Sunday, July 16, 2006

Humm batter batter batter

What can a poor boy do when Bill Safire's on vacation? Pick on the substitutes, I guess:

Jack Rosenthal is president of The New York Times Company Foundation. This is his 25th year as a pinch-hitter for William Safire, who is on vacation.

This may be his 25th year of being called up for a week in the majors to fill in for Safire, but he is not a pinch-hitter. Pinch-hitting for Safire would be, oh, bringing Perlman in to face a left-handed grammar question, since Safire is about .130 lifetime on grammar questions and Perlman hits them all over the lot.

Our guest, on the other hand, looks ready to swing at most of the same stuff Bill does:

National Public Radio describes responses from listeners as either “Bouquets” or “Brickbats.” Brickbats? When bricks were dumped out of wheelbarrows, broken fragments were as common as apple cores. In this era of forklift trucks, hardly anyone ever sees a brickbat, yet everyone understands the word to mean an unfavorable or critical remark.

Yes, and one reason might be that the "unfavorable or critical remark" meaning dates to Milton.

What’s a drove? Many readers probably think twice to recall that it refers to animals driven in a herd yet would have had no doubt about what the Times columnist Bob Herbert meant when he wrote, “No wonder potential [military] recruits are staying away in droves.”

Hypercorrective readers might bemoan such terms as trite. But that would ignore a prime principle of the living language. Just as new needs and the desire for novelty pump new words into popular usage, old expressions, instantly understood, long outlive their progenitors. Progenitives, one might call them.

Couple of points here. One, hypercorrection has several meanings, of which that is none. (The kind we worry about on the copy desk is using the wrong form because it sounds more like "grammar," as in "give it to whomever asks.") Two, whatever they're doing, they aren't bemoaning "droves" as trite. They might be complaining about the oxymoron "staying away in droves," but that's not an old expression that's outlived its progenitors. It's more a neo-Berra-ism, and for all its colorfulness, it's a bit of a cliche as well.

Even in this digital era, consider how many farm terms color everyday speech: roll in the hay, no spring chicken, barnstorming, horse of a different color, eating our seed corn, cow-eyed, ’til the cows come home.

Hmm. Suppose we should ask our columnist what "roll in the hay" means when it colors his everyday speech? Copyeds, if you let that one through because you didn't notice, you were careless. If you let it through because you did notice, you were very, very naughty. Go to your rooms without dinner.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgive me for being stupid, but I thought I knew what "a roll in the hay" was.

Granted it doesn't "colo[u]r my everyday speech", but I'll put that down to being less sexobsessed than the average columnist.

2:23 PM, July 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Staying away in droves" may be a neo-Berraism (which I guess means Yogi never said it), but its first use I can recall is in Blazing Saddles, when Harvey Korman is trying to get rid of the townspeople and complains, "Instead of leaving they're staying in droves!"

9:53 PM, July 24, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Nice catch.

I always dreamed of a lifestyle that would combine cutting-edge news commentary with Harvey Korman quotes.

2:28 PM, July 25, 2006  

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