Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mattress mysteries baffle NY Times

(This post is off topic, and kind of cranky, too. Feel free to skip it.)

I admit it – I’m a consumer journalism junkie. When I got Consumer Reports’ print edition, I read reviews of things I will never, ever own: wine chillers, leaf blowers, Cadillacs, backpacks. I like knowing how things are supposed to work, even if they’re not things I want.

So if the New York Times promises to help me shop for "the best mattress," I’m expecting to learn a little something I didn't already know. But no: Apparently the subject of today’s Home section lead was so soporific that the assigning editor, the writer, and the copy editor all fell asleep on the job.

The assigning editor accepted the piece; enough said. As for the author, given his innocence about mattresses, I’m wondering if he’s still in the bed Mom and Dad bought him. Buying is confusing, he tells us, because “most major brand names inexplicably seem to begin with the letter 's'." And then there are all those hard words! “Viscoelastic foam,” “pocketed coil technology,” and worst of all, "Talalay latex? C’mon, mattress people. Now it sounds as if you’re just making stuff up." (Gee, if only there were an easy way to look up those obscure terms, so you could explain them to readers.*)

There follow many paragraphs of filler -- quotes from mattress people, descriptions of various products -- before the payoff, delivered by a Consumer Reports mattress writer: Most of the tech and the specs don’t matter at all. The $5,000 Dux mattress did about as well in CU’s tests as the $540 Original Mattress Factory product. In other words, ignore the article, read Consumer Reports, and buy a mattress that feels good.

By this point the copy editor was dozing, so we are told that Hastens, a high-end seller, uses "horsehair that is sterilized for up to a year before going into the mattress." Up to a year? What's the minimum time, and how do you do it? And why raise these questions when "sterilized horsehair" would suffice? (A related sign of sleepiness all round pops up in a sidebar: "Mattress prices can be reduced by as much as 50 percent and more.")

Meanwhile, the story ignores the main reason frustrated consumers can't just go out buy a mattress like their last one. For years now, the big mattress makers have offered only one-sided mattresses -- the underside is not a sleep surface. No more flipping the mattress for extra wear; you couldn’t flip it anyway, because it’s thicker and heavier -- 12 or 15 inches deep instead of 8 or 9. Also, it requires new, deeper fitted sheets; they’re flabbily sized, for mattresses up to 15 or 20 inches, so they don’t fit any very well, but at least you’re stimulating the economy.

Now, finally, this fad is waning, and in my book, that’s the big news. After years of waiting, I recently found (and bought) a flippable mattress (though fitted sheets remain a problem).

Commenters on the NYT piece have echoed, and expanded on, my complaints. Why nothing on these heavy, non-flippable mattresses? Why no mention of Ikea’s (normal-thickness, inexpensive) mattresses? What about futons, local manufacturers, flameproofing chemicals, offgassing foam? The comments, in fact, are probably more useful than the article itself.

And best of all, in the mattress quest category, is Donald Antrim’s 2002 New Yorker piece, "I Bought a Bed."  As someone who once tried out a Dux bed at a local inn -- and ended up sleeping on the floor -- I was the bullseye of his target audience. But even if you're not, it will put your bed-shopping troubles -- and the Times's, too -- into perspective.

*Talalay is the name of the guys who invented one particular latex-foaming process.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two views of "monochrome"

Several days ago, in a weak moment, I clicked on some links to coverage of the impending wedding of Amal Alamuddin and that famous actor. That day's photos showed Alamuddin in a striped black and white sundress, but many descriptions of it used a word I found odd: They called the garment "a striped monochrome dress."*

"Monochrome" (literally "one color") can of course mean black and white (or grayscale) if you’re talking about art or photography or film. Essentially, that usage doesn’t count the background as a color, but only the medium used to create the image or design. 

But this was the first time I'd seen this "monochrome" extended to clothing. If you told me someone tended to dress in monochrome, I’d picture her in shades of one color, not in wide black and white stripes. 

It’s not that I can’t see the parallel -- if a wallpaper design can be a monochrome print, why not a fabric? In fact, I've probably seen toile de Jouy prints called monochromatic; of course, as representational scenes, they seem closely related to art. So maybe the oddity, for me, was that the contrasting stripes of Alamuddin’s dress are equally prominent, so neither color comes across as "background." 

So far, the sources calling the dress (and other black and white striped clothing) "monochrome" seem to be British, so maybe this is a shade of meaning that simply hasn’t gained much traction on these shores. But if it's not here yet, I expect it to arrive any minute, borne on the wings of Zara and H&M. 

*Quote and photo from the Daily Mail.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hey there ...

(From a column published Oct. 4, 1998, in the Boston Globe's Focus section. Not re-researched since, so caveat lector!)

In the heyday of the casual greeting

'Hey," a colleague said as we met in the hallway last week, "how come everyone says 'Hey' now instead of 'Hi'?"

He may have been overstating the case -- hi, hello, and how are ya are by no means dying out -- but clearly, hey has been extending its reach. And I wondered how the greeting hey was related to the other hey that's been spreading in written English, a kind of folksy aside to the reader adopted in the past few decades. Is this one new usage, or two ways to make hey?

Not that there's anything new about hey itself; its first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1225, centuries ahead of its near-twin hi. And hey has done yeoman work through the centuries, filling out all those extra syllables in old songs and poems (with a hey nonny nonny) and in 20th-century political chants (Hey, hey, LBJ . . .). In the 16th century came a dance called Hey-diddle-diddle (presumably accompanied by a cat playing the fiddle). Hey serves as a yell of alarm (Hey, bring my car back!) and a magician's exclamation (Hey presto!).

But our latest variants are comparatively recent. Random House's slang dictionary (1997) notes the aside-to-the-listener use of hey ("Used affectedly for emphasis within a sentence, esp. after but," it says); its samples run from 1974 ("But hey, that's the kind of guy I am") to 1994 (a Dewar's Scotch ad). HarperCollins's slang guide also notes the usage, calling it "Increasingly . . . placative or apologetic."

This hey seems like a descendant of the 20th-century hey we get in popular songs, from "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes" to "Hey hey, we're the Monkees." It's a friendly, casual form of address, implying a certain intimacy and saying, at the same time, "We're making a little joke here -- don't take us too seriously."

Hey as a solo salutation has much of the same flavor. It's more cordial, less neutral, than hi or hello --not a greeting to someone you don't know or don't like. I'd also bet -- a small amount, at least -- that it's a guy thing, which may be why my colleague hears it more than I do. (That could change fast, though -- a friend reports that his toddler daughter is using hey, not hi.) You probably wouldn't greet your grandmother with hey, and some bosses would surely consider it too casual. But you never know: After all, it was a very big boss in a very fancy office who recently uttered the hey heard 'round the world: "Oh, hey, Monica . . . come on in."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Observations on "one of the only"

James Harbeck, blogging at Sesquiotica, has been having an epic comment standoff with a reader who objects to "one of the only." Last Sunday, Harbeck tweeted that the commenter had returned and "made the same argument, more huffily, and ended by declaring that my readers could judge ... so do."

OK, let's! My vote probably won't persuade anyone who's resisted the arguments of Harbeck and Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar and Bill Walsh at Blogslot  and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. But I endorsed "one of the only" in a 2008 column, and I offer it here in case any of its citations prove useful. (I've added a footnote, but otherwise nothing has been changed or checked. As I recall, a reader objected that "un des seuls" was not a true equivalent of "one of the only," so I look forward to hearing from Francophone readers on that question.)

Almost unique: What's wrong with "one of the only"?
(Boston Globe, March 23, 2008)

AS THE DISTRICT of Columbia's gun ban squared off against the Second Amendment last week, Georgetown University constitutional scholar Randy Barnett was widely quoted on the momentousness of the event: "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting . . . an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent."

Objection! e-mailed reader Sue Bass of Belmont. "One of the only cases" doesn't make sense, she protested; it should logically be "one of the few."

Several contemporary usage writers endorse her view. Paul Brians, in "Common Errors in English Usage," notes that only is rooted in one, and thus ought to remain singular. "The correct expression is 'one of the few,' " he says.

Barbara Wallraff, in "Your Own Words," agrees. Only means "alone in kind or class; sole," her dictionary says. And you wouldn't say "one of the sole Muslim states."

Richard Lederer, in "Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay," also shuns one of the only: "This strange and illogical expression began showing up a few years ago," he writes, "and English took a step backward when it did."

But one of the only has its defenders. James Kilpatrick, in "Fine Print," points out that it is no less logical than one of the best or one of the most talented. "The best advice I can offer is to shake your head and get on with what you are writing," he concludes.

Earlier usage gurus are silent on the topic, though there's some indirect evidence of their attitude. For instance, the critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing a 1940s potboiler, observed that "one of the only attempts at a literary heightening of effect is the substitution for the simple 'said' of other, more pretentious verbs" like "shrilled" and "barked."

Usage maven Sir Ernest Gowers liked this quote enough -- despite its use of "one of the only" -- that he included it in his 1965 edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage," as a comment on "said."

How long has this been going on? A Google Books search dates one of the only to the 1770s, when a traveler reported that "business, and making money, is one of the only employments" of Rotterdam. But only was already losing its singularity. The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary gave the sense "one (or, by extension, two or more), of which there exist no more . . . of the kind," and quoted Sir Philip Sidney, in the 16th century, using "the only two."*

This expansive sense of "only" is not just an Anglo-Saxon aberration. In "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator says that a certain day was "one of the only" ("un des seuls") on which he was not unhappy. In German, according to University of Wisconsin professor Joseph Salmons, one of the only (ein der einzigen, etc.) is entirely OK.

Multilinguist Steve Dodson, at the blog Language Hat, said one of the only is common in Russian and in Spanish (un de los unicos). Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley, sent some examples in Italian (along with a caution from an Italian linguist who calls the usage illogical).

And as Bill Walsh argues at Blogslot, his editing blog, one of the only makes its own kind of sense. "Webster's New World defines only as 'alone of its or their kind,' and nobody objects to 'only two people.' . . . If  'only two people' have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?"

Once we had the only two, in other words, we were on the slippery slope to one of the only. And in everyday, unedited English, we prefer it to one of the few by a Google hit ratio of 3 to 1. Nobody has to use it, but everyone speaking English can expect to hear it. After two and a half centuries, we should be getting used to it.

*2014 footnote: Sidney's quote is under "lovingness." From Sidney's "Arcadia" (1590): "Carying thus in one person the only two bands of good will, loue lines & louingnes."