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Not Wrong, but Not as Clear as Possible

There is a good reason the New York Times is considered one of the world’s top newspapers. With 122 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other paper, and with the largest  combined print and online circulation (and with Donald Trump often calling it “failing New York Times”), it’s the paper to which all journalists should aspire. It’s historic (witness its landmark Supreme Court libel ruling New York Times v. Sullivan and its Pentagon Papers ruling New York Times Co. v. United States) and it’s credible.

I didn’t originally understand the following paragraph, written by Maureen Dowd and appearing in the Feb. 3, 2018 edition. It’s in a story about Uma Thurman talking about Harvey Weinstein.

“Pulp Fiction” made Weinstein rich and respected, and Thurman says he introduced her to President Barack Obama at a fund-raiser as the reason he had his house.

Huh? He had his house because he introduced her to a president? Wow. I didn’t know Obama was in the habit of giving out houses because of introductions.

OK. I know what the intent here is: “Pulp Fiction,” was so successful that it made Weinstein enough money to buy his house. But when I first read the paragraph, I took it to mean that the reason he got his house was because he introduced Thurman to Obama. Then I thought that Weinstein was crediting Thurman with Weinstein’s house, which is only indirectly true (the real credit should go to everybody who helped make the movie the success it was, starting with Quentin Tarantino).

The reality is one has to be really careful to make sure what’s written is exactly what is meant, and it’s not easy to do when you’re the writer.

Thanks to Richard C. for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!


February 6, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I was reading Time magazine (again! How did I ever come up with post ideas without it?) and I saw the acronym SOTU. As this was an article about the President, I knew in context that it stood for State of the Union, as in the address Obama gave last week.

That got me thinking. When did these acronyms come into being? I only remember POTUS (President of the United States) going back to George W. Bush, and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) about the time John Roberts became Chief Justice.

Leave it to the late, great William Safire. He famously wrote “On Language” in the New York Times Magazine from 1979 to September 2009, the month he died. I found online an “On Language” column from Oct. 12, 1997. In it, Safire explains that POTUS goes back to his time in the Richard Nixon White House, although former Motion Picture Academy President Jack Valenti remembers it from his time in the Lyndon Johnson White House.

Safire wrote that he next saw POTUS in a 1977 novel Full Disclosure. No wonder — he wrote the novel. FLOTUS, or First Lady of the United States, goes back to Mary Todd Lincoln, Safire said.

Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Safire he saw POTUS  as a Secret Service designation to indicate where Carter was at any given moment. Safire said it first appeared in print in 1983 — in the New York Times, to no one’s surprise — in an editorial that commented on  the escalation of acronyms:

”Is no Washington name exempt from shorthand? The Chief Magistrate responsible for executing the laws is sometimes called the Potus (President of the United States). The nine men who interpret them are often the Scotus. The people who enact them are still, for better or worse, Congress.”

Not COTUS, at least not yet.

Until next time! Use the right words!

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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