“Females” or “Women?” Why your choice matters.

I admit it: I’m a lurker in more than one online group. In some, I occasionally step from the shadows to comment, while in others I know better than to open my (figurative) mouth: I don’t engage, I simply observe.

This observational approach — in groups I wouldn’t ordinarily have an association with — sometimes pays off when the people in that group use language in an unusual way, or make interesting arguments for or against the way someone else is using it. I’ve watched a couple of these mini-debates unfold recently, one of which was particularly well argued: a discussion of whether it’s ever appropriate to refer to women as “females” and why (or why not). Click for more about language and gender

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Real Estate and Realtor: Word Origins

It’s been a fairly busy month in language but I haven’t been able stay timely. So many interesting words and usages, so little time! I didn’t want to let a full month slide by without posting on some useful topic so here, on the last day of June, a quick post on something that’s been on the radar a lot in my household in recent months: real estate.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what an odd pair of words they are? “Real estate.” In 21st century English, the phrase is used constantly and everyone knows exactly what it means. But the construction is odd for modern English and each of the two words, taken in isolation, doesn’t mean what it does when they’re together. “Real“? Of course it’s real, as opposed to being fictional or imaginary. “Estate“? Well, some properties might be estate-like, but most real estate transactions hardly involve estates in the traditional sense (an estate usually being a large property in the US; the term is more variable elsewhere, ranging from large properties to public housing projects).

So where does the phrase come from? What did it originally mean, and how did it get to where it is today?

Click to invest in a few paragraphs of cyber real estate

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“Are we all bigots?” Only if you don’t know the meaning of the word.

There was some (small) buzz a few weeks ago over Morgan Freeman repeatedly using the word “bigot” on his TV show (“Into the Wormhole” on the Science Channel). The attention largely focused on the statement “Are we all bigots?” and the suggestion that all humans are somehow inherently hardwired to be bigoted.

My immediate thought was “well, that’s a good way to get attention and possibly ratings” — by saying something provocative and charged about race at a moment when race issues are at the front of the public’s consciousness. It’s safe to assume that Science Channel’s viewer demographic is slightly older (available data show that a plurality of its audience is in the 35-54 range), male (68%) and probably whiter, so a comment like this might attract more attention than in other outlets. This is also their top-rated show.

If you don’t click for more, are you a bigot?

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That Origin of Bogus? It’s Probably Bogus.

I’m old enough to remember when the word “bogus” was at the fringe of colloquial English, a slang term that few respectable people would consider using. Of course, it shouldered its way into the circle around the campfire of “acceptable use” some time ago. But when I recently heard it used by a sitting member of Congress, it got me thinking: where did this word come from and, if there’s a particular moment, when did it come in from the cold?

It will be totally bogus if you don’t click here

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Stationary stationery, revisited

One means not moving. The other is something you write on. I’ve discussed these words before (close to two years ago).

But before this week, this was an error that didn’t worry me much. I know the difference and I’m careful to get it right. When I’ve encountered it while doing work for others it’s been a simple spelling error: I correct it and move on. I’ve never had a situation where the actual meaning of the word was ambiguous.

Until this week.

As a freelance writer and editor, I work with many different kinds of clients over a broad range of services and businesses. The vast majority are small businesses and individuals, but I do a small amount of work with a national merchandising company, which in turn does most of its business with a major national retail store (both of which shall remain unnamed). This sometimes includes reviewing forms used by merchandising reps before and after store service calls.

One of the online post-service reports for a particular product included two questions involving stationery (or stationary — I’ve kept all spellings from the original).

To the question “Where did you place the product?” the rep was to choose from several options, including “Front of Store, Check Lane Endcap, Stationary Front End Cap, and Endcap (Other).” Putting aside the inconsistent use of “endcap” (two words or a compound?), “stationary” immediately raised a flag. The store has a stationery section. But it also has multiple styles of endcap, including ones that are fixed (stationary) and ones that are on wheels (non-stationary). From only this question, it’s not clear which was meant.

A later question asked the rep to note the footage (that’s retail-speak for shelf space) filled by the product. Among the fields to complete is Stationery front end cap”.

Now wait a minute, I thought: What are they talking about here? Those fixed endcaps, not the moveable ones? Or do they mean the section of the store? In the past, products from this supplier have been set in the stationery section (near pens, paper, and other office products). But they’ve also been set in numerous other locations. Which were they describing?

Conceivably, they could have been talking about both (allowing for a different context for each of those questions). There was really no way to tell from the material at hand. Fortunately, I was able to pull older documentation for this project and discovered that the directive did, indeed, refer consistently to the “stationery” section (although, to add to the entertainment, this was prominently misspelled “stationary” in the most widely circulated memo, sent to between 3600 and 4000 people). The older documents resolved the problem…and only just before this potentially confusing item was rolled out to over 1500 reps (who shouldn’t be wasting their time puzzling over spelling errors).

As the earlier post explains, stationary and stationery derive from the same Latin root. They parted ways centuries ago, and while at first glance their meanings seem completely unrelated, there’s a logical explanation for how each came about.

As different as the meanings of these two words are, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have actual confusion over them — this was a first for me. But this unusual case proves that it can, in fact, happen. Good writing (or editing) isn’t always just a matter of spelling, so understanding your words in more depth is extremely helpful.

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