Free cake

A colleague made a cake for his birthday and brought it to share. He explained that it was “vegan and gluten free”. As legal editors do, we discussed whether that meant it was (vegan) and (gluten free) (probably) or (vegan free) and (gluten free) (probably not), and further what “vegan free food” might actually be (as opposed to “vegan, free food” (which would probably be “free, vegan food” anyway)). 

The phrase can either be ADJ and N free or N and N free. Vegan can be a noun (My cousin is a vegan) or an adjective (?My cousin is vegan, This cake is vegan).  Compare organic and preservative free and additive and preservative free. Hyphens might or might not help: organic and preservative-free, additive- and preservative-free, additive-free and preservative-free.


Like a ton of bricks

I overheard a colleague tell a second colleague that a third colleague had told the first colleague that the third colleague was going to do something otherwise than by standard procedures. The first colleague then said:

If he does that, I’ll jump on him like a ton of bricks.

My first thought was that bricks don’t jump, even a ton of them. 

At home I first searched for jump ton bricks (without quotation marks), which found no exact uses of the expression in any form, but, not surprisingly, dictionary entries and uses of be/come (down) on sb like a ton of bricks, hit sb like a ton of bricks and jump down sb’s throat. Searching again for “jump on him like a ton of bricks” (with quotation marks for an exact match) found a small number of exact uses, as did most combinations with jumped, me, you, herit, us, them, someone and somebody. I was surprised to find that some people even jump on it like a ton of bricks. 

So I’ll say that jump on sb like a ton of bricks is used, just not very much. Pre-internet, would there have been any way of finding those? 

(Would anyone say “The wall came down on him like a ton of bricks”, or is that too literal?) 

Dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds

Yesterday a colleague informed us that it was National Be a Dork Day. I pondered that no-one seems to have reclaimed dork in the same way that some people have reclaimed various other terms, including geek and nerd. Then as made my mid-morning cup of coffee I scrolled through Facebook and one friend recounted a minor mishap before concluding “I’m such a dork”. 

Because of the nature of these words, there are no universally agreed definitions of dork, geek and nerd, to which I also need to add dweeb (which is not word I would naturally use).

Merriam-Webster defines them as:

informal: an odd, socially awkward, unstylish person
slang: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person
1: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
2: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity
computer geek
3: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
1: a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests
also : a person preoccupied with or devoted to a particular activity or field of interest
2: an unstylish or socially awkward person

It includes a usage note:

Dork, when used to refer to a socially awkward or inept person, is a relatively recent word: our records indicate that it first appeared in writing in the 1960s. Two of its synonyms in this sense are likewise of fairly recent vintage. Nerd (typically used of a studious species of dork) dates from the 1950s; it was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, although not in the sense that we use today. The usage of nerd is now often used in a neutral fashion to denote enthusiasm or expertise (theater nerd) or proudly as a self-identifying trait (word nerd). Geek became synonymous with nerd in the 1950s and has similarly seen increasing use with positive connotations, showing membership in a specialized group (film geek, beer geek) rather than social awkwardness. In its earliest meanings, geek referred to, among other things, a carnival performer who would bite the head off a live chicken, or other small animal, as part of an act.

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That’s a moray

A document referred to someone transgressing the social morays of his community. Morays for mores is not a knew misteak. The Eggcorn Database (2005) and Language Log (2004) have both discussed it. I was surprised to find that mores is far moor common in general than morays – more often the misteak is using a moor common word in place of a less common one. That has to be wayed against the fact that morays is a moor obvious spelling. The traffic seems to be all one weigh – I can’t imagine that anyone writing about Muraenidae (I had to look that up – I am not a marine biologist) types mores by misteak. 

Social mores mostly come in plurals. A singular social more exists but is used less often. Technically, won of them is a social mos but I doubt if even the most ardent Latinist says or writes that.

Talking about this with my colleagues, I couldn’t help mentioning the song That’s amore. Many years ago I encountered the parody:

When an eel bites your knee as you swim in the sea, that’s a moray.

The next day one of my colleagues complained that the song had been stuck in her head all day. I said: 

When it sticks in your head as you’re lying in bed, that’s an earworm.  

(PS sea watt I did their?)

Take a photo for me

A document contained a sentence by an applicant similar to:

The police searched my office and took a photo for me with [another person].

The context made it clear that they took a photo of him. Take a photo of me has at least two meanings, but take a photo for me probably has only one (the second is possibly possible, but I can’t think of a context in which it would be a reasonable interpretation).

In the movie Airplane!/Flying High! a group of reporters attends the airport’s control tower (looking very un-1979). After asking the flight controller some questions, the chief reporters says to his colleagues, “Okay, boys, let’s get some pictures”. They then physically remove some framed photos from the wall. Get some pictures has two meanings in that context, but I’m trying to think of whether it would in my original sentence: The police got some pictures of me. 

I slept (or sleeped) and dreamt (or dreamed)

Some time ago I posted about the alternation between leaned and leant, dream and dreamt etc. I said that I had more-or-less decided to use leaned and dreamed, mostly because they are clearer for second-language listeners to understand, but then I quite naturally used leant when talking to one second-language listener. 

My work team has been working from home (mostly full-time but at least part-time) for almost two years. Alongside work-related emails, we send social/personal ones. One of my colleagues is studying psychology and is particularly interested in dreams. I can’t remember enough of most of my dreams, but occasionally one will persist after I wake up. A few days ago I sent an email with a brief description of my dream, starting “I dreamed …”. Another colleague picked me up this, so I explained the alternation and my decision, with a link to my blog post. She commented that the song from Les Misérables really couldn’t be I dreamt a dream. (With a side thought about the alternation between I dreamed/dreamt a dream and I dreamed/dreamt, and also I had a dream.) 

Along the way, because of its connection with dream, I also thought about sleep, which has the strong irregular form slept. But sleep now means something like to place a computer into a power saving mode. We can sleep a computer, and sleeping a computer is also common, but do we say I slept my computer or I sleeped a computer? At the moment, the usage isn’t common enough to be sure. There are a handful of results for I slept my computer and one for I sleeped my computer. Most people avoid the problem by putting their computer into sleep mode. Compare Stephen Pinker’s example of The batter flied out to centre (<my Australian-set auto-correct changed center to centre), not The batter flew out to centre. Because of my almost zero experience of baseball, I don’t have to worry about that, though.

Despite what I wrote in the title to this post, I definitely slept, but I may have dreamt or dreamed.

Abeyance > obeyance

A legal officer wrote that a certain issue was “in obeyance” for certain reasons. Obeyance exists – it simply means obedience – but is very, very rare, even in comparison to abeyance, which means “at bay -ance” and is merely very rare. This is not a finger typo – o and a are too far away – but it’s improbable that anyone would pull obeyance from the back of their mind (I can’t recall ever hearing/seeing it, and had to check that it actually exists). I think the legal officer was momentarily distracted by the much more common word obey, even though the context had nothing to do with obedience

Non-compulsory suggestion: if you want to use obeyance, use obedience instead. If you want to use in abeyance and are not in the field of property law (in which case abeyance has an established technical meaning), use in suspension, suspended or on hold instead. 

PS Even though obeyance is in multiple dictionaries, it’s not immediately easy to find real examples. I found this page, the authoritativeness of which I’m not sure of.


Yesterday, a colleague advised us that it was International Chocolate Cake Day. Another colleague shared an image of a chocolate cake with the text: 

I had this delicious omlette this morning. I seasoned the eggs with sugar, oil and chocolate, and threw in a little flour for texture. 

Ha ha.

A third colleague pointed out that there should be an e after the m

Inquiring linguistic minds want to know why omelette is right and omlette is wrong. 

Courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the story begins with Latin lamina (plate, layer) (with a variety of modern meanings) and lamella (small plate, layer) (also with a variety of modern meanings) and progresses through French la lemelle > l’alemelle > alemele > alemette (which is a double diminutive) > omelette to arrive in English. American English prefers omelet. Omlette and omlet exist but are rare, and at this stage are probably still mistakes rather than genuine alternatives. Pages for Mac autocorrects omlette and omlet to omelette and omelet. So omelette has the first e because Latin lamella had/has one.

For me, omelette is solidly two syllables, but gives the two- and three- syllable pronunciations.

“four character reference letters”

A document referred to someone providing

four character reference letters

Microsoft Word’s grammar checker suggested changing that to

four-character references letters

Chengyu are traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four hanzi characters. A four-character reference letter might read:

To whom it may concern,
Fred is crouching tiger, hidden dragon
Yours sincerely,
A Manager