Word Court


KARL SUTTERFIELD, of Eastlake, Colorado, writes, "Is anyone else as annoyed as I am by being called a civilian by other civilians who happen to work for some branch of government? I recently heard an interview on National Public Radio in which Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, was said to be a civilian now that he's no longer in office. Give me a break! He was a civilian the whole time he was in office. If he hadn't been, San Francisco would have been under martial law."

What is it about language that gets people so riled? You are right that in strict usage a transition to civilian life is something that people leaving the military or the police—not political office—undergo. Two of seven major contemporary American dictionaries, however, give "outsider" or "anyone regarded by members of a profession, interest group, society, etc., as not belonging" as an additional meaning for civilian. One of these, the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, labels the use "informal," and the other, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, looks exceptionally kindly on informal English.

How formal and proper in their speech newscasters should be is a subject of lively concern among Word Court's readers. They often make clear that they think newscasters should choose their words with more care. Never mind that during the NPR interview Willie Brown, who had been affectionately known as "Da Mayor" when he was in office, mentioned that someone had just given him a cap emblazoned with "Da Civilian." Private citizen would have been a better term for his interviewer to use—but it would have looked awfully silly on the cap.

CHARLES HOGG, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes, "Many believe that they should 'reduce their weight' and 'lower their blood pressure.' What about anxiety? Should they reduce or lower it? Increasingly I see lower where reduce seems more appropriate—for example, in 'lower the tax rate' and 'lower the risk of diabetes.' Do some contexts require one word rather than the other, or are we free to choose by ear?"

Yes, and yes. You'd reduce a sauce but lower the lights—or the bar. In the contexts you asked about, however, the words aren't so strictly differentiated. "Reduce anxiety" appears in print much more often than "lower anxiety" does, and "lower the tax rate" and "reduce the risk" appear much more often than "reduce the tax rate" and "lower the risk" do. But none of these forms is truly rare or indisputably wrong. Thesauri and dictionaries of synonyms tend to give the two verbs together, usually along with decrease. The choice is up to you.

IAN MORRIS, of Chicago, writes, "I'm curious about the correct usage of carrot and stick. I was taught that this phrase referred to the practice of donkey-cart drivers who held a carrot at the end of a stick in front of a donkey's eyes to keep him moving forward. More often these days, though, it seems that it's used for a reward-versus-punishment approach to a problem, as in 'If the donkey doesn't move when we tempt him with the carrot, we hit him with the stick.' Which is right?"

A number of people have asked me to set the record straight about carrot and stick, and all of them have believed, as you do, that the two words together suggest temptation only, and that the popular reward-versus-punishment idea is wrong. Nearly all the available evidence, however, suggests that it's right, leaving me baffled about why the "carrot at the end of a stick" idea has so many partisans—indeed, any partisans at all.

No one knows where and when the phrase carrot and stick originated. But historical citations tend to be of the reward-versus-punishment type. For example, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris, Winston Churchill said at a press conference in 1943, "We shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick." Contemporary references almost invariably carry this meaning as well. Here is a recent citation from USA Today: "Steve Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations said, 'The tool we need more than anything else [to fight terrorism] is greater international cooperation in finding who the bad guys are. That requires carrots, not sticks.'"

The history of our language is full of surprises and non sequiturs. For instance, one long-ago meaning of the word stick, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was "a measure of quantity in small eels (app. twenty-five or twenty-six)." Language changes, of course. Even if—contrary to the available evidence—the first person to say or write carrot together with stick did have in mind the root vegetable dangling from a pole, that usage is well on its way to joining the small eels.

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.

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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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