The Joy of Text After months of comments on the terrible and serious news of the day, NPR listeners are giving themselves (and their ombudsman) a break. Some are writing with questions and comments that clearly feel like a respite.
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The Joy of Text

After months of comments on the terrible and serious news of the day, NPR listeners are giving themselves (and their ombudsman) a break. Some are writing with questions and comments that clearly feel like a respite.

Many listeners are, in my opinion, wise in the ways of the English language and so are frequently moved to berate NPR for its perceived language gaps and pronunciation flaws.

Some recent examples:

'Hom-age... not O-mahj'

Jonathan Leonhart is a listener in London who writes to say that NPR should pronounce the word "homage" with a soft "H," as an English and not as a French word:

Could you please circulate a memo to all your NPR correspondents and show hosts... informing them of the PROPER pronunciation of the word "homage?" The people you hear most frequently mispronouncing it as a French word are the Hollywood airheads in their commentary accompaniments on DVDs. "O-mahj... o-mahj... o-mahj" Give me a break. It's as pathetic as the classic over-correction "between he and I" -- a semi-literate attempt to sound "smart," made so much sadder by how wrong it is.

Leonhart helpfully includes a link to pronunciation from Merriam-Webster ("an AMERICAN dictionary," he hastens to add) -- see Web Resources below.

'Masse' Appeal?

Margaret Anderson notes that:

I have heard several NPR reporters refer to "mass exodus." An exodus by definition is done en masse, unless one is referring to large groups of Catholics leaving church.

'Choice' Versus 'Abortion'

Richard Morris asks:

Can you share with this longtime listener (and local public radio member) when we can expect to hear "anti-choice" rather than "anti-abortion" when NPR reports on issues related to this important topic? (Corey Flintoff today [Nov. 18, 2004] described as being "anti-abortion" those republicans opposed to Sen. Arlen Specter's bid for chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

It's an old concern, I realize, this question of terminology, and has been debated often, yet I still cannot find a single person on either side of the issue who is "pro abortion." The debate, the dialogue, is over choice, and the stances of those engaged express either pro-choice or anti-choice views, not pro- or anti-abortion ones.

It is critical to be vigilant about the choice of language when reporting these issues, difficult though that may be. I'm ever hopeful that NPR will be the media model of such ideals.

'The Plural of "Criterion" is…?'

John Wilson heard an error common to commercial radio, but one that he does not expect to hear on NPR:

NPR: Please, please, do not use words such as "criteria" as if they were singular. On Morning Edition this morning (Nov. 18) during a story on the National Book Awards -- of all places -- I heard the (reporter) say "a single criteria." What if there had been more than one? Would she have said "criterias?" This goes for media, data, phenomena and so on.

A Definition of Family…

Kate Lasota found one reference out of place in an otherwise moving tribute to a dead Marine and his family:

I would like you to put some effort into not using language like you did about Bobby the late Marine from Milwaukee where you repeatedly used the term "the baby his fiancee is expecting" and to instead use inclusive language such as "the baby they were expecting next spring" etc. It sounded to me like you were not giving him credit as the father of the child just because they weren't married and that was a slight against the mother of his child as if her word didn't count unless they had a state ceremony. The sad side is that she probably will not receive widow benefits nor will their child be helped out and we need to give her as much dignity and support that we can.

Was it about Sex or Money?

Cheryl Graham was concerned about NPR's reporting on the resignation of the governor of New Jersey:

This morning you reported that New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned because of a "gay sex scandal." As far as I can tell from reading the stories, he resigned because of a money scandal. True, it involved putting his male lover on the payroll, but I doubt if the lover had been a woman, you would have referred to it as a "sex scandal." By using this sloppy shorthand, you perpetuate the stereotype that being gay is all about sex, and "scandalous" sex at that.

Keeping Up with the "Jones"…

Kate Dressner wonders:

I was listening to a music review this past week (the Norwegian acoustic pop duo Kings of Convenience) and heard enthusiasm for Simon and Garfunkel referred to as "having a major jones" for the duo. Maybe I have spent too much time on the wrong street corners of NYC, but 'major jones' is an anatomical reference of sexual engorgement/male. Glad the Norwegian's like our local fellas, but do they have to like them SO much?

Actually Ms. Dressner, this reference is not to sex but to drugs. According to The New York Times Guide to New York "having a Jones" is about Great Jones Street named after:

... Samuel Jones, a lawyer sometimes called Father of the New York Bar. He owned the land on which Great Jones Street now runs and bequeathed the property to the city with the caveat that any street that ran through the land be named for him.

In 1789 a street was opened there, but New York already had a Jones Street in Greenwich Village. So the new street was named Great Jones Street because it was wider than the norm.

In his desire to be remembered, Jones may have linked himself with a different aspect of the city's culture. The slang term "jones," meaning an addiction to drugs, is said to have originated among addicts who lived in Great Jones Alley, off Great Jones Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street.

Nehru or Nero?

A commentary on All Things Considered about despots such as Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein who took to writing novels provoked a lot of e-mail. Listeners protested the fact that the commentary apparently included the great Indian statesman and leader Jawaharlal Nehru among the literary "despots." Dr. Krishnakumar Venkateswaran protested that

The most ridiculous thing was that the commentator... had the temerity to list Nehru (the first Indian prime minister if you did not know that) along with Hitler and Gadhafi. You are supposed to be the most educated elite and it is a pity that you air such statements which hurts people like me especially in this case since I am from India and Nehru was one of the great freedom fighters who fought against the British, non violently alongside Mahatma Gandhi.

But the commentary was about, among others, the Roman emperor Nero, not Prime Minister Nehru. Sometime there are words that work less well on the radio than others.

Creating 'Chaos' Out of Order...

And Thomas Bjorkman wrote to correct NPR's Ari Shapiro and me about our ill-informed references to chaos theory and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle:

Unfortunately, the attributions are all wrong. There is indeed a principle (not a theory) called Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It says that an elementary particle has a dual nature, wave and particle. You can know the properties of either the wave or the particle but not both. Since it is only one thing, you can only get one thing's worth of information. Therefore by measuring the wave properties, you forego the opportunity to measure the particle properties.

While it is also true that measurement tends to perturb the thing being measured, that proviso is not attributable to Heisenberg. It is also not a theory. Ari Shapiro's error is common, but still an error.

As for chaos theory (which really is a theory), Heisenberg (1901-1975) really had nothing to do with it. The "butterfly effect," which is essentially what is being stated was most notably formulated by Konrad Lorenz in 1979 when chaos theory was really gelling as a scientific field.

On this week of Thanksgiving, I'm grateful to all who write to keep NPR -- and me -- on track. It might be said I've got a major "jones" for those listeners.