that quite all of these are actually tautologous. 'Vast majority', for example – it is possible for a political party to have a slim majority, so I don't have a problem with vast majority either. What do you reckon?

And on another note, I remember a (former) member of the news desk here who was convinced it was incorrect to use the word 'whether' without following it with 'or not' . All I can imagine is that he fell under the influence of an ill-informed or malicious teacher at some point in his schooling...

(By the way – yesterday's question was correctly answered by TootsNYC, so read the comments if you were stumped.)

Derren Brown: tricks of the mind (and page)

I'm currently reading the surprisingly well written and interesting book Tricks of the Mind by British magician and mentalist Derren Brown. At one point in the book, Brown confesses he is:

...never one to arrive at an acumen regarding a set of printed pages bound along one side, based purely upon my discernment of its sheathing, ho ho

Ignoring for the moment the interesting use of the word 'acumen', my question to you is: what on earth is he talking about? I'll post the answer tomorrow, although I'll doubt you'll need it.

Typo of the week: ethic minorities

Yes, you did read that post title correctly: today is press day on our publication and we almost let through the clanger 'ethic minorities'. Not only that but it appeared twice in the same news story.

Fortunately for the subs, one of our eagle-eyed proofreaders spotted the mistake.

"Do ethic minorities come from Ethics?" I asked him. Unusually, he not only got my joke but laughed at it.

"Never mind the missing 'n', we should just drop the 'e'," he then said. So of course I told him not to be ethicist.

Words, eh?

Word of the day: invacuation

Here's an email from Gareth regarding a great work-related portmanteau he has encountered:

Alarming signs have recently gone up in our office informing us of the procedures we need to follow in the event of an Invacuation.

An Invacuation – presumably the unloved offspring of the words "evacuation"and, erm, "in" – apparently involves workers sheltering within their office building rather than being kicked out onto the streets to fend for themselves. In our state-of-the-art Canary Wharf tower, that basically means hiding in the stairwells until it's safe to come out again, and is designed principally as the process to be followed in the event of a terrorist attack. None of this, sadly, is clear from the signs, which seem to have led to general confusion.

This raises two points. Firstly, I don't care what you've called your new emergency procedure: if someone attacks my workplace then I want to get as far away from there as possible, not huddle in a stairwell. Secondly, how safe can an emergency procedure be if you've given it a name that ensures no-one knows what it means?

We were hoping to get you a photo of the Invacuation signs, but due to technical problems – neither of us being able to work our mobiles properly – this has been put on hold...

Update 28/06/08: Finally, finally managed to get the photos off my phone and on to my computer. So here are Gareth's invacuation shots (click for a larger version):

Mariah Carey: not a diva

Free London paper Metro included an interesting quote from singer Mariah Carey the other day:

"I don't believe I'm truly nasty. I've never done one diva-ish thing in my life," she said. "The definition of a diva is a woman who sings well."

Um, right. So a diva sings well, but Mariah has never done one diva-ish thing, so logic would suggest that Mariah has never sung well...

(And I was going to link the same Metro article online but it appears to have been taken down. Wonder why?)

Mariah: Sofa, so good

Georgia is a hoe!

I recently spotted a great piece of graffiti near my flat. It read:

Georgia is a hoe!

I was going to take a picture – by the time I went back, the final word had been erased. I'm presuming that Georgia herself did this, but whether it was because she is a stickler for spelling or because she took offence at being called a garden implement is beyond me...

And I did consider making a joke around the phrase 'calling a spade a spade' – but decided not.

Just for fun

Many of our blogs rely on the shortcoming of the writers in our care but JD and I are also blessed with some competent wordsmiths, one of whom takes delight in inserting phrases that might not be lucid, but make us smile. F'rinstance:

"It must seek out a partner that can operate in a manner empathetic to the Swedish manufacturer's verticalised predilections."

"You'd expect a truck manufacturer to capture visual harmony across its range but getting analogous driving characteristics is surely a step too far."

"Anyone want raspberries with their bowl of cognitive dissonance?"

Yes, I know... we should be stamping out this kind of playful language in a hard-nosed business magazine, but it's good to see a writer having fun.

Lovestruck by an emu

Free London paper thelondonpaper runs a regular column called 'Lovestruck', in which readers can write in with a short message declaring their interest in a stranger or near-stranger they've seen on a bus/met on the tube/drooled over while drunk.

As you can imagine, many of the messages reek of desperation and yesterday's column contained a particularly fine example:

To Alison, the long-legged emu-like girl I met in the Hampstead lido. You're gorgeous. Glass of wine? ANON.

I really hope there is more of a story behind this one, because I think calling any girl 'emu-like' is likely to backfire. No wonder Anon didn't manage to get her number when he met her in the lido (although to be fair, not many people keep a pen and paper or even a mobile phone inside their trunks...)

See Lovestruck online...

What a tasty bird

Intent if not determined to

Just came across this sentence in some copy I was subbing for an opinion piece. To put it in context, the writer had been talking about emissions controls across the EU.

Up to 80% of the rest of the populated world not only couldn’t care less [about emissions levels], they are intent if not determined to massively increase uncontrolled pollution

Um, right. Firstly, I just don't believe this is true. Certain countries may not care a great deal about limiting pollution compared to, say, boosting the economy or increasing industrial output, but that's very different to being "determined to massively increase pollution". However I'll put that aside, seeing as it is taken from an opinion piece not a news story.

Secondly, where does the figure of 'up to 80%' come from? I haven't quoted the relevant passage but the writer goes on to list China, Russia, India, South America, the Middle East, the US and Africa as some of the main culprits making up that 80%. And it leaves just 20% of the world, not specified but presumably not Europe or the above, as the 'good guys'.

Thirdly, 'intent if not determined to'? Can you be intent but not determined? And surely it should be 'intent on'...

Fourthly, 'uncontrolled pollution'? If these countries are determined to massively increase pollution, surely (they at least believe) it is under their control. And if it truly is uncontrolled, we shouldn't worry so much about what the rest of the world is 'intent if not determined to' do.

And don't even get me started about the word 'populated'...

Short and sweet

Some of the writers in our care delight in using long phrases for no clear reason; JD and I take equal delight in cutting them back. Here are some recent examples:
  • An increase in overall vehicle length would enable significant volume carrying capacity to be achieved (= longer trucks have more room)
  • Larger in size (= bigger)
  • In a much shorter time frame (= sooner)
... and here's a spelling mistale that brings a gloriously surreal image to mind: "The lights are controlled by the steering column storks."

Substantive editing

I recently found a nice little web page outlining the differences between copy editing, proofreading, and a third type of editing, 'substantive editing'. This third type of editing:

looks at both the content and structure of a manuscript as a cohesive whole. Does the story or argument flow logically? Are there obvious gaps in a certain area? Too much information someplace else? Substantive editing can involve re-ordering large chunks of text, removing text, adding text, and even rewriting

This quite accurately describes a lot of the work that Apus and I do (in addition to our copy-editing duties). We are both sub editors (or subeditors, or sub-editors if you will), which is a job title that seems to be confined to this side of the Atlantic. Is it possible that the 'sub' in 'sub editor' stands for 'substantive'? Probably not, but it's a nice thought, and it might be of interest to our American copy-editor readership...

Word of the day: globesity

Recently I keep catching news stories about 'globesity', the growing problem of obesity across the globe (yes, the word is yet another portmanteau). Michael Quinlon's World Wide Words has some good info about the origins of the term 'globesity' so I won't go into too much detail.

However, I have noticed several commentators talk or write about the "globesity epidemic": here in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, for example. The World Wide Words page also quotes the Guardian doing the same.

This leads me to ask: if globesity is, by its nature, global, shouldn't it always be a pandemic ("prevalent over a large part of the world" OED), not just an epidemic ("widespread in a community", OED)? And if yes, wouldn't a "globesity pandemic" be a tautology anyway?

And now I'm off home for my dinner.

Christmas message

In lieu of a Christmas bonus the chairman of the company that employs JD and I has boosted staff morale with an inspirational e-mail including the news that:

Each of our divisions has performed well and ahead of their respective markets

The word "respective" is meaningless in this context, but what about a spot of verb agreement? He could have written "Each of our divisions has performed well and ahead of its market" or "All of our divisions have performed well and ahead of their markets".

A minor point? Certainly – but we are a publishing house, after all.

Fear is a great guard dog

Back to work after the long Christmas break and one of the first pieces of copy I sub contains this phrase:

Fear is a great guard dog but a very poor guide

This sounds like a proverb or a quotation, but if so it's a new one on me and Apus. It isn't listed in our reference books and Google fails to shed any light on it.

Anyone else out there heard this one before – or has one of our writers been reading too many horoscopes? Which reminds me: happy new year...

Not a great guard dog, unlike fear

No FT style book... no comment

Tucked into my Christmas stocking was a copy of the Financial Times Style Guide; whether Mrs Apus was commenting on my lack of style I have yet to ascertain. In any case, while flicking through it as an aid to the digestion of a rather fine rib of beef on Christmas afternoon I came across the following, under 'honorifics':

Do not give awards such as VC... Queen's Counsel keep their QC.

This alone was enough to put me off the entire 218-page guide.

Why? Because the suffix VC stands for Victoria Cross, which is the UK's highest award for valour, to the extent that many heroes have been awarded their VCs posthumously. A Queen's Counsel is a senior barrister (lawyer) who is appointed on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor.

Subs who run foul of the libel laws might have good reason to fear encountering a QC, but do the FT's subs really rate a VC below a QC?

Whoever came up with that one should be ashamed of themselves.

The same style guide calls for the use of Mr/Mrs/Ms in news stories -- except for "people in show business, sportsmen and the dead".

It was almost enough to put a chap off his Christmas pudding.