January 15, 2007

A Guardian editor's bitterest embarrassment

Back in November, I noted a Guardian column by reader's editor Ian Mayes, in which Mayes unquestioningly accepted a reader's absurd assertion that the "correct" superlative form of bitter is most bitter and never bitterest. Mayes even bolstered the reader's point with an equally erroneous claim of his own, writing that the Oxford English Dictionary has no recorded use of bitterest. I wasn't the only one to call foul: in today's column, Mayes abashedly responds to the stream of reader responses pointing out that bitterest does indeed appear in the online OED (41 times in a full-text search of citations), and that the word has a long history of literary usage. Appropriately, he concludes with a line from John Stainer's The Crucifixion (libretto by W.J. Sparrow Simpson): "Back to mine agony I must go, lonely to pray in bitterest pain."

[Note added by Geoff Pullum: And nowhere does Mayes mention Language Log. Clearly it is not just one but two crucial tools for the modern language scholar that he does not know how to use.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 15, 2007 10:22 AM