What’s in your ‘glove’ compartment?


Source: Q4RadioGuy, Wikimedia Commons

I might have been a spelling bee champion when I was younger, but these days, I find myself checking the dictionary more than ever. There seem to be more exceptions than rules these days, and the other day I was nosy about the word “glove box,” which I gather is what many folks up north call what I’ve always referred to as a “glove compartment.”

And that got me to thinking, why do we continue to call this feature either a “glove box” or a “glove compartment” when it most likely hasn’t held any gloves a) ever or b) even in a vintage car, not for a few decades? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, either of these terms can be used to refer to “a small storage cabinet in the dashboard of an automobile.” And you probably won’t be surprised to learn the word’s first known use was in 1916, at which time I imagine gloves were indeed being stored in automobiles. An article on Wikipedia (so take this for what it’s worth) says,  “Driving gloves were considered necessary equipment in early cars, many of which lacked a hard top, to prevent the cooling effect of fast-moving air from numbing drivers’ hands.”

I propose we come up with another term for the glove compartment. Here are some contenders:

  • Vehicle junk drawer
  • Mobile storage bin
  • Drop-down compartment
  • Car-manual storage

What’s in your glove compartment? I’ll bet it’s not gloves. Mine currently contains my car’s owner manual, a pair of wooden knitting needles (I must have been knitting on a road trip when my husband drove my car), and extra napkins and straws from fast-food restaurants. Language changes, and this is a case where it’s time to retire “glove compartment” and find a more useful, more accurate term.

Next up: I’m on a mission to get everyone to stop saying they’re “dialing” numbers on their cell phones or that they’ve got someone “on the line.” I’ll let you know how it goes!

Dictionary spellings and variants

Preferred spellingsWhen the dictionary lists more than one spelling of a word, which one should you use? I like to use the preferred spelling.

Do you know which of these common words is preferred? I know only because I’ve had to look them up for books I’ve edited over the past few years that the favored spellings are barbecue, doughnut, and drive-through. If you look these up in the dictionary, you will find, for instance, “barbecue also barbeque.” What does that also mean? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition, says, “When another spelling is joined to the main entry by the word also, the spelling after also occurs appreciably less often and thus is considered a secondary variant.”

Sometimes, though, you’ll find two words listed and joined by or, not also. The dictionary notes, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. Both are standard, and either one may be used according to personal inclination.” An example from the color world? “Ocher or ochre.” Either is fine, and my “personal inclination” is to use ochre.

Do you use preferred spellings? Did you know there was such a thing?

Why you shouldn’t toss your old Crayolas and Kleenex in the Dumpster


Image courtesy of Crayola

Is it Crayolas or Crayola crayons? Kleenex or Kleenex tissues? Dumpster or dumpster?

I was fresh out of journalism school when I received an early lesson on the importance of properly using brand names. I had written a newspaper article that mentioned children coloring with their “crayolas.” Soon I received a letter from the good people of the Crayola company, who wanted me to be aware that “Crayola” should be used as an adjective describing the word “crayon” and not as a replacement for the word “crayon.”

Did the Crayola people have nothing better to do with their time than harass a poor 22-year-old embarking on her journalism career? Sure they did. But they were simply trying to be sure that their trademarked brand name remained a trademarked brand name. By sending a letter pointing out the error I’d made, they also had proof of the steps they had taken to protect this brand name. (And for the record, I remain a fan of Crayola products, although now I’ve advanced to the colored-pencil stage of my coloring life.)

But what about those pretty boxes of tissue we all have sitting on our desks? Can we call those “kleenex”? We can if we want to be wrong. Here’s a quote straight from Kleenex.com: “The Kleenex® trademark identifies Kleenex® as a brand name which may only be used to designate products manufactured by Kimberly-Clark.” So no, no plain old Kleenex, please. You can use a tissue. You can even use a Kleenex tissue, which will make the Kimberly-Clark people very happy. But don’t use “a kleenex.” (And you know that little registered symbol, the “R” with a circle around it? The Chicago Manual of Style says “there is no legal requirement to use these symbols, and they should be omitted wherever possible.” On the rare occasion I see such a symbol in a book, I know the author is an amateur. So don’t do that!)

Finally, a word about dumpsters. Yes, lowercase-d dumpsters. If you look in the Merriam-Webster dictionary right now, it will tell you that Dumpster with a D was “originally in the trademarked name Dempster Dumpster, applied to mechanically loaded refuse containers produced by the Dempster Brothers Company of Knoxville, Tennessee). What the dictionary doesn’t tell you is that this trademark has expired, and the Associated Press in 2014 declared that it’s okay to use “dumpster” instead of “mechanically loaded refuse container” since the word “dumpster” has lost its legal protection. I, for one, am glad. Imagine watching the evening news and hearing the anchor announce, “Police say the body was found in a mechanically loaded refuse container at the corner of …” Doesn’t quite work, does it?

So “dumpster” is okay. The trademark has lapsed. Clearly, the Crayola crayon people have better trademark lawyers than the dumpster people.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Ba-dump-dump…ster!

(Want to learn more about trademarked names? Here’s a helpful article that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.)

No hedging

Do you know what a hedge word is? What about hedging your bets? Do you know that phrase?

Hedge has a number of definitions in Webster’s, and the one I’m thinking of is a definition for the noun hedge, the one that means “a calculatedly noncommittal or evasive statement.” Suppose a young man asks a woman for a date on Saturday and she  says, “Well, I’m not sure I’m going to be available that evening. Can I let you know by Friday?” Now she may be waiting to see whether her long-lost cousin makes it to town, which is one possible scenario. She could also be waiting to see whether a better offer comes along for the weekend, and in that case, she’s hedging and intentionally being evasive.

Hedge words can crop up in our writing, and we need to—how can I put this?—kill them. Yes, that’s it. Take. Them. Out.

As a writer and editor, I look for hedge words and get rid of them to create stronger sentences. I won’t share real examples from clients, but I don’t mind sharing a few hedge words I recently found in a sentence of my own. This sentence comes from a cozy mystery I’m working on and describes an artist who creates powerful collages from found objects. The first sentence is what I originally wrote, and the second sentence is the new and improved version.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 2.21.20 PM

See how awful those hedge words are in the first sentence? “Somehow.” If the author doesn’t know how, the reader won’t know how. She “managed to use.” Why not just “used”? “Find a way to weave.” Yuck. Just say “weave,” for goodness’ sake. I did decide I liked the repetition of “just the right element” and “just the right piece.” Because I whittled away those nasty hedge words, I felt good about keeping the repetition in the sentence.

Hedge words are timid little scaredy-cats that strip our writing of its power. At the high school dance, they’re the wallflowers standing by the refreshment table, the ones afraid to say “hello,” the ones who have zero self-confidence. I’m determined to make my words act like the prom king and queen, so the hedge words have to go.

So remember: If you’re aiming for powerful, clear writing, no hedging.

And the winners are …

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-12-10-43-amI’m so over music and movie awards. I haven’t watched an entire episode of an awards show in years, yet I can’t help hearing about these things on the news. But you know what? If Adele decides to break her Grammy into Chiclet-sized pieces next year and share them with the whole audience, good for her. It won’t affect my life one bit. But the winners I do care about, very much, are the new words that Merriam-Webster adds to the dictionary each year. Now that, I can get excited about!

M-W recently announced the addition of more than 1,000 new words to the dictionary. Some of these include:

Binge-watch, transitive verb, “to watch many or all episodes of (a TV series) in rapid succession.” Example: “When I discovered Downton Abbey several years after the program first aired, I binge-watched the first few seasons.”

Ginger, noun, “a person with red hair.” Example: “Prince Harry is a cute ginger.”

Woo-woo, adjective, “dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific.” Example: “She’s into some woo-woo religion these days.”

I was surprised to learn that SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) and FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) weren’t already in the dictionary, because I’ve been hearing these terms for years.

Click here if you’d like to check out some of the other additions to the dictionary.

Why I 💗 the dictionary

As a writer and editor, I have learned that the dictionary is one of my best friends. Unfortunately, I had for many years let our friendship slide, but when I started editing fiction, I realized I needed to get back in touch. The dictionary and I have been BFFs ever since.

Is it a “red brick” building or a “redbrick” building? Should I write that “construction of the new road is underway” or “construction of the new road is under way”? I thought I knew the correct answers, but for many years, I did not. Now I turn to my all-knowing friend, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and lo and behold, there are the answers.

Perhaps I’m fortunate since I was a spelling bee champion from an early age, having earned one of the few social rewards for being a young bookworm. Today, I can spot some errors rather easily. Each Christmas, it kills me (figuratively, not literally) that so many books and magazine articles mention hanging stockings on the “mantle.” A mantle is a sleeveless garment worn over other clothes, a cloak. Why are people hanging their stockings on their cloaks? That shelf above the fireplace is a “mantel.” The dictionary explains all this to those who take the time to look. Good writers look.

But even good writers—and don’t we all aim to be in that category?—aren’t perfect. I shared something recently on my personal Facebook page and mentioned “the books in my Kindle cue.” I vaguely recall looking at the sentence for a half second and thinking, “Cue? Did I spell cue correctly?” And yes, I did spell “cue” correctly. But the next time I glanced at my page, I immediately realized that “cue” was the wrong word. I meant to say “the books in my Kindle queue.” (“Cue” and “queue” are homophones, which will be a topic for another blog post.) So thank goodness we can edit Facebook posts! And thanks to my friend the dictionary, I have the correct words, and the spellings of those words, at my fingertips.