February 14, 2006

The allusive butterfly of love

Happy Valentine's Day to all Language Log readers. I had a good time today, during a small part of the morning of this day of romance, correcting the proofs for a short book review to be published in The Mathematical Intelligencer. There were two hilarious aspects of it. The less staggering of the two concerned what happened to the LaTeX source file I submitted. They printed it out on paper and got a copy-editor to mark it up in pencil ("umlaut" written beside my umlauts; "Greek delta" written beside my Greek delta; and so on); and then the typesetter had started over, composing the pages without using LaTeX! So the final look of the page was amateurish, much worse than what I submitted. I could have done the typesetting for them myself and it would have been better. Apparently the editors cannot get the current printer to switch to using LaTeX for production.

But the more staggering thing I found was that a word I had used correctly was altered to a different word with a different meaning because the copy editor thought I couldn't spell and she knew better. (It was a she. I found out her name. She is on my ON NOTICE board now. She will never be my valentine.) You see, I had made a reference to to "increasingly allusive journal articles" in generative linguistics, meaning that many papers are contenting themselves with indirect hints and allusions rather than explicit definitions. And the copy-editor changed "allusive" to "elusive" (the nerve!), and compounded the felony by writing a marginal note to me:

There is no English word "allusive" that means hard to pin down.

Indeed there is not; but I didn't mean hard to pin down, I meant tending to allude rather than state, so that's what I said. And "elusive" means hard to catch, as said of, for example, a butterfly (I guess they are easy enough to pin down, but you have to catch them and kill them first).

Well, I had a good laugh at the combined editorial arrogance and lexicographical ignorance of the editor. "Allusive" is of course in all dictionaries designed for grownups, as Googling it will rapidly reveal to you; I haven't yet tracked down a dictionary or thesaurus so puny that "allusive" is not in it. I was definitely tempted to scrawl on the proofs in red, "Do you realize who I am? Do you realize that I work for the Language Log corporation, which could crush you like a bug?"; but I didn't. I decided, as Superman so often had the self-control to do, not to reveal my superpowers merely out of pique. I just wrote "STET", the Latin word (meaning "let it stand") that authors use to tell a bossy copy-editor "CHANGE IT BACK TO WHAT I SAID IN THE FIRST PLACE".

Footnote: There are in fact three words in English pronounced almost the same, or close enough for them to be confused: allusive (compare the verb allude and the noun allusion), elusive (compare the verb elude), and illusive (compare the noun illusion). The meanings are:

  • Allusive: containing or characterized by indirect references.
  • Elusive: (1) Tending to elude capture, perception, comprehension, or memory; (2) Difficult to define or describe.
  • Illusive: Illusory, having the property of being an illusion.

This is a pretty disastrous temptation to confusion (worse than having the almost identical-sounding verbs affect and effect with different meanings, for example). So be careful. For you word-lovers, the logophilic butterfly hunters among you, it's a lexicographical jungle out there.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 14, 2006 12:08 PM