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The writes of spring bring vialest of the viles.

The anachronism is a flaw less common in these times of instant information retrieval, but Kathryn E. Jandeska caught an exemplary instance in Management Review: "Of course, violence always has been an occupational hazard for some businesses: Gas stations, banks and convenience stores have had to protect themselves from robbers since the days of Jesse James."

Observes Jandeska, who is director of communications for McDermott, Will & Emery, Chicago, "Perhaps I'm being picky, but Jesse James lived in the mid-1800s and gas stations and convenience stores are inventions of the twentieth century." Thanks, Ms. J. That's anachronism, defined in Merriam-Webster's Tenth as "An error in chronology; esp: a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects or customs in regard to each other." ("Let's saddle up, boys," drawled Jesse, glancing at his Rolex.)

* A fax from Al Whitehurst, who works in Tucson, Ariz., notes, "Here's a follow-up to the meaning of factoid, explored in your June/July 1993 column: CNN, the cable news network, regularly flashes bits of information under the title 'factoid.' Notwithstanding Norman Mailer's clever coinage of the word, factoid has begun to mean, as you saw it in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, a teensy-weensy fact.

"Just a factoid, I suppose, that could be filed under 'the evolution of words.'"

For the record, and for those who still like to go by the book, American Heritage III says of factoid, "Unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of constant repetition ... factoidal, adj."

* Writer-editor Ben Cromer spotlights a fine distinction among words in his letter from Leesburg, Va.: "I enclose a short wire (service) story, published in The Washington Post ... 'A car careered onto a Frankfort, Ill., high school soccer field and plowed into three players, killing one 14-year-old girl and injuring two others.'"

Cromer says, "The word 'careened,' meaning swerved, weaved, or lurched, should be used instead of 'careered.'"

My edition of The Washington Post Deskbook on Style, a relic of the Jimmy Carter years, displays "Careen (to move rapidly and uncontrollably, especially nautically); career (to move at full speed); carom (to glance off)." It does appear that the story is true to the local bible, but Cromer's comments are useful reminders about the importance of selecting the best word for the job. Here is what John Bremner has to say in his fine book on usage, Words on Words: "CAREEN/CAREER/CAROM The differences in meaning can be seen from the differences in derivation. Careen comes from Latin carina, a ship's keel, and means to sway from side to side. Career comes from French carriere, a race-course, and means to move forward at high speed. Carom comes from the French carambole, the red ball in billiards, and means to strike and rebound. So: 'The car careered down the turnpike, careened across the median and caromed off the retaining fence.'"

In the Post's story, one might muse, did the car merely speed in a bee-line onto the field, or did it swerve, as Cromer suggests, out of control, perhaps while at speed, perhaps not? (It is interesting to learn that the driver of the vehicle "indicated she did not know how her car ended up on the soccer field.") Try to write the right thing, and be ye ever watchful.

* "Here are a couple of items for discussion in Wood on Words," announces Stephanie Massingham-Pearce, writing from White Rock, B.C. Citing the magazine Media West, she opines, "Quite appropriately, the author is anonymous. And, obviously, their spell-check was allowed to do the editor's job while they were asleep at the keyboard."

Ms. M-P's discontent commenced in the lead of a profile of a man who was busily inseminating cows with chilled bull semen during the interview. This required him to "snap this vile of frozen ... semen." Vile? How vial! Further along the writer quoted his subject on an experience that "helps you gourd your loins against future challenges." Whose ox is being gourd here? I think the scribe wants for gird to complete his cliche.

As Massingham-Pearce says, put not your faith in spell-checkers ... unless they can breathe.

* The homophonic horrors took a bite out of the National Underwriter in a piece about the Texas insurance department. Commenting on an evaluation of agency problems, the NU correspondent said "it augers well for consumers and the industry."

Noun auger identifies "A tool for boring holes in wood or ice," says American Heritage III. Needed is verb augur: To serve as an omen of; betoken. The word that means a sign of something coming, an omen, is augury. Thanks to David Fountain, director of communication at Personal Insurance Federation of California, for this cite.

* I don't know about you, but I think the PR staff for tobacco companies should be called smokespersons.

Alden Wood, lecturer on editorial procedures at Simmons College, Boston, Mass., writes and lectures on language usage. He is a retired insurance industry vice president of advertising and public relations. (His Internet code is awood
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Title Annotation:Wood on Words; grammatical errors
Author:Wood, Alden
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:850
Previous Article:Shop talk.
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