Familiar and unfamiliar wordsA Style reporter has sent me the following: "From the NYT good story, but even better is the word in the lead tatterdemalion! I had to look it up. It means ragamuffin or dressed in ragged clothes." The story by Michael Wines and printed on May 2 begins:
"Harare, Zimbabwe, April 25 How bad is inflation in Zimbabwe? Well, consider this: at a supermarket near the center of this tatterdemalion capital, toilet paper costs $417. No, not per roll. Four hundred seventeen Zimbabwean dollars is the value of a single two-ply sheet. A roll costs $145,750 in U.S. currency, about 69 cents."
It's not often that we see tatterdemalion, but the Oxford English Dictionary says it has been around a long time, the first reference coming in 1611. The OED's 17th-century usage is in an English that is hard to read:
"B. JONSON Introd. Verses in Coryat's Crudities, This Horse pictur'd showes that our Tatter-de-mallian Did ride the French Hackneyes and lye with th' Italian.ly."
Tatter-de-mallian is not the only unfamiliar usage in that bit of history.
Another word question was a little simpler to answer.
A reader heard an English actress of a certain age described as a bit twee. Was this an insult, and what did it mean? This word, although I have never heard it in conversation, seems to be pretty well-established in the language and is described in Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary as "affectedly clever, dainty, sweet, etc."
Good word, bad characteristic.
On the other hand, some words have become all too familiar. From a friend came an e-mail calling my attention to an online discussion between a reader and Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, about overused words. Mr. Keller complains about the Times writers' frequent use of amid, roil and stunning. Indeed he says: "Roil, amid, stunning. A perfect storm of tedium. Oh yes, let's add perfect storm to the list."
I would like to add to this list and see the end of the use of the phrase serving something up, and a friend in the newsroom wants to be spared the experience of reading again about a certain silver-haired crooner.
If you have a favorite peeve, share it with us and we will try to avoid it. S
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