Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Lexicology of the Register-Star

Reporters for the Register-Star seem to have an odd relationship with words. As writers, they should recognize that words are the basic material of their craft. Choosing the right word is important for many reasons, but, when reporting the news, accuracy of meaning should be the most compelling. 

There have been many examples over the years of Register-Star reporters writing what they thought they heard--apparently without stopping to wonder if what they were saying made any sense. Favorite examples are quoting the owner of Blue Stores in Livingston as saying that he wanted to restore the building to its "terra-like" splendor (that should have been Tara-like) and reporting that the Common Council voted to send a "seeker" (instead of SEQR) to Albany. The latter evokes the wonderful image of Diogenes wandering the state capital, lantern in hand, searching for an honest man, but that image has little to do with the action taken by the Common Council that night. 

Then there are the many confused homophones--"Doctors Without Boarders" (instead of Borders); a "sweet of incentives" (instead of suite); "a challenge to duel residents" (instead of dual)--and near-misses, for which spell check might be partially to blame--reporting that an "escarole account" (instead of escrow) might be established and that someone would "defiantly (instead of definitely) do it again." 

In today's Register-Star, there's a different kind of word wizardry. In the article about Wednesday's public hearing on the 2011 budget, Lindsay Suchow coins a new word and cleverly attributes the coinage to Council President Don Moore. According to Suchow, "Common Council President Donald Moore said he took 'some cumbrance' with [Deborah] Kinney’s suggestion that the council was not familiar with the budget." What Moore really said (Gossips was at the hearing) was that he took umbrage ("offense" or "resentment") at Kinney's suggestion, but the use of the heretofore nonexistent word cumbrance raises the question of what the word, if it were a word, might mean. 

Like any viable coined word, cumbrance is related to words that already exist: cumber, "to weigh down or hinder"; and encumbrance, "a burden or impediment." So what would it mean to take "some cumbrance"? One possibility, given the context, is that Moore is assuming some of the burden for the Council's alleged unfamiliarity with the budget. This interpretation is neither likely nor true, since effort was made to familiarize the aldermen with the budget, and most of them seemed quite knowledgeable about its content. So what would the reader who wasn't there to hear what Moore actually said make of this statement?     

NOTE: My thanks to Sam Pratt's Typo Phile for documenting some of the lexical missteps mentioned in this post. To be fair, the "escarole account" error, originally spotted by me, appeared not in the Register-Star but in the Chatham Courier--another Hudson-Catskill Newspaper publication.   


  1. Duel homeowners is still my favorite. It suggests such a vivid story . . . Debby

  2. William Sapfire, eat your heart out~

  3. Now, now how can you be distressed at the Reg Star's richly delicious if errant verbal concoctions when the person who Frank Rich in the Times fears may be our next arbiter vulgarium stands ready to refudiate such elitist concerns over the mere correctness of the use of our language. Surely you do not believe that the way a person speaks is a mirror of their mind? Beware! The wheels of the tumbrils are being oiled.

    Loverly though, Carole