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You Don't Say
John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.
In a word: catchpoll

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:  


This very old word (the Oxford English Dictionary displays an Old English citation from A.D. 1050) has fallen sadly into disuse. In the Middle Ages a catchpoll was a tax collector. The word derives from the medieval Latin cacepollus and Old French cachepol, ultimately from the Latin pullus or fowl. It means, literally, “chase-fowl.” The sense is that attempting to collect taxes was like chasing chickens around the barnyard.

Over time the word came to mean any of a number of minor justice officials. The OED lists  “a sheriff's officer or sergeant, esp. a warrant officer who arrests for debt, a bum-bailiff. ” Bum-bailiff is a term of contempt for a bailiff, particularly the one who arrests wretches for debt.

Example: From “Mutiny on the Amistad” by Donald Dale Jackson in Smithsonian,...

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Joke of the week: "The Landlord"
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In a word: littoral

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


With all respect to the Appalachian counties of in the western part of the state, Maryland’s identity is bound up with the Chesapeake Bay and its more than 11,000 miles of shoreline (though you will get different measures from different methods of calculation).

That water and that shoreline provide the state with a littoral (pronounced LIT-uh-ruhl, indistinguishable from literal), a district lying along a shore or the region between the limits of high and low tides, especially but not exclusively a seashore. As an adjective, the word means of, about, or on the shore. 

Example: From “Valdez Spill Leaves Bitter Residue, a 1999 article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Glen Martin: “Oil? There’s no visible sign of it over the 15,000 square miles of open water, tidal flats, islands and...

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Persons are people

An editor in a discussion group I follow wondered today whether persons with disabilities or people with disabilities is the preferable construction. The responders overwhelmingly plumped for people, and in doing so they illustrated a sensitivity to shifts in the language.

Sticklers previously maintained a distinction between people, treating it as a mass noun identifying undifferentiated groups, and persons, treating it as a count noun indicating discrete individuals.

In The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore Bernstein writes of this distinction: “The use of people preceded by a numeral used to be verboten, especially in newspaper offices. From that prohibition it is only a short jump to considering people to be a naughty word. … The only rule has to be a general one, its application often dependent on the writer’s ear: Use people for large groups; use persons for an exact or small number.”

In Words on Words (1980), John Bremner agrees: “Use persons for a small or exact (note or) number,...

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Marks of condescension

My worthy colleague Jack Mulkey comments on Facebook today: “so Tom Brokow thinks Torrance is a ‘sleepy’ community, eh?”

Sleepy is one of the words the big-time reporter uses after arriving at your jerkwater burg and divining that nothing of much interest is happening there. Looking down on the locals (rhymes with yokels) is standard practice for our cosmopolitan journalists, who make use of a battery of code words. 

Understand, they’re only on the premises for twenty minutes, so they have to convey the reality of the place to the reader by those stereotypical code words 

inner city Swarming with poor black people (maybe some Latinos mixed in), dangerous after dark. Mean streets can be added if inner city did not adequately telegraph the sense of poverty, decay, and menace. If the emphasis is more on decay than menace, gritty will suffice.

hardscrabble Swarming with poor white people, mainly hicks. If the locale is urban, “working-class drones” is to be understood. Gritty may also be...

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A sin to say "shimmy" for "shinny"

Writing in Newspaper Days about the Great Fire of Baltimore in 1904, H.L. Mencken described his staff at the Herald as going to work “with the enthusiasm of crusaders shinning up the walls of Antioch.” 

To shin or, more colloquially, shinny up or down an object—tree or pipe, whatever—is to climb by hugging it with the arms and legs. The verb derives from the noun shin.

But when one encounters a description of the act today, it is most frequently labeled as shimmying, which is a grave mistake. To shimmy derives from the dance of that name, popular in the Twenties—a kind of foxtrot in which the dancers shook their bodies. It has also come to mean wobbling of the front wheels of an automobile or, colloquially, a chemise.

If it will help you to maintain the distinction, to shinny is something that Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn would have done in climbing a tree. To shimmy is the action that Blaze Starr would have performed on the stage of the 2 O’Clock Club on the Block in Baltimore, endearing...

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