Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When is a prune not a prune?

This is both a language question and a horticulture question. The language question is one you are probably familiar with: the people who market the crop decided at some point that enough people have negative associations with the word prune that they would be able sell more of them as “dried plums.” This euphemism extends to the marketing of prune juice as dried plum juice. Meanwhile, lots of people, myself included, actually like prunes. So Trader Joe’s, for example, sells a product labeled “Pitted Prunes” on the front of the bag and “Pitted California dried plums” in the fine type of the ingredient list. Whatever.

The horticultural question is more interesting. To a grower, a prune is any variety of plum with a high enough sugar content that it can be successfully dried with the pit still in it. Granted that prunes are all pitted these days, the definition remains. The main (perhaps only) variety grown in the Northeast that meets this criterion is called, unsurprisingly, the Italian Prune Plum. It is a dusky purple, oval fruit, about two inches long and an inch and a quarter or an inch and a half in diameter.

This year, though, the rainy summer in Connecticut has resulted in low sugar content in all manner of crops. The tomatoes—the ones that survived the Late Blight blanketing the region—have been less flavorful than in other years. And the stone fruit has been mediocre at best. This includes the Italian Prune Plums from my favorite local fruit grower. So they’re Prune Plums, but, with their low sugar content, I’m not sure they’re prune plums.

I hope next summer is sunnier.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire dies at 79

Not a linguist, just a philologist, Safire got the answer wrong, at least part of the time, according to the folks over at Language Log. But he brought thinking about words and language to the fore of popular culture for decades. He will be missed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A good news communication story

Have you ever been called by a polling organization to answer a survey?

My typical experience is that some well-meaning but semi-literate work-at-home type promises the survey will take “just a few minutes” (invariably when I’m trying to listen to This American Life). Twenty minutes of page turning and “let’s see; oh, okay, here’s the next question” later, the call mercifully ends.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I received a robocall from Rasmussen (an organization whose name is only vaguely familiar), asking me to press 1 if I was willing to answer a few questions. Despite my general antipathy toward voice systems—because of the execrable scripting and condescending tone of voice most of them embody—I gamely pressed 1.

This was polling as it should be done.

A pleasant, professional voice read carefully written questions (not leading at all, so far as I could tell); gave predictable prompts (so I knew before I was told that 1 was Yes and 2 was No and was therefore able to speed the process along); followed the predetermined branching logic of the poll without hesitation or page turning (obviously); and asked no questions I couldn’t answer quickly and without qualification.

I imagine this system was expensive to implement and requires some skill to set up for each new poll. On the other hand, the operating costs have to be less than the cost of halfway training unskilled drones. The results have to be more reliable too.

Maybe other polling organizations have switched over to this system, but if so I’m unaware of it. In any case, kudos to Rasmussen.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cutty Sark

A colleague asked rhetorically this morning, “why we italicize the names of ships.”

Indeed, why italicize anything? All such choices are conventions. Conventions change, and in any case a given writer or editor is free to thumb her or his nose at convention. Will the average reader notice? Probably not. Will there occasionally be a reader who notices? Maybe. Will other writers and editors pick up the baton and run with it, or will them fumble and drop it, or will they consider your approaching from behind with a baton a threat to their personal well-being, given they did not know they were standing on a track?

Writing and editing that flout convention just for the sake of flouting convention tend to draw the reader’s attention away from the content and to the writer and editor. That can be quite satisfying for the young, insecure, narcissistic writer trying to draw attention, but it does little for the reader and nothing for the editor.

Many editors tend to be conservative about retaining conventions long past the point that they even make sense. Others are more open to gradual change, adapting to the usage and vocabulary of new generations. Gradually, conventions morph.

With respect to italicization, the underlying rationale is reduce ambiguity. Queen Elizabeth II was a ship. Queen Elizabeth II is not. The common practice of italicizing foreign words may be related to the similar practice of italicizing any unfamiliar term when introducing and defining it. Once something is generally accepted by dictionaries as an English word or phrase, it is no longer italicized. But in the meantime the italics signal to the reader that a foreign lexicon is in play. Many style guides enforce this standard; some do not. C’est la vie.