I love a red herring. And no, I don’t mean because it’s an ideal protein in a low-carb high-protein diet. It’s also great for breakfast.
At school I had a maths teacher who was fond of colouring her teaching with idioms. A red herring was one of her favourite idioms.
She would use the phrase as a defence against answering a question she believed to be irrelevant.
In recent weeks I became curious about the metaphor ‘a ticking time bomb’.
There’s something about it that does not ring true. Not true, in that sense but not grammatically correct.
There are too many words in the phrase. The offending word here is ‘ticking’.
Rats! If you’ve ever had the problem of rats in your home, you may identify with strongly negative feelings about the small annoying creatures.
Thanks to my compulsive TV watching habits, I learnt that the collective noun for rats is mischief – a mischief of rats.
Collective nouns for animals, such as a congress of baboons are very interesting and often surprising – too many to mention here.
Thinking back to last year when the rats came to eat the dog food that was carelessly left around the home, their trails of mischief were abundant. From the holes in the packaging of the sturdy dog food bags, to little poo droppings all over the place, it was plain to see we had a rat problem.
We could hear them running in the roof, and saw a couple run across the lounge floor, but at such a speed, we could not catch them. We would shriek, “there goes a rat” but be frozen to inaction as the rat scuttled to safety under the cupboard. And who wants to touch a rat with bare hands and no trapping device? (not that I would use one of those).
It wasn’t long before the rats were breeding faster than rabbits. We had to call the exterminator to get rid of the multiple mischiefs.
Rats are associated with dirt, disease and disgust, so when you refer to someone as a rat, you imply that they are not trustworthy.
To rat on someone means to give the game away, in other words, to tell the boss that your colleague is not at work because he is applying for another job, and not at the doctor with a near fatal tumor.
Rats in the language give expression to displeasure or distaste but their close cousin the mouse, has a much friendlier reputation. They are considered cute and considerate – as quiet as a mouse – and many a character has been animated to be a larger than life rodent. Perhaps we have Mickey Mouse to thank for that.
Any famous rats of Walt Disney fame? None that I know of, but thousands upon thousands used in medical experiments for the health of human kind.
Yesterday as I was cursing the spinning instructor for insisting I use muscles I didn’t know I had to save energy, I thought she had lost the plot.
Saving energy seemed the most unlikely outcome for all the effort it took to apply these untrained muscles to a cycling routine. Raised heart rate and an opportunity to confront my fitness or lack thereof were much more on track.
Nonetheless, I was enjoying myself and got to thinking about all the other sweaty pursuits I had participated in with greater or lesser skill.
At school, I played, netball, squash and hockey – even made the athletics team at age 13; at varsity I ventured into badminton and once or twice allowed my roommate to drag me out of bed for a jog around the block.
Post university, I was keen to learn modern dancing, something I had yearned for from a very young age. I loved dancing, first modern, cotemporary and later Latin and Ballroom with a skill rating of average in all instances.
Mid-career I bought a fitness franchise to supplement my income. The franchise provided members with a running or walking programme tailored to fitness levels.
I had to learn how to instruct the programme and all the terminology that went along with it.
It was the first time I came across the word fartlek. It sounded like a way to release flatulence on a long run, and then blaming the person behind you. I laughed as I visualised thousands of runners in an athletics heat trying to surge ahead to escape the foul air.
But fartlek is a programme that includes interval training. Alpha dictionary describes it as an athletic training regime. Fartlek is also listed as one of the funniest words in the English language, ranking in the top 50. https://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/100_funniest_words.html
I am always delighted to find new words and explore their meanings, but I must admit that an athletics training manual was the last place I expected to find a word to add to my vocabulary.
Somnolent: Word use and origin
How to deal with your Grammar Gremlins
On Monday, I was at a conference which was full of interesting content presented by a number of excellent speakers.
One woman, a lawyer, delivered a long and very detailed explanation of the POPI (Protection of Personal Information) Act, undeniable proof that her grasp of the act was sound. Not so the English language.
This week a client asked me, “Is it okay to write CEO?”
I was a bit taken aback because CEO is one of those ‘words’ that is better known by its shortened version than its elongated other – Chief Executive Officer.
Copy required for newspapers must maximise efficiency as space is premium and no editor will accommodate three words, when three letters will serve the same purpose adequately.
Some organisations and concepts have preferred usage in their abbreviated form than their full name or title such as Opec or Unesco, LED, HTML and radar.
You know exactly what they mean and how they apply, right? So why worry yourself by delving into the long form.
What is interesting however is how abbreviations are classed. There are two main types: initialisms and acronyms.
Acronyms are shortenings of phrases that use, usually the first letter of each of the words, to make up a new word.
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
- AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
- ASAP (as soon as possible)
- Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
In many style guides, it is recommended to write these contractions in word style, meaning to start with a capital letter and use lower case characters for the remaining. Others prefer to use all capital letters, while some have preferences on a case by case basis.
Initialisms are abbreviations that take the initials of the word and each letter is pronounced separately such as FBI, DVD, BTW, IBM.
If a word is used in its shortened form such as Dr, Mrs, Prof, Wifi, biopic and takes neither the characteristics of an acronym nor an initialism, it is simply an abbreviation.
BTW (By the way) not all grammar sites and dictionaries agree; this is my view.
And if you are not confused enough, there’s also a word form called a backronym. Another time perhaps?
No damn synchronicity: Synonyms and antonyms
I was recently at an Editing for Inclusivity workshop which aimed to address racial, gender and all other kinds of stereotyping that fills our communication to an embarrassing extent.
This applies in both written and verbal exchanges, only easier to forget and forgive when stated verbally.
In an effort to make workshop attendants better editors, in one exercise, we scrutinised a blog ‘The pot calling the kettle black’
In the racially charged environment, such that South Africa presents, it was considered extremely bad taste. The essence of the blog, was the current president accusing the former president of something he failed to address, the author stating that the current president had done no better.
Suffice to say, use of the word ‘black’ stirred racial angst and the blog drew more than its fair share of flak. Some even said all idioms referencing colour should be dropped from the English language.
I would not like to see that happen. But what I can suggest is that writers avoid the use of insensitive idioms that could offend certain groups, and opt for others that mean the same thing. The English language has a vast array of idioms and finding an alternative cannot be that difficult.
She (the blogger) could have gone with “Take the log out of your eye before you look to take the speck out of mine.”
This has seen many incarnations with the ‘log’ being substituted with beam, etc
Here are some:
- English Standard Version
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
- Berean Study Bible
You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
- Berean Literal Bible
Hypocrite! First cast out the beam from your eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from the eye of your brother.
- King James Bible
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
This idiom means that people are quick to see faults in others that they fail to see in themselves.
Isn’t this a human failing many of us are guilty of? And yet the blogger was trying to say the president is a hypocrite for failing to see the error of his own ways, while quick to point out the failings of the former man at the helm.
When all else fails, drop the idiom and use the phrase as you intend it to be understood. Better safe than sorry.
Why is the world your oyster?
When there is so much stress in the world, I like to keep things light. That’s why I’ve chosen this quick quiz to take your mind off world disasters for a few minutes. As this is a language blog, you probably guessed, this is about spelling.
Go ahead, see how good your spelling is?