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Tune in to your leading linguistic indicators.

Did you really believe that the litigious society had faded into history along with the 1980s? That the Sue! Sue! syndrome had gone the way of the woolly mammoth?

Probably not. Me neither, especially since my wife showed me the "Curling Iron Instruction/Styling Guide" packed with her purchase. Under the bold-caps headline IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS, just after the DANGER subhead that introduced five ways to reduce the risk of death by electric shock, I came upon item seven under the sub-subhead WARNING. Here is lawyer paranoia maxed: "7. Never use while sleeping."

*Rebekah Creshkoff writes from Chemical Bank's marketing communication wing in New York City to reminisce, "You know how we mishear things as children. My husband grew up thinking the expression went 'The flaw in the ointment.'He was recently outdone by the Dec. 1991 issue of Bank Systems Technology, whose table-of-contents teaser copy included this phrase: 'the fly in the oatmeal.'"

For those who may have forgotten, the ancient metaphor (950 A.D.) is worded the fly in the ointment" and signifies anything, esp. a little thing, that reduces or destroys the value or usefulness of something else" (Webster's New World, 3rd ed. . Its job title is Irish bull, which WNW defines as "a ludicrously illogical or incongruous mistake in statement." Examples are legion: "The next time I take you anywhere, you're going to stay home." "The country's going to hell in a hand grenade."John Ciardi cites, "The weather of Dublin is so inclement that most of the inhabitants live elsewhere." Groucho Marx's favorite was, "I hate hearses; I wouldn't be caught dead in one."

A young sales promotion writer once brought me copy that included the phrase the whole kitten kaboodle." I asked her what she meant. She said, You know, when everything's included; it's like the whole ... schmear ... the whole nine yards." She was directed to the word garage, where she discovered that an immature feline is not part of the phrase: kit...--Idiom. 6. the whole kit and caboodle, all the persons or things concerned." (Random House Webster's College.)

The closing paragraph of Creshkofs letter raised a second useful point: "And here's another for your'spelling by ear' department: In the spate of articles that appeared in The New York Times following former hostage Terry Anderson's release, one stated that, despite years of depravation ...'How on earth ... did he manage to be depraved while he was locked up for seven years?"

One's choice of vowels does make a difference. Depravation means moral debasement or corruption. As Creshkoff implies, the newspaper wanted for depravation, with an i, not an a, which means, "The condition of being deprived; privation. A removal of rank or office." (American Heritage.) Similarly, as Words Into Type notes, deprecate means to express disapproval or regret; depreciate means to lessen in value.

Newsweek (2/24/92) also chose the wrong vowel in a feature on Mike Tyson when it said "It [boxing] flouts such moral prescriptions as 'Thou shalt not kill.'" John Bremner's Words on Words homes in on the important difference here: "To prescribe is positive: to require, to lay down as a directive. To proscribe is negative: to prohibit, to condemn." Proscriptions, here.

*Graduation days are at hand. Hundreds of bright, energized PR and communications majors are eager to try out for your job and give you that cherished chance to freelance, full time. And this evokes an inquiry: "Have you validated your writing ticket lately?"

Corporate communicators are rarely called on officially to re-certify their skills. Few worry that the State may suddenly push for editorial licenses ... real ones, with a photo ID. The worst-case scenario might be a call from your CEO: "Hello! I am in a meeting with the executive committee, and one of the directors read something on the plane about a periodic sentence. She isn't sure what that is and neither am I. I told her you would know; tell us, will you ... there, you're on the speaker-phone. Goahead."

The prudent word-worker most likely has already earned the ABC or APR or both. Those are very good validators. Professional development in seminars and workshops is also good. So is studying Communication World and The Ragan Report, and networking with friends in WICI, publicity clubs, and other oases for wordsurfers.

But equally important is keeping yourself fresh, and keeping management--and your peers--tuned in on what you are doing. Have you tried freelancing? It is a rare boss who won't be impressed by your byline on a feature story in your major metro daily. A book review is a good clip, as is a thoughtful letter to the editor.

Work hard at validating your vocabulary. New words and new definitions are pouring into the national lexis every day: The brand-new Oxford Dictionary of New Words (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991, U.S. $19.95) displays hundreds of these leading linguistic indicators. Use them from time to time to put a point on your ideas, to refresh and delight your readers. Here are a few: jobsworth, magalog, glocal, wimmin, hothousing, compassion fatigue, flak catcher, fuzzword, factoid, golden retriever (with a new spin).

Crisp, evocative words. Useful, new forms. Use them with flair. He who validates is boss.

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.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Wood on Words; techniques in language usage
Author:Wood, Alden S.
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Get your readers off their duffs.
Next Article:Listening to the membership.

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