Scrabble, Persnicketiness, and the 5-Second Rule

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October 18, 2016 by libroshombre

I can always start an argument with my wife by playing Scrabble with her. She’s a strict constructionist in English spelling and usage, while I tend more towards the freewheeling. For instance, she’ll balk at allowing “defuddle” and “gruntle,” despite saying “befuddle” and “disgruntle” are fine. She’s not alone. Local wit-about-town Bill Stringer’s another, urging me to castigate in print those not knowing the proper use of “further” and “farther.” However, the American Heritage Dictionary notes that “ ‘Farther’ and ‘further’ have been used interchangeably by many writers since the Middle English period. According to a rule of relatively recent origin, however, ‘farther’ should be reserved for physical distance and ‘further’ for advancement along a nonphysical dimension … In many cases, however, the distinction is not easy to draw.”

Such assurance won’t deter the grammar police, who are markedly similar to the fashion police. A recent meme pointed out that both groups are “judgmental and smug,” “angry about something deeply arbitrary,” have “strong opinions backed by style guides,” and are “fun to cheer on until one of them disagrees with you.”

Everyone has hot buttons, but an article titled “Get Over It” in The Economist said “some people take peeves to another level entirely. They choose words or phrases that have a widely understood, long-standing second meaning, and treat the second, perhaps metaphorical or new meaning, with a shocked seriousness that should be reserved for the apocalypse.” The article cites some extremists’ idea “that ‘over’ may not be used with numbers: one thing may physically only sit over another thing, in this view. But to write, as the Economist has recently, of ‘over two-thirds’ … is to take a pure preposition and debase it with metaphorical usage.”

Such attitudes are known as “persnicketyness” where I come from. “Persnickety” was first seen in print in 1905, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and comes from an older term, “pernickety.” The OED and Online Etymology Dictionary suggest that “pernickety” is a Scottish expression, perhaps evolving in the early 1800s from a Scottish pronunciation of “particular.”

Persnicketyness came to mind recently after contemplating the “5-second rule,” “grass-fed milk,” and “plum-sized strawberries” the commonality being our friend the hyphen. I’m a devotee of the liberal use of hyphens, since the 700-word limit on these columns sometimes requires inventive use of hyphenation, turning two words into one, to reduce my word-count.

According to a recent article, a strawberry breeder at Cornell University named Courtney Weber has developed a strawberry called the “Archer” that’s “comparable in size to a plum or small peach,” but it also “has an intense aroma, so when you bite into it you get a strong strawberry smell, and it’s very sweet, so you get a strong strawberry flavor that really makes an impact.” It’s also “cold-hardy enough to withstand winters” in the upper-Lower Forty-eight and is disease and rot resistant.

The five-second rule’s limitations were disclosed in the Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal report of a Rutgers University study. Rutgers researchers found that much depends on the type of food, and the surface, involved. Gummy bears on carpet’s not so bad, but watermelon on a tile or stainless surface is asking for trouble. However, “the five-second rule is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens,” they concluded. “Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.”

A recent foray to the Co-op for groceries led to an encounter with “Grassmilk.” At home I looked the term up on, the best reference source for dictionaries this side of the public library. “Grassmilk” wasn’t listed in any of the 1,000-plus dictionaries in OneLook’s database, but the library reference department nailed it: “grass-fed milk” is the common industry name for milk from cows fed natural fodder instead of grains.

Food snobs rank next to grammar Nazis in persnicketyness. A Consumer Reports survey on eating trends found that thirty-six percent of those following food trends, like gluten-free or detoxing juice fasts, “get irritated when servers don’t know the ingredients.” Twenty percent are irked when restaurants won’t accommodate their eating preferences, but “eighteen percent of Americans are highly annoyed when others urge them to try eating trends.” Sometimes it seems that the further civilization goes, the farther it regresses.

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