Word Court


J. P. McCullough, of Darien Center, New York, writes, "In the sense of 'unclothed,' Webster's 10th Collegiate shows nuder as an adjective: nude, nuder, nudest. How can one person be nuder than another? Either you are so or you are not. Will you please clarify?"

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't specify in its entries for adjectives whether they may be "inflected" (made comparative and superlative using -er and -est), but surely there's a lesson in the fact that nowhere in the 60 million words of text of the OED Online does nuder or nudest appear. The OED does, after all, yield several instances apiece of the adjectives wronger and wrongest, even if some other reference books state or imply that these forms are, well, wrong.

Then again, a search of a recent year's worth of the publications catalogued in a major online database turned up three nuders, three nudests (not counting mentions of a Dr. Nuder, a mistaken reference to a "nudest resort," and so on), and five more nudes or most nudes. Here's an example, from OC Weekly, an Orange County, California, newspaper: "People are nuder in other places than they are here. I was walking in a park in Berlin once when I saw a man in his 60s sunning himself sublimely on the grass. Was he nude? Yes, he was!" And here's another, from Harper's Bazaar, in which the actress Sarah Jessica Parker is talking about a photo session for that magazine: "It was the most nude I have ever felt in my life." Evidently not everyone agrees that a person either is nude or is not.

That some people don't perceive nudity as an all-or-nothing proposition is further borne out by such frequently heard phrases as totally nude and completely nude—though those of us who are particular about our language tend to consider these phrases redundant and wrong. Nonetheless, stark-naked and buck-naked are perfectly acceptable folksy expressions, and they may be thought of as collateral evidence here.

My belief is that the failure to perceive nude as meaning something complete and logically uninflectable is one aspect of a widespread prejudice against small words: people don't always trust them to do their jobs. Besides nuder and totally nude, they say things like ATM machine, armed gunman, free gift, visual image, mix together, future plans, general public, and very unique, when ATM, gunman, gift, image, mix, plans, public, and unique would have worked just as hard for them—and done the job right.

Pam Shoemaker, of New York, New York, writes: "Should not the word culinary be pronounced 'kyoo-li-nary'—with a long u? This is what my dictionary says and how I have always pronounced it, but for quite a while now I have been hearing everybody on the radio and TV cooking shows pronouncing it 'kull-i-nary.' At first I thought it was just a few mistaken people, but now it seems ubiquitous."

The unabridged Webster's Third, published in 1961, preferred "kullinary," and WIII was firm in its intention to describe contemporary language, rather than prescribe how words ought to be used and pronounced—so the short u isn't something foisted on us by today's trendy foodies. More-prescriptive dictionaries, such as the American Heritage, still tend to prefer "kyoolinary," but there's no consensus. How nice. For once, everybody is right.

Bernard Weissman, of Los Angeles, California, writes: "Will you do battle with a usage error already deeply rooted in our dictionaries? I refer to the expression pull oneself up by one's bootstraps, generally defined as 'to help oneself without the aid of others; use one's resources.' This is flat wrong. Visualize the action. The pull exerted upward by one's hands is precisely equal to the pull exerted downward by one's feet. It is a Buster Keaton skit—a comical demonstration not of self-reliance but of stupidity. The phrase belongs not with examples of virtuous effort but with examples of futility, like trying to catch the wind in a net or trying to get blood out of a turnip."

Now that you've mentioned it, I'll never again be able to hear this expression in the same way. And yet most people, including such writers as James Joyce and Doris Lessing, use it to mean what the dictionary says it does. Probably the expression would mean what you wish it did if its origin were in physics terminology, rather than in literature. But did you know that it is the basis for the computer term boot? As early computer engineers saw it, when the instructions that were loaded first into the machine told it what instructions to load next, even a computer was able to pull itself up by its "bootstraps."

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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