Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Ripe. Lede. Prevent. Awesome. Fulsome. MacGuffin. Daisy.

Episode Summary

It's time for our quarterly listener question extravaganza! I answer your questions about the words "ripe," "lede," "prevent," "awesome," and "fulsome" and share some knowledge about MacGuffins and the drink known as a daisy.

Episode Notes

It's time for our quarterly listener question extravaganza! I answer your questions about the words "ripe," "lede," "prevent," "awesome," and "fulsome" and share some knowledge about MacGuffins and the drink known as a daisy.

Transcript:  https://grammar-girl.simplecast.com/episodes/ripe-lede-prevent-awesome-fulsome-macguffin-daisy

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

It's time for the quarterly listener question show, in which I answer a bunch of your quick questions.

First, here's Tracy.

Opposite of Ripe

"Hi, Mignon. This is Tracy from Atlanta, Georgia. I love your podcast, and I appreciate everything you share with us. I've always wondered is there a word to describe the opposite of ripe, as in a ripe piece of fruit. I often find myself saying this is not ripe yet, as in the bananas aren't ripe enough to use yet, but is there a word for that? Thanks so much. I know if there's an answer you'll find it for me. Bye."

Thanks, Tracy! I had to think about this a bit. "Green" works in some cases. For example, I'd talk about green bananas and fried green tomatoes, but it doesn't always work. A Granny Smith apple is green whether it's ripe or not, for example.

According to Etymonline, people have been using "green" this way since the 14th century, and it's also where we get the idea of inexperienced people being "green."

But when "green" doesn't make sense or doesn't sound right, the only alternatives I could think of were "unripe" and "immature." Thanks for the question.

Lead or Lede?

"Hi. I just started listening to your podcast, and I love it. I was outside on my porch on Sunday afternoon … or Sunday morning doing a crossword puzzle, and I came across a clue which was "bury the ________." Of course, I wrote in 'bury the lead' L-E-A-D, but the answer ended up being L-E-D-E. So I would love to hear —because they're both right — technically which one we should be using in our modern day writing? And once again I love your podcast, and I will definitely write you an Apple review."

Great question! For those who don't know, the lead is the opening of a story, and it's usually supposed to be the most important part. It's a common term in journalism, and writers are told not to "bury the lead," in other words, not to hide the most important information halfway down the article or among other distractions.

Journalists often spell "lead" L-E-D-E because in the old days, typesetters doing newspaper layout used metal letters made of lead. Since "lead" and "lead" are both spelled L-E-A-D, supposedly it could cause confusion in newsrooms, and the L-E-D-E spelling for story leads became popular.

As for what you should use today, crossword puzzles aside, in a Q&A from 2016, the Associated Press stylebook says to spell it L-E-A-D and calls the L-E-D-E spelling journalism jargon. 

Thanks for the question and for writing a review!

Prevent

"Why do so many people pronounce the word P-R-E-V-E-N-T… 'pre-vent.' Why do they pronounce it 'pervent.' I need to know. Everyone: newscasters, broadcasters, radio hosts, television personalities, authors you name it. Why?"

I'm so sorry this is causing you to feel frustrated!

I have never heard anyone say "pervent" that I can remember, but it made me think of people saying "perty" for "pretty," which is the result of a common linguistic phenomenon called "metathesis," which just means switching the sounds of letters or syllables and comes from a Greek word that means "to transpose."

Other examples are "purserve" for "preserve" and "purscription" instead of "prescription."

Although it's definitely not exclusive to words with the letter R, a lot of the examples I could think of or came across did have that letter.

For example, "tornado" comes from the Spanish "tronada," and in Old English and some parts of Middle English, the word "bird" was originally pronounced "brid." In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says it was pronounced this way even in the 1800s in some regions of England such as the midlands and northern England. The OED also has some examples of "acorn" being pronounced "acron" and credits metathesis, and says that until the 16th century, the word we say as "third" was pronounced "thrid" — again crediting the modern pronunciation to metathesis, or the tendency to switch sounds around.

The entry for the word "prevent" doesn't show any old spellings that started with "per" instead of "pre," though, so "pervent" isn't a case where it was the original pronunciation and we changed it with metathesis. It's a case where metathesis is apparently happening now and for some people changing the pronunciation away from the original.

Because I've never personally heard "pervent," I was curious how widespread it is and did a Twitter poll. As I'm recording this, about 87% of people have said they've never heard it, 10% say they've heard it but don't say it, and 3% of people say they say it that way themselves. The only two people who told me where they frequently hear it or they say it are both from Canada.

And here's an interesting piece of metathesis-related trivia I didn't know: According to the American Name Society, Oprah Winfrey's actual first name is spelled O-R-P-H-A, "Orpha," after a character in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, but her family always pronounced it "Oprah."

Thanks for the question.

Semantic Bleaching

Next, I have a call from Roger.

"I'm very concerned with the loss of two words that don't mean anything anymore. The first word is 'incredible' which is misused every night on the evening news, and the other word is' awesome' which is no longer awesome. As in may I have a cup of coffee? Yes, here you go. Awesome."

Roger is right that these words have lost the force of their meaning. "Incredible" used to mean "beyond belief," and "awesome" used to mean truly awe inspiring. It's something that happens regularly with language though. It's so common that it actually has a name: semantic bleaching. Think of it as a word's meaning fading or getting weaker.

"Terrible" and "horrible" are two more words that used to have much more dramatic meanings than they do today, but again, semantic bleaching made them milder.

Next, we'll talk about "fulsome" because Roger mentioned that word too in a follow-up call.

Fulsome

I was surprised to find that way back in 1977, the Washington Post had an article describing the changing meaning of "fulsome" — explaining that it had originally meant "offensive to good taste, especially from excess" and that "now" (back in 1977) people are using it to mean merely excessive or even just "abundant or plentiful." So it's been happening for quite a while.

"Fulsome" has an interesting and wide history, though, and the earliest meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary, going back to about 1325 (*really* way back compared to 1977) … that earliest meaning is the one some people object to today: "abundant or plentiful." Surprise! Other meanings over the centuries include "fleshy and corpulent," "wearisome from excess or repetition," "heavy or difficult to digest," "foul-smelling," and more.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says objections to the positive meaning are largely American and actually go back farther than the '70s. They say objections seemed to start in earnest in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Today, Garner's Modern English Usage says the "offensive to normal tastes and abundant to excess" meaning is still the best one, but acknowledges that the more positive meaning is widespread, especially in phrases such as "fulsome praise," meaning something like "lavish praise."

Garner suggests that "fulsome" is a skunked term, meaning no matter how you use it somebody is going to think you're getting it wrong. And Merriam-Webster agrees saying, "If you are tempted to use 'fulsome,' remember that it is quite likely to be misunderstood by both the innocent reader and the gimlet-eyed purist unless your context makes your intended meaning abundantly clear."

And for what it's worth, the AP Stylebook still holds the line and says not to use "fulsome" to mean lavish or profuse.

Thanks for the interesting question.

MacGuffin and Margarita

Finally, today, we'll end with a familect story and an interesting correction.

"Hi, Mignon. This is Ricardo Yamas. I have a familect for you as well as a little correction from a recent episode you had. Our is my older daughter when she was about four or five years old, I started introducing her to concepts in movies like a MacGuffin. I'm a big movie buff, so I wanted to instill that in her. And then one day when my wife and I were getting breakfast at a Starbucks, she started asking us 'Well, what MacGuffin are you going to get?" And so from there on we started calling any breakfast sandwich a MacGuffin, so that's our little familect.

One correction that I had for you … recently you talked about capitalizing the names for drinks, and you said that a margarita was a name in Spanish, and while that is true, that word also means daisy. It actually means the flower daisy, or margarita, and actually that's where the etymology of the name for the drink comes from: It's a variation of a drink in English that is called a daisy except it has tequila and other ingredients that are more Mexican. And so it's called a Margarita. So anyway while it is a name, it is also a flower, and therefore you could capitalize it or not capitalize it depending on, you know, if you're following Chicago or any other style guide. Anyway, just thought you'd like to know that. I love your, I love your podcast and really, really enjoyed listening to it every single week. Thank you so much. Bye."

Thanks so much for all of that, Ricardo.

First, for people who don't know, a MacGuffin is a plot device. It's something that drives the plot. For example, the ring in "The Lord of the Rings," the statuette in "The Maltese Falcon," and the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series are all MacGuffins.

Alfred Hitchcock often used the technique and was the one who started calling it a MacGuffin, which likely came from a Scottish story Hitchcock liked about a particularly meaningless plot element: an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands (which actually harbor no lions). In a lecture in 1939, Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was "the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace, and in spy stories it is always the papers."

Now with regard to the daisy and the margarita, thank you again! I am always happy to learn a new Spanish word, and I did some more research, and the daisy is, indeed, the drink that came before and gave rise to the margarita! For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says to compare the margarita to a different drink, the tequila daisy, and the first use of "margarita" for the cocktail was around 1950. By comparison, Cooking Light says the daisy dates back to the mid-1800s, was "popular well into the next century," and over time evolved into the margarita.

Thank you to everyone for your calls and interesting stories and questions. I'll do another listener question show in a few months.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our intern is Brendan Picha, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, who has been practicing insight meditation for three years and still feels like a newbie.

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.