November 24, 2005

Oops, we lost North America

Happy Thanksgiving to all Language Log readers. I just received a message from the Treasurer of the International Phonetic Association (who is in Scotland, where they know nothing of this Thanksgiving holiday), who told me something that made me thankful:

Dear Colleague

Thank you for letting us know if you had received JIPA 35, i, 2005 or not.

CUP have confirmed that there was a glitch in their distribution system in North America, as a result of which very few American members received their copy of the journal.

CUP have told us that they will be despatching copies as a matter of priority on Monday of next week.

So that's good; the missing journal issue will soon be on its way. But I have to confess that (looking a gift horse in the mouth) I felt strangely dissatisfied with the wording. It's that bit about it being a "glitch". Surely a glitch is an inherently trivial and sporadic departure from normal operation of some process?

Here's what Webster's says:

1 a : a usually minor malfunction <a glitch in a spacecraft's fuel cell>; also : 2BUG 2 b : a minor problem that causes a temporary setback : SNAG 2 : a false or spurious electronic signal

The sole, defining, task of a distributor, the absolute sine qua non, is to distribute. Cambridge University Press can't say that failure to distribute a whole issue of a journal to North America (the largest and richest market in the world) is a glitch. It's a complete collapse of the only thing that could entitle them to be called distributors at all.

Consider: suppose the hairdresser accidentally nicks one of your eyebrows with the clippers. That might be called a glitch. But now suppose they attach a plastic sheet round your neck and sit you in a corner for an hour but nobody ever comes to see you and then they tell you that you have to go, that isn't a "glitch". It's a dereliction. Let's look that in the eye. Call a spade a spade.

I think I know what Lady Bracknell of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" would have said about the situation: for CUP to lose one issue of a journal may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose virtually the whole North American subscribership looks like carelessness.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 24, 2005 11:43 AM