Category: Words

Farewell Constance

costasGone-fishin’ CBC Radio host Costas Halavrezos muses about his ego-lite broadcasting style on the veteran’s last Maritime Noon broadcast:

[A]s listeners, you’ve noticed I play my personal cards close to my chest. I don’t tell cute family anecdotes or talk about my favourite sports teams or what I had for breakfast, because I believe every second of broadcast time is precious, and well, the majority of you don’t get to communicate with other Maritimers every day like I do, so it’s best if I stay out of the way and free up the space.

This is but a variant of E.B. White’s famous advice to young writers in The Elements of Style: “Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.” It’s a formula that made Costas was as comfortable and enduring as an old pair of slippers.

Via Bruce Wark.

So, buttons on your britches?

Anand Girisharadas of the New York Times addresses a weighty issue that threatens to become a regular topic on Contrarian: use of conjunction “so” to begin a sentence. He notes a National Public Radio interview in which fully one quarter of the sentences began with “so.”

While Girisharadas dredges up a 14th century poem in which Chaucer begins a sentence with “so,” he cites scholars who trace the recent boom in introductory so’s to Silicon Valley, or perhaps to Microsoft employees.

In the software world, it was a tic that made sense. In immigrant-filled technology firms, it democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall. And “so” suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving software types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process — if this, then that.
This logical tinge to “so” has followed it out of software. Compared to “well” and “um,” starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Whereas “well” vacillates, “so” declaims.

In the software world, it was a tic that made sense. In immigrant-filled technology firms, it democratized talk by replacing a world of possible transitions with a catchall. And “so” suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving software types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process — if this, then that.

This logical tinge to “so” has followed it out of software. Compared to “well” and “um,” starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Whereas “well” vacillates, “so” declaims.

Girisharadas also cites Galina Bolden, a linguistics scholar who has written a scholarly paper [pdf] on the use of “so.”

[Bolden] believes that “so” is also about the culture of empathy that is gaining steam as the world embraces the increasing complexity of human backgrounds and geographies.

The ascendancy of “so,” Dr. Bolden said, “suggests that we are concerned with displaying interest for others and downplaying our interest in our own affairs.”

To begin a sentence with “oh,” she said in an e-mail message, is to focus on what you have just remembered and your own concerns. To begin with “so,” she said, is to signal that one’s coming words are chosen for their relevance to the listener.

Hat tip:  Now the Details via CH

Anonymous, ’til we decide to out you

Lindsay Brown doesn’t like anonymous posting:

The good news here is that Halifax media are inadvertently leading the charge against the silly practice of anonymous online commentary.

First, in April, The Coast demonstrated that the mere possibility of court action was enough for it to de-cloak its posters.

Now, The Chronicle-Herald has shown us that its promise of anonymity depends on who you are. Apparently, the promise is worthless if the Herald thinks it can get a story out of identifying you. They’ll even go to the trouble of hunting you down. So, anonymous poster, beware.

The Herald has also exposed in a dramatic way the contradiction tolerated by media who encourage online “anonymity”. We know that the Herald is an ethical news organization, so it follows that the paper regards anonymous commentary as ethical. But the story on the premier’s chief of staff is predicated on the idea that it was UNethical for him to post anonymously. So, either posting anonymously was unethical, or the newspaper acted unethically when it identified the poster. The Herald can’t have it both ways. Media outrage across the country at the anonymous postings from Helena Guergis’s staff in March shows our local paper has plenty of company — they are all wallowing together in a frothy hot-tub of contradiction.

They can defend themselves by arguing that anonymous commentary is the special domain the elusive “ordinary citizen”, and that the public has a right to know when someone with a vested interest or bias has trespassed. That leaves online media with two options: they can check every anonymous post to ensure that its author is in fact ordinary; or they can require posters to sign their work and allow readers to determine for themselves how much credibility the writer deserves. The latter continues to work well on letters-to-the-editor pages.

A commenter on the Herald website called LilacLover also sees the contradiction:

So let me get this straight. The Chronicle Herald facilitates a public web forum, where readers can post comments with relative anonymity. However, if those comments call into question the Chronicle Herald’s objectivity on a particular story, then that reader can expect to be tracked down, repeatedly contacted, and exposed on the front page? If so, then I think Dan O’Connor’s comparison to Frank magazine may in fact be legitimate. I just registered today, to make this comment, and nowhere did I see a location to even enter my real name or did I see a Terms of Use* clause, informing me of this seemingly witch-hunt practice.

*The Herald does have a Terms of Use clause.

More begrudgery


Contrarian has some highbrow friends, including Mike Targett, who weighs into the begrudgery debate quoting Wittgenstein:  “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

That is the classic formulation of descriptivism, the reigning philosophy among lexicographers. The trouble with descriptivism is that it leads to definitions like this one, from Merriam-Webster: “biweekly: 1. occurring twice a week; 2. occurring every two weeks.” It’s true, people use biweekly to mean both things, but sometimes you need a prescriptive dictionary to tell you what a word really means. I’m with Lindsay Brown on that score.

Begrudgers pile on

Bruce Wark writes:

[B]egrudgery… may not (yet) be in dictionaries, but it is a useful coinage. Besides, the OED does list the Irish-English noun, begrudger: a resentful and dissatisfied person; a habitual naysayer or complainer. Well, what does a begrudger indulge in, if not begrudgery?

I’d say it’s OK to use a non-dictionary word if there’s no other word that conveys the meaning. Shakespeare did so repeatedly coining around 1,500 words, many of which we use today. To the Bard we owe bedroom, cold-blooded, compromise, enmesh, leapfrog, lonely,love letter, unreal and worthless. And since Shakespeare did not coin begrudgery, someone else had to.

A distinguished Nova Scotian who may wish to remain anonymous adds:

I can’t say for sure that “begrudgery” is a word with a long pedigree, but I’m quite sure it is in current use in Ireland. Begrudger is a commonly used Irish noun (along with “whinger”, a somewhat related unflattering comment).

I used “begrudgery” when speaking to an Irish lawyer after reading your blog this morning and he didn’t bat an eye.

If it isn’t a standard word, it should be. It expresses an idea which I don’t think any other single word encompasses. Isn’t that how English came to have such a large and varied vocabulary?

The Coast and Justice Robertson were both wrong

An Ontario Divisional Court ruling has thrown the The Coast’s craven cave-in to an HRM Fire Service lawsuit into sharp relief—along with an imprudent ruling by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Heather Robertson.

The Chief and Deputy Chief of the fire service asked Robertson to order The Coast to release identifying information about individuals who posted anonymous comments about alleged racism in the fire service on the newspaper’s website. The officers said the comments, since removed, defamed them, and they needed the identities of the authors to pursue a suit for defamation.

Having lured readers into posting anonymously, the Coast tossed them to the judicial wolves. The paper deleted the comments and published a grovelling apology, effectively inoculating itself from any exposure to a libel suit. It also declined to contest the request for a disclosure order, which Robertson granted to sanctimonious applause from several practitioners of the fourth estate, many of whom allow anonymous (and often scurrilous) posting on their own websites.

Unlike Robertson, the Ontario Court had the benefit of hearing both sides of this argument, and found, as Paul Schneidereit reports in yesterday’s Chronicle-Herald:

[T]hat the value of freedom of expression is so fundamental that defamation lawsuits against anonymous Net commenters are not entitled to automatically obtain information that could lead to their identities being unmasked…

[The decision] raises fresh questions about how quickly a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice last month ordered the Coast and Google to cough up information that may identify several individuals who anonymously posted, and emailed, allegedly defamatory messages about senior members of the Halifax Fire Department in 2009.

The Ontario Court did not establish an unlimited right to post comments anonymously. Rather, it found that the posters’ Charter rights of free expression and privacy must be balanced against the the public interest in promoting the administration of justice.

Before ordering disclosure, the court ruled, a judge must consider whether the anonymous posters had a reasonable expectation of anonymity; whether the would-be plaintiff has established a prima facie case of libel; whether the plaintiff is acting in good faith; and whether the public interests favouring disclosure outweigh the posters’ legitimate interests of freedom of expression and right to privacy.

The good faith issue could be significant in the Nova Scotia case if it turns out the officers’ real reason for seeking disclosure was not to facilitate a libel suit but to identify members of the fire service who could be disciplined or fired.

Contrarian has not read the comments, and has no opinion as to their veracity or fairness. But let’s assume, hypothetically, that they included accusations of racism. Racism is a critical public issue in Nova Scotia. It is also an issue fraught with emotion, and anyone accused of racism is likely to feel defamed. In such a circumstance, courts should give the broadest possible scope to free debate on an issue of vital public importance, and not restrict that debate out of concern for the tender feelings of public officials who may be swept up in it.

Robertson considered none of these factors. Instead, she assumed the posters had libelled the officers, and declared, peremptorily, that “the court does not condone the conduct of anonymous internet users who make defamatory comments and they like other people have to be accountable for their actions.”

Pretty shoddy all around.

How to apologize – corporate edition

We’ve read a lot lately about the value of swift, full, and forthright apologies when public figures screw up. What about companies that screw up?

Blippy is a website that lets users trade updates about their consumer purchases. Recently, an obscure programming error, compounded by mistakes at Google and one small midwestern bank, allowed Google to index the credit card numbers of four or five Blippy customers, potentially exposing these numbers to people browsing the web. Co-founder & CEO Ashvin Kumar’s apology to users could serve as a model for companies that find themselves in a similar pickle. Moneyquote:

It has been a rocky weekend for Blippy. The weekend began with a front page article in the New York Times announcing our Series A financing. The elation didn’t last long. A few hours later, reports surfaced about the discovery of credit card numbers within Google’s cached search results. Our mood quickly went from elation to disbelief to disappointment. We are very sorry.

However, this is a very serious issue and simply apologizing is not enough. We’ve spent the last 48 hours working around the clock to dissect the issues, reach out to affected users, and put together a plan to ensure this never happens again.

There followed a detailed, plainspoken, 1000-word explanation of exactly what went wrong, and the steps Blippy and Google took to fix the problem. The explanation is admirably devoid of weasel words or any attempt at evading responsibility. It neither grovels nor glosses over. By treating customers with respect, it inspires reciprocal respect for the company at an awkward time.

Customers do not expect perfect products and perfect service. Their loyalty (or hostility) to a brand arises in large measure from the way a company responds to problems that inevitably arise. A willingness to listen to customers, an ethic of candor in dealings with them, and an honest determination to put things right—companies that get those three things right will enjoy excellent customer relations.

That Google whiz – more feedback

Contrarian reader M. Austin writes:

Your reporting on Go Ogle taking the pi** out of some has brought to my attention the fact that whiz is spelled with an h. This realisation has me looking at Velveeta’s jarred cousin with suspicion.

Oops! – II (updated)

Contrarian reader Dave Atkinson writes:

Both you and Bill Turpin used the word “fulsomely” to describe an apology. I assume you both know what you’re doing.

How droll. Bill and I probably knew once, but we, or at least I, forgot. William Safire rises from the dead to remind us. (As a bonus, he throws in “noisome” and “enormity.”)

[Update] Bill T. didn’t forget after all:

Sheesh! I’ve been lectured by Harry Flemming on the use of fulsome, so I chose it with care to describe The Coast’s apology, and did so because of its ambiguity. It’s nice that Dave Atkinson picked up on it, but I think Parker was too quick with the strikethrough.

As for me, I chose it carelessly, and I’m with Safire on this: Claiming that “fulsome” can also mean “full-bodied” (or whatever), because people use it when they mean to say “full-bodied,” strikes me as descriptivist lexicography run amok.

Literary fire hazard

The Halifax Fire Marshall temporarily halted a reading by Alistair MacLeod (standing, back to camera, left side of photo) tonight so the overflow crowd of more than 600 could be rearranged to clear clogged aisles. Officials turned away another 100 people as the 73-year-old MacLeod, who splits his time between Windsor, Ontario, and Dunvegan, Cape Breton, read his 1976 story, The Closing Down of Summer. The Saint Mary’s University event marked the first time MacLeod had publicly read the story in its entirety.


When I write a story, when I’m halfway through, I write the last sentence. I think of it as a lighthouse.

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