On my days off, I’m just another reader of this newspaper, which allows me to react the same way you do sometimes. With apologies to my colleagues, who all do an admirable job day in and day out, the following word issues caught my eye over the past month or so.
On my days off, I’m just another newspaper reader, which allows me to react the same way you do sometimes. With apologies to my colleagues, who all do an admirable job day in and day out, the following word issues caught my eye over the past month or so.
A recap of the woes that bedeviled the Chicago Bears this year, after a relatively injury-free previous season, referred to the situation with the phrase “karma is biting back.”
“Karma” is a Sanskrit word that means “a deed, act, fate.” It’s an important term in Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions. Webster’s distilled definition is “the totality of a person’s actions in any one of the successive states of that person’s existence, thought of as determining the fate of the next stage.”
Yes, that’s a short version. And I am not steeped enough in those religions to expand on it. The point is that there’s good karma and there’s bad karma, but I think in Western culture we’re accustomed to thinking of it as negative — and that’s probably bad karma.
Many of us were introduced to the word through the 1970 John Lennon song “Instant Karma,” in which he sang that “Instant karma’s gonna get you ... gonna knock you on the head ... gonna knock you off your feet,” among other things.
In other words, it would be a sort of cosmological wake-up call.
While digging into this, I also came across an interesting bumper sticker from that era: “My karma ran over your dogma.”
Loosely speaking, adds Webster’s, “karma” is a synonym for “fate; destiny” — which, again, can be positive, relatively speaking.
Stress, on the other hand, is almost always a bad thing. A recent headline on an item advising people to beware of the dangers of stress during the holidays and to take steps to alleviate it said: “Health isn’t a word. It’s a lifestyle.”
This is an illustration of one of the challenges of writing headlines: not enough space. You can’t always say all you want to say, so you hope people read into it what you had to leave out.
My first reaction, being a word guy, was that “health” certainly is a word. In this case, though, the idea is that it isn’t just a word — but there wasn’t room to add “just.”
But I try not to get all stressed out about such things.
And then there were examples of two that I’ve been battling for years.
We had nearly a full page of photos of youngsters reacting to Santa Claus. There were smiling children, crying children, noncommittal children, even two shots of dogs with Saint Nick.
And the headline was “Claus & affect.”
It was the perfect phrase for it — except, as in the phrase it was a play on, “cause and effect,” I thought the better word choice would have been “effect,” not “affect.”
“Affect” is rare as a noun, except as a psychological term, meaning “in general, emotion or emotional response.” Maybe that was what we were going for, but I still think “effect,” meaning “reaction,” would have been cleaner and clearer.
The other losing battle was in this headline: “Undecided Iowans weighing who to back.”
I know, I know, it just never sounds right, but “who” should be “whom.” Why?
Because the pronoun is the recipient of the backing, not the one giving it. If you rearrange and expand the thought, it becomes clearer (I hope).
Iowans were trying to decide whether to back him or him or him or her or. ... I forget how many there were, but you get the idea. “Him” or “her,” not “he” or “she” — pronouns in the objective case. That means “whom” is needed.
There’s no denying, however, that this usage is fading fast, and maybe it’s just as well. However, I will always vote for “whom.”
Read Barry Wood’s Wood on Words blog at www.rrstar.com/blogs/barrywood.