As the author of a recent book on snobbery, one of Fleming’s new deadly sins, and as of the moment the country’s, perhaps the world’s, leading snobographer, I cannot resist listing the seven deadly sins of snobbery. These are — trumpets please — serving veal and/or iceberg lettuce to company; sending one’s children to land-grant colleges; admitting to having voted for George Bush, the father or the son; owning a Cadillac SUV; mocking denim in public; and openly acknowledging one’s pleasure in slightly overweight women, sweet wine, and Tchaikovsky.
— Joseph Epstein, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins
Oxford University Press has done an immense disservice to John Zubrzycki’s fascinating “Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic.” Apart from some print-on-demand atrocities, I’ve seldom encountered a book in which so many words have been repeated, dropped, misspelled or misused. I can only suppose that this slovenliness — “damming” for “damning,” sentences garbled because of a missing verb or pronoun — indicates over-reliance on a computerized auto-correct function. No competent proofreader would have allowed such an embarrassing farrago to go to press.
Unfortunately, OUP “has previous,” as the Brits like to say. I’m afraid the rot runs deep.
Weird Al ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I’m currently reading Todd Tremlin’s Minds and Gods, and I… well. Sorry, I’m simply too distraught to beat around the bush. Just look at these elementary errors I’ve encountered already. Look at them.
Page 15: This is not to say that the kinds of mental mechanisms that would eventually lead to higher, modern modes of thought were not yet being set in place — they where.
Page 18: The bodies of the robust austrolopithecines where more heavily built than those of the graciles but remained of similar size and weight.
Page 22: The facial features of Neanderthal include a low, slopping forehead, large nose, pronounced jaws, and double-arched brow ridges.
Page 24: On the other hand, a focus on superior mental abilities cannot loose sight of the fact that the modern mind is the result of evolutionary development.
Page 39: Heightened fuel demands also make one vulnerable to times of famine and draught.
Page 77: Similarly, if you reach for the light switch in a strange room and your hand instead brushes a fur coat hanging on a nearby hook, it’s a safe beat you’ll quickly pull away.
I’ve still got a hundred pages to go, so there’s a very good chance I’ll find more. I just figured, at this rate, the errors are starting to outstrip my ability to keep them all in short-term memory, so I’d better document them. Oh, and the final insult? Published by Oxford University Press, an august name that formerly would have inspired a good deal of respect from me. Of course, you’d expect this sort of slapdash inattention to detail from your typical Farrar, Straus & Giroux or W.W. Norton, but this…just…gah. I mean, my god, I’d get fired if I signed off on a generic corporate blog post that contained this many glaring mistakes. Whatever OUP is paying their proofreaders, it’s more than they deserve. Hint, hint.
There is a lesson here. Idiomatic mistakes, at least the ones that stick, are not produced by the hoi polloi. They happen when people try to sound educated—or to be precise, when educated people try to sound more educated than they actually are. A little learning is a dangerous thing. You hear a word like vagaries or misnomer, you think it sounds impressive, you think you know what it means, and you deploy it the next chance you get. And then somebody who has less cultural capital than you, and who looks to you as an authority, picks it up and uses it in turn.
I don’t think it’s so much a hierarchy of authority, I think it’s probably more like the children’s game of telephone. Those of us who don’t read dictionaries for fun — not that I know any people who actually do stuff like that — learn most of our new words through the context of conversation. The speaker doesn’t have to be personally authoritative; the word just has to plausibly fit in the overall sense of the surrounding sentences. If I came across a word I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t feel like looking it up, I’d figure out what the speaker or author was getting at, and look for any vacant space of meaning, so to speak, where I could fit the new word in.
Speaking of pedantry, though, I found this amusing: I finished reading Dennis Baron’s book A Better Pencil last week. Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had this to say on page 222:
Plus, as an editor of mine once told me ruefully, even printed books are never error-free: there’s always some infelicity of style, misstated fact, or typo that has escaped the eagle eye of editor and proofer…
Followed by, as if to prove the very point, on page 241:
Nor should it come as news that all technologies of the word control access, or attempt to do so: the full force of the law will come down on anyone who tries to sneak a peak at the latest Harry Potter before its release date…
Nooo! They got the English and Linguistics professor, too! Damn it. Looks like I’m going to have to steel myself for a long, solitary guerrilla campaign on this front.
Well, Adult Swim’s official source for stop-motion pop culture commentary, Robot Chicken, has just given us a sneak-peak at Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s debut on the show…
The Internet has even reduced the time we have to wait to see tomorrow’s Barack Obama laden front pages, with Twitter giving us a sneak peak of various papers’s covers.
You see? You see what happens when the rot sets in and is allowed to spread?
Ah! If that’s all we’re talking about—brief, informal bulletins to your friends—fine. No one cares how you spell your text messages, any more than they care how you spell your grocery lists or party invitations. Deciphering a few misspelled words in a two-sentence tweet isn’t too burdensome; we’ll do it for a bud. And if we can’t, who cares?So if you want to chat in leetspeak or use cutesy abbreviations in your texts, go crazy. You’re talking to your own tribe; they know the code, and they’re willing to indulge your affectations. And let’s be honest: A lot of that intentional misspelling, like the argot of any subculture, is meant to exclude outsiders—such as nosy parents. It’s a badge of membership in your little clique.But having gained a yard or two for laissez-faire spelling in narrow, private circumstances, Trubek proceeds straight to the touchdown dance, proclaiming without further ado that the very idea of standardized spelling is an “outdated dogma” of the “print era.” Hold on a minute, here! If we agree it’s OK to tell an occasional white lie among friends, we’re making an exception, not voiding the rules. It doesn’t mean honesty no longer matters.So let’s be clear: Are we saying that professional news sites should spell words in any way that strikes their mood or fancy? What exactly would be the benefit of that? Should government officials feel free to “play with language,” as she exhorts, when drafting safety regulations? How would contracts be enforced if anyone could say that what appeared to be a promise of “delivery” was actually a variant spelling of “devilry”?