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The Price of a Self-Righteous Holiday

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reflects on Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson’s unusual editing actions.

A pair of purportedly well-intentioned young men who have an avowed interest in fixing our language have recently proved to me that the road to hell is not only paved with good intentions (or at least self-righteous ones), but also that this road has the capacity to be rather expensive.

According to a story last week that ran in the Associated Press, and several other gloating publications, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson ran afoul of the law after they had completed a several-week long quest, during which they crossed a wide part of the country, fixing many typographical and grammatical errors that they found on various signs. They appear to have mostly done so with the knowledge of those who owned the signs. But supposing you are a young man, brimming with vigor and the dissatisfaction that comes from overmuch reading of the Chicago Manual of Style, and you come across a sign that is positively reeking of poor grammar, with no visible owner in sight – what then do you do? Well, you take out your magic marker and fix it.

And then you brag about it on your blog.

Unfortunately for Deck and Herson, the sign in question happened to be hand-painted by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the architect who had designed that which the sign described – a 1930s watchtower in the Grand Canyon National Park. They have been ordered to pay a fine of $3,035, and are banned from fixing public signage or entering national parks for a year.

According to the Associated Press, “Authorities said a diary written by Deck reported that while visiting the watchtower, he and Herson “discovered a hand-rendered sign inside that, I regret to report, contained a few errors.”” Deck then proceeded to ‘fix’ these errors, which amounted to a misplaced pair of apostrophes and an added comma, but neglected to fix the far more egregious spelling of the word ‘emense’. Said Deck in his diary “I think I shall be haunted by that perversity, emense, in my train-whistle-blighted dreams tonight.”

Personally, I believe that Deck will be haunted by the absence of the several thousands of dollars more than he will be by the alternative spelling of this word, but maybe I’m wrong. In fact, I sincerely hope that I am wrong – I would love it if this self-righteous prig were haunted in his dreams, tonight and for many nights to come. Because I would like to point out to him that the sign he saw is hardly the only incidence of immense being written ‘emense’. It comes up in the OED – Caxton used it in Eneydos in 1490. And a quick perusal of Google Books shows that it was use in the Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and also in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (by Joanna Baillie in 1821), and also in 476 other sources listed. If Mr. Deck has the courage of his convictions, and if his diary was telling the truth, it would be appropriate if he has ‘train-whistle-blighted dreams’ once for every one of those 478 emenses found in Google Books.

When I lived in Queens, there was a nail salon just down the street from me, with the wonderfully improbable title on its awning ‘Hannah And Her Sister’s Nail’. Every day I walked by this store on my way to the train. And every day as I did so I imagined that somewhere in the back of the store Hannah sat arguing with her sister’s nail, or perhaps asking the nail if it wanted a cup of tea. The misspelling gave a personality to the store that an ordinary nail salon could never have, and in being so in need of fixing it managed to make me smile every day.

Recent Comments

  1. GA

    Sorry if I’m being dense — what is the misspelling in “Hannah and Her Sister’s Nail”? All I see I see is an ambiguous coordination ([[Hannah and her sister’s] [nail]] vs [[Hannah] and [her sister’s nail]]) that makes for a rather cutesy name — and from the context would seem to be the source of your amusement.

  2. mollymooly

    Lewis and/or Clark are also fond of the rather charming spelling “tremendious”.

  3. Elizabeth Foxwell

    As I worked with the unassuming and witty Jeff Deck at a scholarly publisher, I can say that he is as far from a prig as you are from even-handed journalism. If you had listened to the NPR piece and seen the ABC News piece on Deck’s journey, both of which occurred long before the AP piece, you would have seen and heard that Deck asked permission from those who owned such signs to make his corrections, and you would have gained a better sense of Deck’s character and background. The reaction in the editing community, weary of constant “it’s” for “its” and similar mistakes, has been a hearty “you go, Jeff.” I would suggest performing a little research on your subjects before you write about them so you can avoid jumping to erroneous conclusions.

  4. Maya

    @ GA: i too could not understand where is the misspelling in Hannah… :)
    But if Jeff did ask permission from the owners to make corrections, I think that is good.

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