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Initial Trepidation

Rosie Right

The October-November issue of the newsletter Copy Editor includes a discussion of the indiscriminate use of uppercase letters to describe various organizations. In sensible fashion, the editor Barbara Wallraff cautions us to be careful about their overuse. She derides sentences like "A PIN or other ID number is now required to access the NSF, NIH, and UNHCR databases, except on CD-ROM." She advises that, unless the stylebook we are using decrees otherwise, we should consider whether or not we are just adding clutter. Sometimes, for clarity, it's better to use the full name of the organization.

In the process of discussing this, Ms. Wallraff explains the difference between an initialism and an acronym. An acronym (NATO) is pronounced like a word (nay-toe) while initialisms, when said aloud, are spelled out. The NSF( en-es-ef) is an example.

This is a distinction that Rosie has not found a use for in her life, but it's good to know.

Hungry or afraid?

We at Style live in a glass house when it comes to typos. Therefore, we hate to call attention to them in other publications. But a reader has sent Rosie such an amusing one she will break her rule and share it.

In the book "States' Rights and the Union" by Forrest McDonald, our reader found the following: On page 67, writing about the war of 1812, McDonald tells us, "The militiamen marched toward the two [Lake Champlain and Niagara Falls] but got cold feed and returned home."

Our reader wonders why they didn't give the troops a decent meal. Who knows what that would have done to our country's history?

The same reader asks the origin of the phrase "to get cold feet." Rosie regrets that, even with the best efforts of the Literature and History Reference Desk at the Richmond Public Library, the origin can't be satisfactorily pinned down.

According to Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, "to have cold feet" comes from an Italian proverb that, while it literally means to have cold feet, was used in the sense of being without money. This book also says that to "have cold feet" meaning to be afraid is an American expression dating to the 1890s and could have journeyed here with Italian immigrants. The OED calls it an American colloquial usage that means to become cowardly and doesn't give us the origin.

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