Saturday, November 11, 2017

Still Life with Robin: 8 Reasons to Love the Saturday Post

Solar system - NASA (public domain)
by Peggy Robin

One of the glories of a Saturday* is the “Free for All” page in the Washington Post – that collection of letters of complaint from curmudgeons, nitpickers, overly close readers, and the grammar police -- in other words, people just like me.

Today’s paper may have hit new heights (or depths, depending on your attitude). Of the fourteen letters featured in the print edition, eight took the Post to task over the misuse of words or phrases. Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Misuse of “exponentially.” A Post article used it to mean “much larger” when in mathematics it’s only to be used if something grows at a quickly increasing rate. Classic mistake… and I’m sure the Post has been called out on this one before, maybe multiple times! And they just don’t learn! But a good start to today’s Free for All column!

2. “Double Whammy” for something other than a double setback or a double blow. There can be no “double whammy win,” the letter-writer points out, because by definition, a “double whammy” is two bad things happening at once. Score one for the Oxymoron Patrol.

3. Calling another star system a “solar system.” The letter writer points out that no other star is named Sol, so properly speaking, no other set of planets revolving around a star should be called a “solar system.” The correct term, the letter writer insists, is “stellar system.” Hmmm….I take issue with this one, on the following grounds: While the star at the center of the earth’s system is indeed named Sol, the word “solar” refers to suns – and any star can be called a sun. So any planetary system with a sun at its center can be called a solar system. However, my feelings on this point are not vehement enough to inspire me to write in to the Post. Maybe someone else will. Might be worth checking back next week to see if someone kicks off one of those “Welsh rabbit/rarebit” arguments that can go back and forth for more rounds than you would have ever thought possible.

4. “Podium” used when “lectern” is the proper term. This was the big one of the day, folks. Five hundred and fifty words to explain that a podium is a platform used to raise a speaker up to a higher level than the audience, while a lectern is a piece of furniture with a slanted top and optional accessories (microphone, reading light) behind which a speaker stands and reads a speech. Three-quarters of the way through the piece, the writer, George Chartier of Alexandria, admits that the battle over this word has already been lost, along with other battles (for “literally” and “fulsome” and “decimate,” among others), concluding, mournfully, that it is “particularly painful to watch and hear bedrock news institutions contribute to the decay” [of “clear, concise, correct communication”]. Wow, that’s a lot to put on the shifting meaning of a piece of veneered plywood! But I get it!

5. “Table” called masculine when it’s actually feminine in French. The letter writer first makes the general observation that whenever anyone writes in a tone of “supercilious detachment” about the Academie Francaise, the language guardians France, the article is bound to have some grammatical error. And sure enough, that mistake is citing “table” as an example of a masculine noun in French. Bien sur, we smart readers all know it’s feminine. The best thing about this letter is the silly, punning title “Sir le table” bestowed upon it by the “Free for All” editor. (In the online version posted on Friday, it was the far plainer,“Tables are girls, not boys” - see

6. “Pocahantas” as “pejorative.” The Post reported that President Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahantas,” labeling it a “pejorative nickname.” The letter writer wonders how calling someone a name based entirely on their ancestry is just “pejorative” – rather than the more apt term, “racist.” And he goes on to wonder what the Post would do if the term used was more blatantly offensive than “Pocahantas.” I was inclined to think that “pejorative” was fitting - so I looked it up and here’s what I found (Wikipedia definition): “A pejorative (also called a derogatory term, a slur, a term of abuse, or a term of disparagement) is a word or grammatical form expressing a negative connotation or a low opinion of someone or something, showing a lack of respect for someone or something.” Sounds to me like “racism” is pretty well covered here!

7. “Bare-Pated” to describe a male politician’s head. If one kept track of the number of times in the Post that an article about a female politician has described her hair, or her clothing, or some other aspect of her physical appearance, compared to the number of times such descriptions appear in articles about men, what would the ratio be? Ten to one? A hundred to one? A gazillion to one? I really have no idea, but it’s notable that a Post article describing a male politician’s lack of hair drew fire for sexism. Is someone counting how often a “Free for All” letter objects to an irrelevant mention of a female politician’s looks? I can only hope so.

…and finally 8. “36 holes” on a golf course. I have to assume the original Post article was referring to the total number of holes of golf at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia but failed to point out that they comprised two complete and separate golf courses. Am I glad that a letter writer took the time to make this point? Yes, I am, because that is what “Free for All” is for! And every week I am grateful for it!

* Don’t write to me to tell me that the “Free for All” letters are available online on Friday afternoon. Yes, I do know that. Here the link to the "podium" one: I just don’t believe that seeing each letter on a screen is anywhere near as good as seeing all the letters spread out across a single page of newsprint. And I need the feel of wood-pulp between my fingers. It’s an addiction!

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays. 

No comments:

Post a Comment