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When Words Collide

A hazy, hot, and humid hello!

In this week’s archive episode, we take on headlines that make you do a double take, such as “Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden” and “Milk Drinkers Turn To Powder.” We discuss a few of these bloopers, and why they’re called “crash blossoms.”


Also this week, if you “unthaw” something, are you freezing it or thawing it out? How likely are people to adopt a new gender-neutral pronoun? Where’d we get a term like “knucklehead”? Who says hotcakes really sell all that fast? We also offered book recommendations.

That episode inspired Dan Hauser from Wylie, Texas, to send us this blooper he saw on a church billboard: “Don’t hurt yourself, let God help.”

On our discussion forum, listeners shared some more crash blossoms, such as “Crack in toilet bowl leads to 3 arrests” and “Nuns forgive break-in, assault suspect.”

Also in the mailbag, a listener named Jon told us he’d come across a puzzling word in a magazine article about the new iPhone e-book reader. The passage read, “When you first start reading a book, the screen is rather distractingly adorned with no fewer than nine interface elements that surround the text — a button to return to your library, a shortcut to the table of contents, a means of adjusting the font size and style, and so on. Tapping anywhere on the text itself removes most of the cruft and clutter, which is frankly too much information to cram onto the iPhone’s tiny screen.”

“Cruft?” he wondered. “Can you find that in those 17th century dictionaries you like to peruse?”

Good question, but “cruft” is a bit newer than that. The original word was the adjective “crufty,” which appeared in the late 1970s or early 1980s in technology circles, often referring to outdated or poorly written computer code, or to outdated, wrecked, or poorly built machinery. Today “cruft” is often used to denote the computer version of lint — an accumulation of excess data or code. Some sources speculate that “crufty” arose as a variant of “cruddy,” and the noun form, “cruft,” followed shortly thereafter.

Do you want to help some students? We’re working with a business class at the University of San Diego. We’re their project! They’ve got a survey for you to fill out. Your answers help their grades and “A Way with Words.”

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Lots of news on the literary front this week:

It was 50 years ago this month that Harper Lee published her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book about small-town life and race relations in the South has been translated into 50 languages and read by an estimated 40 million people. After its publication, though, Lee barely wrote another word. Sharon Churcher of London’s Daily Mail scored a brief visit with the reclusive author in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and found some clues as to why Lee withdrew from the spotlight.


The archives of John Updike won’t be available to the public for two years, but New York Times reporter Sam Tennehaus recently got a tantalizing advance look, and discovered some surprises about the way Updike worked. “Though he was known and envied for writing rapidly and easily and revising very little — a reputation he encouraged — the archive demonstrates the painstaking care he took to establish the tone and atmosphere of his novels.”


Over on The Atlantic’s site, there’s a big debate about the educational practice called “close reading.” Staff writer Heather Horn observes, “‘Close reading’ is about taking a chapter, a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence, and picking it apart to extract meaning or see what the author is doing. It’s a vehicle for teaching students about cadence and imagery, hopefully leading youthful minds to appreciate the complexity of authors’ thoughts. We should end it. Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway.” Her short essay is worth, well, a close read, as are the spirited comments.


Finally, we’d like to welcome the newest sponsor of “A Way with Words,” MozyPro online backup for businesses, offering simple, secure and affordable backup solutions. Please let them know you appreciate their support of intelligent conversation about language!


Have a good week, and keep those cards and letters coming!

Martha and Grant

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