The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Bill Walsh: Author, Copy Editor, Language Snob Who Finds Plenty Of Peeves On The Menu
Posted Jun 4, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jun 4, 2013 at 07:37 AM
Getting through the day in this OMG, RFLMAO world is a second-by-second bar fight when you get paid to wrestle the English language to the ground.
Such is life for Bill Walsh.
A copy editor at the Washington Post, Walsh just released his third book on the peculiarities of word usage, “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob without being a Jerk,” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99). His first two books — “The Elephants of Style” and “Lapsing into a Comma” — are full of his grammar, punctuation, style and spelling peeves. His web site The Slot has been a copy editor’s oasis for longer than I can remember.
So many incorrect theirs. So little time for there’s.
The new book is a guide on how to love language in its true and proper form without strangling it to death or, for that matter, strangling those you love who recklessly mangle words into hot-mess sentences very much like this very one. He spells out a stickler’s rationale for telling whether your word peeve is one that makes sense or one you should go ahead and abandon.
“Sticklers worry about things they shouldn’t worry about, but how different is that from being a fashion snob or a food snob?” Walsh says.
“A lot of the things we worry about are worth worrying about, even if they are just tiny things,” he says. “It’s funny how much of the book ended up being about food and drink.”
Words matter when it comes to food. Make a dish with cippolinis and you’ll get one reaction. Fill it with chapulines and your guest might call the health department.
For cocktail snobs like him, the term that really grates is “gin martini.” Word wizards know that as a retronym. Think of it as using two words when one does the trick. Like “alcoholic cocktail.” Or “white milk.”
“It’s just kind of sad that a martini no longer means only gin,” he says.
A daiquiri is no longer a “Hemingway daiquiri.” People who once drank at fern bars and listened to Pablo Cruise with paper umbrellas in their glass see the word “daiquiri” and assume they’re getting a frozen strawberry drink topped with whipped cream. If you want a true daiquiri like the ones Papa drank with the six-toed cats in Key West, with rum, lime juice and sugar, you have to say “Hemingway daiquiri.”
Milk is no longer that white stuff. It might be of the chocolate or almond or soy or goat or sheep variety. Think words don’t matter? Only a few decades ago, dairies truncated the last seven letters from “homogenized milk” to separate it from 2 percent or skim.
“It was a more innocent time then,” Walsh says.
Want two eggs for breakfast? Well, what kind? These days, you better specify that it’s a hen egg, because people eat quail eggs and duck eggs and every kind of egg that comes from a waddler.
Hen egg. As if rooster eggs were a thing.
He wonders sometimes why clarifying terms would even be needed.
If someone says, “Here’s a burger!” You’re not going to say, “Do you mean a turkey burger?” You assume it’s a beef burger.
“And yet,” he says, “I see on menus ‘beef cheeseburger.’”
Not long ago at a steakhouse, he read a menu that allowed customers the choice between a sweet potato or a cowboy potato.
“What’s a cowboy potato?” I asked.
“A potato,” Walsh says.
When is a Ziploc a zip-lock or a zip-top bag? Walsh knows. It’s the kind of thing that catches his attention.
“Baggies is even lowercase in the dictionary,” he says, his outrage barely contained in a monotone. “I bristle a little at that. No, no! It’s a brand name!”
His exclamation points were inferred.
Cutesy shortcut words annoy him as well, especially when they become standard, accepted versions for the original. Wearing a tux in a limo on first reference sets him off.
“I really hate when veggies is the standard way you express the word vegetables,” he says, the measured monotone rising to a C-sharp, the resonant tone of planet Earth. “It’s OK once in a while, but occasionally, throw in the real word!”
The latest offender, the real burr in his word saddle, is “mac and cheese.” Everything is “mac and cheese” this, “mac and cheese” that. He never hears the entire, mellifluous, rhythmic Italian conjunction. These days, everyone wants to use the bare-knuckled abbreviation, as if they have an ATM code to finish or a flight to catch.
“You never hear the full word,” he says, his voice full of manufactured angst. “I just want to scream, ARONI! ARONI! ARONI!”
Think of that. A very grown, very dapper, highly specific word man in a tweed coat running after a cheesy-lipped middle-schooler, correcting every morsel of truncated pop-speak.
“COME BACK HERE, WORD RUFFIAN! ARONI! ARONI! ARONI!”
It’s enough to make you LOL. While eating a beef cheeseburger. With a martini.
Make it with gin, please.
An interesting addendum:
The week I interviewed Bill, his life exploded all over the Internet after he posted a helmet cam video he shot during his bicycling commute to the Post.
As Bill wrote on his blog:
“I was in the bike lane that bisects Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway to work, when, as happens more often than it should, a cabbie (it’s usually a cabbie) decided to make a U-turn across that bike lane. Which is dangerous and illegal. And so I shouted “Illegal!” (I’ve shouted worse.) And he looked at me and thought about it and ... made the U-turn anyway. And, instantly, I heard a siren. Yes, right behind that cabbie was a police car, and he was being pulled over. It was the FBI Police, as it happens (the District of Columbia has a lot of police forces you’ve never heard of), but that’ll do.
“I thought the instant karma was mildly amusing, and so I edited my video and put it on YouTube.
” I had no idea. Quickly there were licensing and partnership offers. (I hope I did a good job accepting and declining.) There was coverage. I made Reddit, then Washington City Paper and DCist and Greater Greater Washington and Romenesko and the Orlando Sentinel. Even Kenneth in the 212. And a TV show! Before long there were a million views. A million.
“This is just wacky. If a million people know my book exists, I’ll be pretty darn lucky.”