"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

"A Great Sewer Built by an Improved Method of Tunneling, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

I recently learned the difference between sewage and sewerage. Up until then I had always assumed that sewerage was a corruption of sewage, but no, they are distinct words. Sewage refers to the stuff itself, the gunk, the offal, the detritus, the waste material. Sewerage refers to the system that carries the sewage, the architecture of it all. This would be all nice and tidy except for the fact that one of the meanings of sewerage is synonymous with sewage. That is, you can refer to sewage as sewerage but you can’t call sewerage sewage. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I wasn’t made aware of the distinction between the two terms because of some unfortunate household crisis.

Anyway, I then started thinking about other linked words are often used interchangeably but in fact have separate meanings. I know there are more, but so far I’ve only come up with two pairs:

  • flotsam/jetsam: Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly: floating debris. Jetsam is the part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore. (Both definitions from Merriam-Webster online.)
  • schlemiel/schlimazl: A schlemiel is a clumsy oaf, a bungler. A schlimazl is a born loser, one with rotten luck.

    The American distinction between the schlemiel and the schlimazl, summarized in the rule of thumb that says the former spills the soup, the latter is the one into whose lap it falls, provides a helpful basis for definition. The schlemiel is the active disseminator of bad luck, and the schlimazl its passive victim. Or, more sharply defined, the schlimazl happens upon mischance, he has a penchant for lucklessness, but the unhappy circumstances remain outside him, and always suggest the slapstick quality of surprise. The schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential. Whereas comedy involving the schlimazl tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is essential, deriving from his very nature in its confrontation with reality.  – Wisse,  Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, University of Chicago Press (1971).

Bonus observation: OB/GYN. I find myself utterly alone in preferring to pronounce this term as “ahb-gīn.” It obviously takes too long, most of the time, to say “obstetrician – gynecologist” or “obstetrics – gynecology” so it’s understandable that a shortened form’s arisen. But, to my mind, saying “oh-be-jee-wye-en” is unsatisfying for two reasons:

  1. At five syllables, it’s still too long and clumsy to say. It isn’t nearly as fluid as everyone’s favorite letter run, LMNOPQ (six syllables, by the way).
  2. It obliterates the distinction between the two specialties by running the letters together. My pronunciation of “ob-gyn,”  with its neat two-syllable formation, preserves the dual nature of the profession.

I’m a little sapped of inspiration today, in fact I’m a little sapped of everything today, but I feel I should post something, so here goes. Forgive me if I’ve long ago missed the boat, but here are some things that’ve bugged me for a while yet have somehow escaped my “ranting.” As you may have guessed, it’s going to be another installment of the blogger’s crutch: language usage diatribe! (“Wheeee!”)


Working intermittently on a big old elaborate post which is taking a while to fruiten.

In the interim I’m slapping together, as per usual in such circumstances, another episode of the old blog standby, the word usage and grammar philippic. This one’s rather brief, but I hope it will abate any withdrawal symptoms you may be experiencing, Dear Reader(s).

  • guesstimate. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an estimate usually made without adequate information.” The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “an estimate which is based on both guesswork and reasoning.”  Listen, something is either a guess or it’s an estimate! You can have a well-informed guess or a poor estimate, but the former is still a guess and the latter is still an estimate. These species do not commingle. No viable offspring here. Incidentally, I was amazed to find out how long this misbegotten creature’s been around; M-W says 1923, while the OED cites a 1936 New York Times article. The OED is incorrect, however. I searched the Times’ website and the oldest citation there is:

    ‘GUESSTIMATE’ APPRAISAL.; Realtor Coins New Word to Express Careless Methods. [May 6, 1928, Sunday · Section: Classified Ad, Page 197, 135 words]

    Sorry, I can’t tell you any more about it because I wasn’t going to pay $3.95 to see the rest.


My adoring fans demand, demand, a new post. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that overwhelming. Fully half of my regular readers asked me to get back on the keyboard and do something. Well, it’s really only one person, Dish, but since I have only two regular readers it’s technically half. (update: while I was intermittently composing this, curlywurlygurly chimed in in agreement, so now 100% of my quote fans unquote are breathing down my neck).

My response? The hoariest of blog staples: the diatribe on word usage and grammar! Ta-da!

Yes, I know everyone does at least one of these. But in this case I’m doing it to show you all that I’m not special. I’m just like everyone else: I put my panties on one leg at a time (then I take them off because they’re inside-out, put them on one leg at a time again, take them off because they’re backwards, and put them on yet again one leg at a time – hmm… maybe I am “special”).

So anyway, I have so many gripes about language that I’m sure I could write a whole book on the subject, but I’ll limit this post to a select few that are (a) most prominent in my mind right now, and (b) have, I believe, not already been written about to death by every blogger and their little sister (apostrophes, axe vs. ask, “should of,” et al.). (more…)

I refer to the plurals of some alcoholic drinks thusly:

gins and tonic, rums and coke, scotches and soda, et al.

I do so on the principle that the mixer (tonic, coke, soda) is a modifier of the important component (the booze), in the manner of the pluralized attorneys general, brothers-in-law, mothers superior.

More of my linguistic quirks to come in future posts. In the meantime, do you have any grammatical, syntactical, vocabular idiosyncrasies when it comes to things alcoholic?