If you are a conscientious journalist and are writing something for publication, even if it is only a column in the Bulletin, you want to check your facts and also to make sure the words you are using mean what you think they mean.
In his memorable Letters from America, unless Alistair Cooke was stating an historical fact, he always preceded a fact by saying “as far as I know…” That exonerated him if his facts weren’t quite up to date.
For the past couple of years I’ve been using an English and Spanish dictionary and a thesaurus on my laptop, so I am frequently checking on the words I choose: it’s amazing how often a word doesn’t mean quite what I thought it did…and I look for a better one.
I can also use a grammar-check as well as a spellcheck but I don’t always agree with the grammar-check. For instance, in today’s second paragraph the grammar-check prefers ‘a historical fact’ but I think ‘an’ sounds smoother when spoken, so I use ‘an’.
The repetitive use of the same word, except in those cases where it is done for emphasis or effect, is a fault even good writers make. That’s why newspapers, magazines and publishers have sub-editors, some of whom can be very strict.
English novelist Julian Barnes was writing Letter from London in The New Yorker in the early 1990s. The editors on that magazine verify every fact a writer uses and also clean up the writer’s style, especially when he repeats a word.
In the preface of his book Letters from London, Barnes tells of his New Yorker editor phoning about his latest piece and saying he had repeated a word: he had used ‘crepuscular’ before.
Barnes and his editor had had at least four extended conversations on this particular article. It was in its 10th galley proof, meaning it had probably undergone dozens of changes.
Barnes was 100 per cent sure he had used ‘crepuscular’ only once. He insisted he hadn’t repeated the word and finally demanded, rather snappily: “Well, which galley did I used it on, then?”
The editor replied: “Oh, I don’t mean on this piece. No, it was a couple of pieces back. I’ll look it up.”
He did so and it turned out Barnes had used crepuscular some nine months earlier. That is very tight editing.
Finding synonyms for words isn’t always easy, because very few have exact equivalents. There are invariably little nuances of meaning that can make a big difference.
When looking for a word to take the place of another, most of us rush to Roget’s Thesaurus. But that’s not a dictionary of synonyms and Roget never called it that. Neither do the publishers. It’s simply a magnificent work that classifies words and phrases and puts them into groups.
Peter Mark Roget, the son of a Huguenot minister, was England’s 19th century answer to Leonardo da Vinci. He was a physician, palaeontologist, scientific writer, teacher, publisher, entomologist, chess master and an inventor who created the slide rule and the cinema projector.
He started collecting and indexing words in 1805 and published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852. There were 28 editions in his lifetime and he continued to work on it until his death at the age of 90 in 1869.
The entries in his great Thesaurus are sometimes vastly different from the word we want to replace and even the words with similar meanings can be quite different.
Take ‘mistake’ and ‘error’. In most dictionaries these words are given as synonyms: a mistake is an error and vice versa. But there are more than subtle differences.
The big distinction is that errors happen, as if by chance, but mistakes are made, usually because someone goofed. In other words it’s better that something was an error and not a mistake.
The words originally had different meanings. In Old Norse, ‘take’ meant to grasp something — so to make a mistake was to grasp the wrong end of the stick.
The Latin verb ‘errare’ meant to wander, and at one time ‘err’ was a wandering. Eventually ‘err’ came to mean wandering from doing the right thing.
So although most of us think of mistake and error as being synonyms, they are not. However, I’m sure every editor on The New Yorker is aware of the difference — and applies it strictly.
It’s always interesting to guess when a word was first used. Sometimes you get it more or less right, but you’ll be amazed at how often you are completely wrong.
The sport of baseball as we know it today is late 19th century and I thought the word came into use at about the same time. I was very wrong.
An entry in a 1755 diary written in Surrey describes a game called baseball. Historian Arthur Bryant’s book, The England of Charles II, lists some games played from 1660-1685: “Trap-ball, tip-cat, baseball, and other games were favoured by different towns and villages.”
Trap-ball and tip-cat were similar games, although one was played with a ball and the other with a piece of wood. In trap-ball the batsman was also the bowler. He placed the ball at one end of a shoe-shaped wooden device on a pivoted bar, struck the other end, and when the ball was in the air he hit it away — if he was fast and deft enough.
In tip-cat, the player struck a tapered piece of wood with the bat and when it jumped into the air he tried to hit it as far as he could.
Bat and ball games in the style of rounders or baseball were played in 14th century England and probably as early as the 11th century.
But when was American baseball as we know it today first played? According to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, it evolved over centuries and there is no record of a definite date and place where it began.
The first verifiable use of the word baseball in America was in 1744 when John Newbury included it in A Pretty Little Pocket-Book, which contains a piece of doggerel entitled Base-ball.
The earliest use of baseball in an English novel was in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which she started to write in 1797.
The first published rules of baseball didn’t appear until 1845 when they were written for a Manhattan club called The Knickerbockers.
Its author, Alexander John Cartwright, became known as the father of baseball. Congress in 1953 officially credited Cartwright with inventing the modern game of baseball.