Holiday Portmanteau: Thanksgiving


I’m assuming that everyone who reads this knows what a “portmanteau” is (if not, it’s a word created by jamming two other words together, as in “spork” or “turducken” or “Oxbridge“). I didn’t know that Lewis Carroll is credited as the first writer to use it this way until this morning.

While you can expect more of these here, for today I’ll just point out that “Thanksgiving” is itself a portmanteau. I guess “Christmas” is too, now that I think about it.


Dorothy Parker on Strunk & White


“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

-Dorothy Parker, quoted in The New York Times, The Elements of Style’ Turns 50, April 21, 2009 (minor typographical corrections added).

While I disagree with Parker about The Elements of Style itself, it’s a funny line, and there is something useful to take away from it. More on Strunk & White later.

2 More: Disinterested and Uninterested


I’m not sure when it happened, but “disinterested” has come to mean the same thing as “uninterested.” Oddly, at least according to this, that was what it originally meant anyways. This is wild speculation, but I think that at least some of the shift comes from a sense that people have that the prefix dis- is more powerful or makes you sound smarter than the prefix un- (dis- is from Latin, while un- is from Middle English*).

I don’t really care about whether one meaning for “disinterested” is right, or whether using it to mean “uninterested” is a mistake, but I will point out that it is a useful distinction to keep in mind. You might want a disinterested reader, but you almost definitely don’t want an uninterested one.

* “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones…” -George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

James Baldwin on Writers


Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

-James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, Autobiographical Notes (1955)



A newish word (created in the late 1950s) for an old subject, and possibly a new topic of discussion on this blog, vexillogogy is the study of flags.

It is also an example of words that are half latin/half greek hybrids. Other examples include meritocracy, homosexuality, television, metadata, and sociopath. There’s a long list on Wikipedia, because of course there is, and it is not limited to Greek/Latin mash-ups. Er, hybrids. Although almost every example on the list is a Greek/Latin example. I haven’t checked that entire list though, so the ordinary caveats about things on the internet apply.



This is pretty easy, but people seem to get it wrong a lot. There are at least three different symbols that are commonly referred to as a “dash.” They are the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. They are used differently. There are lots of resources on how to use them, but my favorite is Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers, 48–49 (2010).

To summarize very quickly: hyphens are used to connect words, en dashes are used to connect either ranges of numbers or opposing pairs of words, and em dashes are a break in a sentence. As an example, Butterick’s analysis of en-dash usage on pages 48–49—which is otherwise excellent—makes one mistake. It claims that em dashes are “underused in legal writing,” when I think they are often overused. Em dashes are to lawyers what cocaine is to financiers. I’m not going to get super-judgmental about it, but people should chill with that shit. Also don’t put spaces on either side of an em dash.

Part of the problem is that outside of word-processing software, making the different symbols can be a pain. I’m sure I’ve used hyphens to connect numbers on this blog before. But in more formal writing, this is worth getting right. There are also some fussy rules on when you use hyphens, but that is another post.