Arrant Pedantry

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Temblor Trouble

Last week’s earthquake in northern Japan reminded me of an interesting pet peeve of a friend of mine: she hates the word temblor. Before she brought it to my attention, it had never really occurred to me to be bothered by it, but now I can’t help but notice it and be annoyed anytime there’s a news story about an earthquake. Her complaint is that it’s basically a made-up word that only journalists use, and it seems she’s essentially right.

A quick search on Mark Davies’ Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that temblor occurs just over twice as often in newspaper writing as in magazine writing, and more than three times as frequently in newspaper writing as in fiction. It’s effectively nonexistent in academic writing—the only two hits in COCA are actually in Spanish contexts, as are three of the hits under fiction. It’s also worth noting that all of the spoken examples are from news programs. The following chart shows its frequency per million words.

So what’s to explain the strange distribution of this word? I strongly suspect it’s the doing of what John E. McIntyre calls “the dear old, so frequently misguided, Associated Press Stylebook.” I only have a copy of the 2004 edition (which my wife picked up at a yard sale for 50 cents—don’t worry, I wouldn’t waste good money on it), but the entry for temblor (yes, there’s actually an entry for it) merely refers one to earthquakes. That entry goes on for a page and a half about earthquake magnitudes and notable earthquakes of the past before noting that “the word temblor (not tremblor) is a synonym for earthquake.”

I don’t understand why the AP Stylebook needs to point out spelling and synonymy—I thought those were the jobs of dictionaries and thesauruses, respectively—but I find it interesting that it doesn’t list any other synonyms. Thesaurus.com lists convulsion, fault, macroseism, microseism, movement, quake, quaker, seimicity, seism, seismism, shake, shock, slip, temblor, trembler, undulation, and upheaval, though obviously not all of these are equally acceptable synonyms.

So why does temblor get singled out? I honestly don’t know. I do know that journalists are fond of learning synonyms to avoid tiring out common words, and I know that at least some journalists take the practice to unreasonable levels, such as the teacher who made her students memorize 120 synonyms for said. Whatever the reason, journalists seem to have latched on to temblor, though few others outside the fields of newspaper and magazine writing have picked it up.

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Gray, Grey, and Circular Prescriptions

A few days ago John McIntyre took a whack at the Associated Press Stylebook’s penchant for flat assertions, this time regarding the spelling of gray/grey. McIntyre noted that gray certainly is more common in American English but that grey is not a misspelling.

In the comments I mused that perhaps gray is only more common because of prescriptions like this one. John Cowan noted that gray is the main head word in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, with grey cross-referenced to it, saying, “So I think we can take it that “gray” has been the standard AmE spelling long before the AP stylebook, or indeed the AP, were in existence.”

But I don’t think Webster’s dictionary really proves that at all. When confronted with multiple spellings of a word, lexicographers must choose which one to include as the main entry in the dictionary. Webster’s choice of gray over grey may have been entirely arbitrary. Furthermore, considering that he was a crusader for spelling reform, I don’t think we can necessarily take the spellings in his dictionary as evidence of what was more common or standard in American English.

So I headed over to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English to do a little research. I searched for both gray and grey as adjectives and came up with this. The grey line represents the total number of tokens per million words for both forms.

gray and grey in tokens per million words

Up until about the 1840s, gray and grey were about neck and neck. After that, gray really takes off while grey languishes. Now, I realize that this is a rather cursory survey of their historical distribution, and the earliest data in this corpus predates Webster’s dictionary by only a couple of decades. I don’t know how to explain the growth of gray/grey in the 1800s. But in spite of these problems, it appears that there are some very clear-cut trend lines—gray became overwhelmingly more common, but grey has severely diminished but not quite disappeared from American English.

This ties in nicely with a point I’ve made before: descriptivism and prescriptivism are not entirely separable, and there is considerable interplay between the two. It may be that Webster really was describing the linguistic scene as he saw it, choosing gray because he felt that it was more common, or it may be that his choice of gray was arbitrary or influenced by his personal preferences.

Either way, his decision to describe the word in a particular way apparently led to a prescriptive feedback loop: people chose to use the spelling gray because it was in the dictionary, reinforcing its position as the main entry in the dictionary and leading to its ascendancy over grey and eventually to the AP Stylebook‘s tweet about its preferred status. What may have started as a value-neutral decision by Webster about an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability has become an imperative to editors . . . about what is still an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for grey.

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