My Blog

The first “Second Gentleman”

By Joseph Diorio

It looks like Douglas Emhoff, the spouse of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will become the first Second Gentleman of the United States.

Juxtaposing the words “first” and “Second” in that usage is confusing enough, but just where did the term Second Gentleman come from? According to a historian of U.S. Presidents, the title is not formal, and it has come into fashion more recently than one might think. It apparently grew out of the custom of calling the spouse of the president First Lady which, by the way, also is not a formal title.

“The title First Lady was first used when describing Dolly Madison, the wife of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. President Zachary Taylor used it when he delivered Mrs. Madison’s eulogy (in 1849),” says Alvin S. Felzenberg, a historian and author of The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Ratings Game (Basic Books, 2008). And, like Second Lady, the title simply came into common use, although not immediately after Taylor’s coinage of the term.

“I’m not sure when using First Lady became commonplace. No one referred to Mary Todd Lincoln as the First Lady,” says Felzenberg, who thinks it was around the time of Jacqueline Kennedy that First Lady was used on a regular basis.

Felzenberg says the term “Second Lady” became popular much later in history; he says it was applied to Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “No one called Lady Bird (Johnson), Barbara (Bush), or Marilyn Quayle by the term, so it is fairly recent.”

Of course, Emhoff would be the first “Second Gentleman,” a term no one has heretofore used. “When Hillary Clinton was running for president in 2016, Bill Clinton joked that, because of his Scottish heritage, he would have preferred the title ‘First Laddie’,” Felzenberg says.

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Me, myself, and I

DeAndre Hopkins, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, on November 15 made an amazing catch of a nearly 50-yard pass from teammate Kyler Murray for a game-winning touchdown. There were three defensive players surrounding Hopkins when he made the improbable end zone catch. At a post-game press conference, Hopkins described his feat this way: “It was just a better catch by I.”

Admit it, you grammar aficionados, just reading that quote made you cringe, didn’t it?

Sports analysts noted the grammatical error and gave Hopkins a pass (pun intended) for his fractured syntax. But in case you’re wondering, “I” is a subject pronoun, whereas “me” is an object pronoun. Use “I” when referring to the subject of a sentence or clause (“Kyler Murray and I make a good combination,” said DeAndre Hopkins.) and use “me” when you refer to the object of a sentence or clause (“Hey DeAndre, will you catch a game-winning pass from me?” said Kyler Murray.)

A holiday card primer Since we are knee-deep in the 2020 holiday season, I figure now is a good time to remind everyone how to make your last name plural. You know, so you don’t write “Happy Holidays from the Smith’s” on a greeting card.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Irregardless IS a word!

By Joe Diorio

I like Jamie Lee Curtis. She was great in movies like Halloween and True Lies. But Ms. Curtis posted something on social media that has grammar grouches and aficionados in a huff and called my affection for her into question.

An internet meme started floating through the cyber thoroughfare in late October quoting Ms. Curtis from a July 6, 2020 tweet, “In case you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, Merriam-Webster just officially recognized ‘irregardless’ as a word.” The post was accompanied by a screaming face emoji, a truly fitting condiment for one of Hollywood’s renowned “scream queens.”

First, I find it curious that a three-month-old tweet is only now generating widespread attention. (Widespread is a relative term. Her July 6 tweet generated over 2,000 comments and more than 5,000 retweets. Meme generators are just a tad slow, I guess. I blame the pandemic.)

Second, Ms. Curtis is wrong. “Irregardless” is a word. It is a horrible word. But irregardless of my feelings, it is a word.

And, third, channeling my inner fourth grade English teacher, we have gone over this before, people.

For those readers who are hissing prove it at their computer or smart phone screens right now, crack open the dictionary. Merriam-Webster notes it is an adverb and is the nonstandard version of “regardless.” AND it has been in use since 1795. Dictionaries simply chronicle word usage; it’s why “doomscrolling” is under serious consideration for entry into the next edition of Merriam-Webster.

“The dictionary can kiss my wild Irish aspirations,” writes John Timpane, writer, author, and all-around grammatical expert.

“I don’t care what Merriam-Webster says, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that irregardless is a word and the rest of us who know better,” wrote Leslie Geary, another grammatical expert colleague of mine, on her Facebook feed.

I get it. Irregardless sounds like a double negative. It sounds like an overly engineered version of regardless. It’s clunky.

Merriam-Webster sympathizes. The dictionary staff spends a good deal of time apologizing for the word’s inclusion in the dictionary. Kory Stamper, a former Merriam-Webster editor and author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” dedicates an entire chapter apologizing/explaining/dodging barbs for its presence in the dictionary. But for the time being (or at least since 1795), we are stuck with irregardless. 

Good resource in these changing times

CISON PR Newswire recently posted a useful news story about AP Stylebook changes and updates related to Black Lives Matter (no hyphen is needed when referring to dual heritages: African American, Asian American, etc.), COVID-19 (saying “global pandemic” is redundant), climate change (Although climate change and global warming are used interchangeably, climate change is the more accurate term that describes the effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases. It includes extreme weather events.), and more. Here is the link.

Still debating crowd sizes

A TV reporter tweeted about the size of the crowd waiting to say goodbye to President Trump as he left Nashville shortly after the October 22 presidential debate and wrote, “A member of the 118th Wing tells me there are at least 200 hundred people gathered here to bid [the President] farewell …” How many people? It’s either “200” (and it’s ok to use the Arabic numeral in this case), or “two-hundred.” Unless the reporter meant 200 times a hundred, meaning there were 20,000 people at the airport. Surely that would be the largest bidding adieu crowd ever … period.

TV does it right

I pick on the occasional fractured syntax and grammar on TV news. But please know that I know TV journalism is a tough job. You are working against impossibly short deadlines with precious few pieces of information at hand. So here is a positive shout out for a “lower third” (the text that appears at the bottom of the TV screen during a news story) that accompanied an October 27 story on ABC affiliate WKRN in Nashville about a charity clay pigeon shoot hosted by Mike Fisher.

Fisher is a former National Hockey League player who is married to Country Music superstar Carrie Underwood. The lower third that appeared during the portion of the story where Fisher is on camera talking about his charity read, “Mike Fisher. Still married to a famous person.” Well said, WKRN.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

A good reed (I mean read**)

By Joe Diorio

Asterisks rather than quote marks

Anybody notice the trend to use a double asterisk in place of quote marks? A recent tweet by a TV news anchor in Cincinnati read, “[…] explains has more on how the Grand Jury came to this decision …” A few minutes later the anchor tweeted a correction, writing “has more on** no need for the word ‘explains’ there. I’m typing too fast and needed to proofread!”

Because I’m old (there, I said it for you) I would have written, “has more ‘on’ …” which seems to be the accepted construction. Or so I thought before I asked my social media hive mind. 

(“Hive mind,” by the way, is a derivative description of group thinking. Its genesis goes back to bees working a hive or perhaps the deadly efficiency of the Borg on “Star Trek.” Or is it Star Trek**? In any event, I’m digressing again.)

The hive mind from my social media feeds provide some interesting theories.

One suggestion is that the double asterisk doesn’t turn into a bullet point as Word applications tend to do (after hitting the space bar), so a double asterisk stays a double asterisk (take that, Microsoft). Another member of the hive mind opined, “I think it’s to say, ‘look look look oops!’ Rather than ‘look oops’.”

“You know, I think it dates to the AOL Instant Messenger days,” someone else wrote. “To correct something, you used to put a “*” before or after the correction.” This individual might be on to something. In the “old internet” days that Linguist Gretchen McCulloch describes in her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, symbols like the asterisk were a part of HTML coding, so it could be a holdover. McCulloch also describes the use of asterisks as a kind of decorative typography.

Here’s something else to consider. The Chicago Manual of Style, my bible for most things grammatical, says an asterisk is used for footnotes, delineating different points in footnotes, AND, interestingly, offers the following advice:

Other ways to break text. Where a break stronger than a paragraph but not as strong as a subhead is required, a set of asterisks […] may be inserted between paragraphs. In other words, an asterisk can be used as a form of emphasis. So look**, this is important OK?

If you are going to insult someone on social media …

… you better proofread. On September 20 Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress from Georgia, decided to take a jab at Socialist Democratic Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Greene, who is blonde, tried a play on the dumb blonde trope by tweeting, “I would like to thank Congresswoman @AOC. She has single handily put an end to all ‘dumb blonde’ jokes.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who is no slouch when it comes to heaving a social media haymaker, replied, “Next time try ‘single-handedly,’ it’ll work better. Good luck writing legislation!”

New-ish words of the moment

Merriam-Webster reports “doomscrolling” and “doomsurfing” are new terms referring to the tendency of individuals to continuously surf or scroll on their smart phone through bad news on social media, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. These terms might even make it into the dictionary as Merriam-Webster says they are words they’re watching. At least now, when it’s 3 a.m., you cannot sleep, and you are instead staring mindlessly into your Twitter feed you know there’s a word for that.

Signing off with “Best”

Whilst surfing around on social media I noticed there appears to be some pushback to ending an email by saying, “Best” because it is considered hostile. My reaction to this was a grammatical, “huh?” Can there be a hostile way to end an email message using an ordinary word like best?

“I enjoy a good ‘regards’ when I feel annoyed,” says Rose Carmel Gaspard, a writer in Georgia. Gaspard writes a lot for medical professionals, although she is not a doctor. “If someone really gets on my nerves, and I don’t really hold them in high regards, I just shorten it to ‘regards’,” she explains.

Gaspard makes sense. But the blowback against “Best” was far coarser in online comments.

“You don’t use it because it’s an adjective! An adjective by itself makes no sense. Best what? Wishes? Best regards? Best pins in your eye?”

(Editor’s note: Best can be a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective, depending on its usage.)

“’DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE!’ seems like an appropriate sign-off lately, but usually I just use ‘sincerely’ and call it a day.”

“Who has the time and desire to read this level of intention into an email sign off is what I want to know,” said another individual in a nice summation to this topic.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.Sign up for his newsletter – text AFEWWORDS to 22828.

Profanity. A real clusterf@#k for print

By Joe Diorio

New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas found himself in a linguistic pickle 50 years ago while covering the trial of protesters accused of disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The defendants continuously shouted “bullshit” in court, causing more than a little consternation amongst the prosecutors, judge, and everyone else present.

“When the time came to file my story, I realized the trial that day was spent debating the use of a word The Times wouldn’t print,” Lukas recalled. The New York Times may consider itself the newspaper of record, but not all the news was fit to print in the late 1960s.

Lukas, who died in 1997, solved his dilemma by changing the word “bullshit” to “a barnyard epithet.” That phrase became the title of his 1970 book about the trial of the Chicago 8.

A half century later The Daily Tar Heel, the independent newspaper of the University of North Carolina, had no hesitation over printing an obscenity when, on August 18, it described UNC’s efforts to reopen the school amid the COVID-19 pandemic this way: UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.

The message was abundantly clear. Trying to open the campus amid the worst viral pandemic in over 100 years was not working. The same day that headline appeared, UNC decided to switch to online classes only.

There is no question that the intended message was delivered. But was the delivery vehicle – use of a vulgar term in print – the best grammatical avenue to take? To be clear, I am not criticizing The Daily Tar Heel. Anyone who knows me knows I am no altar boy when it comes to how I talk. Also, clusterfuck is indeed a word. Its first usage, according to Merriam-Webster, was in 1969 … probably describing The New York Times’ internal debates over printing the word “bullshit,” but there I go digressing again.

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Most readers applauded The Daily Tar Heel’s choice of words. “I preach you shouldn’t swear in news copy,” one reader posted on Facebook. “However, if you choose to do it, it must serve a narrative purpose, punctuating and lending urgency to your point. I’d say these kids got it absolutely right.”

“Cursing, if you choose to employ it, should be oral,” says Neill Borowski, owner and editor of the online news site 70and73.com and a former college newspaper editor. “When you utter the f-word, it comes and goes in an instant. Any shock tends to be short-lived. In a news headline, it’s in front of you and doesn’t go away. It’s like uttering the curse over and over.”

Another Facebook member posted about the headline and included a photo of abandoned newspaper vending boxes in her neighborhood. She wrote, “It’s sad that this era of local news is behind us, though given the amazing reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, I’m hopeful that journalism isn’t dead.”

Editor’s note: In the spirit of good reporting, I did try to get a comment from The Daily Tar Heel, reaching out to the editors via twitter, email, LinkedIn, Facebook, and this age-old communications tool called the telephone. No one responded.

Formerly known as

After scores of accusations that the team’s name is racially insensitive, the National Football League franchise in Washington, D.C. on July 13 announced it was dropping the name “Redskins.” No new name has emerged; the team will simply be known as “Washington” for the 2020 NFL season.

But that did not deter local television news anchors, one of whom in Nashville delivered the news on August 17 about the Washington team hiring its first Black head of football operations by leading in to the story saying, “the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins today …” It is interesting that the news anchor used the team’s old name to identify it. I mean, a sports story wouldn’t identify the Tennessee Titans of the NFL by calling them “the team formerly known as the Tennessee Oilers” would they?

(For the football-impaired among us, Nashville’s NFL franchise originated in Houston, Texas in 1960 under the name Houston Oilers. The team moved to Tennessee in 1997 and for two seasons they were known as the Tennessee Oilers until changing the name to Tennessee Titans in 1999.)

Before anyone emails me saying “well, WHAT should the local news guy say?” consider what David Muir on ABC News did that very same day when he reported the same story by saying, “Washington, D.C.’s NFL franchise today …” Options, folks. There are always options.

“An” historic, or “a” historic?

The pandemic has basically destroyed my ability to get a good night’s sleep, so I find myself staying up to watch lots of late night television. This made me take note of the fact that Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, prefers to use the term “an historic” rather than “a historic” in his monologue. This is particularly curious to me because Colbert, who is doing his show in an office sans live audience, now comically refers to his program as “A Late Show” rather than “The Late Show.”

Merriam-Webster says both “an” and “a” preceding the word “historic” is acceptable, although “a” is almost four times more common than “an.” Maybe Colbert prefers the role of outlier.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Stop neglecting your knowledge

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By Joe Diorio

A Vanderbilt University professor uses the phrase, “knowledge neglect” to explain why smart people can make mistakes over what seems like common knowledge.

Lisa Fazio, an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, shares a simple three-question quiz to make her point:

  1. How many animals did Moses take on the Ark?
  2. Which museum houses Michangelo’s portrait of the Mona Lisa?
  3. What phrase followed, “To be or not to be” in Macbeth’s soliloquy?

Fazio points out that you probably shared answers like, “two of each,” “the Louvre,” and “that is the question.” Gothcha! Noah built and piloted the Ark, Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and it was Hamlet who posed the question. Fazio calls these easy to make mistakes “knowledge neglect,” whereby we have this knowledge in our heads, but we fail to use it. She postulates that this goes a long way toward explaining why so many people seem to be fooled by misleading news stories on social media.

Fazio also says repetition solidifies beliefs. In other words, if we keep saying Moses built the Ark we’ll eventually believe it. Details on her study can be found at the Vanderbilt news website.

Sound advice in the pandemic

Japan takes preventing the spread of COVID-19 seriously, even to the point of making sure no one shouts, thereby increasing the distance covered by droplet infection (yes, that is a thing). A sign at a theme park in Japan reads, “please scream inside your heart.” Show of hands, who isn’t screaming on the inside right about now?

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Because we’re too old to cry

The New Yorker magazine carried a list of new language of the pandemic in its July 20 edition. Here are a few samples:

  • Body mullet – what we wear for Zoom calls; work clothes on top, gym shorts (off camera, we hope) below.
  • Maskhole – someone wearing a mask in a way making it ineffective; below the nose or below the chin.
  • Parenting – figuring out why the PlayStation isn’t working with your WiFi.
  • COVID-30 – Two months ago this was the COVID-15, but all that sourdough bread we’re baking is having an effect.

Word of the moment – encharged

A story in late June in The New York Times noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was “encharged” with management of the novel coronavirus. Encharged is a transitive verb, meaning to give responsibility, duty, or task to someone. It’s an old term, to be sure, and I have only seen it the one time. Let me know if you have seen it anywhere else.

Second word of the moment – piffle

I stumbled across this one while scrolling through my Twitter feed. It’s a noun, first used in 1890 – although one of my proofreaders says she first heard it on Monty Python – meaning “nonsense,” as in “it’s absolute nonsense to say violence is OK.” (The word “violence” was in the dictionary definition. I’m not making a political statement here.)

Personally, I think it is piffle to use an old term like encharged to explain the CDC’s pandemic responsibilities, but that’s just me. And yes, it is correct to say “it is piffle” rather than “it is a piffle.” You wouldn’t say “it is a nonsense,” would you?

And a word about labels

If someone tells me they grew up in Chicago, I will for fun ask them if they are a Cubs or a White Sox fan. If they say Cubs, then chances are they grew up in one of the Chicago suburbs, whereas die-hard White Sox fans grew up within the Chicago city limits. Labels like that are by no means absolute – for example, I grew up 50 miles from Yankee Stadium yet I’m a Red Sox fan – but they can be an indicator.

In that spirit a study by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania and Dolores Albarracin from the University of Illinois suggests that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic Republicans tended to think the virus was a hoax, whereas Democrats felt it was real.

But as I said, labels are piffle.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Sign up for his newsletter – text AFEWWORDS to 22828.

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