In the “Talk of the Town” section of last week’s New Yorker, there’s a story about an incident in which rich person Steve Wynn decided to sell a Picasso to rich person Steven Cohen for $139 million, but in the course of showing off his prize possession to a bunch of other rich people he accidentally put his elbow through the painting and decided to keep it after all. This being a language blog, I don’t have to try to express exactly how I feel about these rich people and their art deals, but I do want to comment on one phrase in the story, which I have put in bold: “Mary Boies ordered a six-litre bottle of Bordeaux, and when it was empty she had everyone sign the label, to commemorate the calamitous afternoon.” Now, there is a well-established system of nomenclature for wine bottles, and the correct term for a six-liter* bottle of Bordeaux is imperial (image [link replaced 2022, since the earlier one had expired]). I find it baffling that when the rare occasion arises for talking about such a bottle you would scorn the chance to use a wonderful word like imperial (not quite as imposing as methuselah, the word for a six-liter bottle of Burgundy or champagne, but splendid enough). I’m guessing that the rich person ordering the bottle did not use the mot juste (“Bring us your biggest bottle of Petrus!” is more likely), but it saddens me that the magazine did not choose lexicographic precision over the mathematical variety.

*Why on earth is the New Yorker using the British spelling of liter? Nothing against British spellings, but they do not belong in New York publications.


  1. Siganus Sutor says

    Hopefully they didn’t get high on some three-bottle marie-jeanne*…
    * marijuana

  2. Siganus Sutor says

    Out of subject, but maybe this Washington Post article could be of some interest to a few:
    Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback
    SAT Helps Return Grammar to Class
    By Daniel de Vise
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, October 23, 2006; Page A01

  3. Ah yes, the elbow-in-the-Picasso article.
    Am I the only one here who believes that article to be one of the most execrable pieces of journalism in personal experience?

  4. Not sure what aspect you have in mind, or what exactly you mean by “execrable.” It makes my stomach turn for various reasons, but having the biggest art sale in history fall through because the owner stuck his elbow through the painting is definitely newsworthy. Or do you just mean that the “Talk of the Town” take on it was inappropriately chummy? If so, I thoroughly agree.

  5. Could the paper have been using the French spelling of litre?

  6. The bottle on the picture is clearly a champagne one, though. An imperial of Bordeaux would look differently.

  7. Ah well, it wasn’t a great painting anyway, which is a relief as it was Picasso’s best period. It makes sense that Wynn would have chosen it, with his “eye disease”, and taste in Matisse and Renoir.

  8. More precisely, it would look like this:

  9. Hmmm, I am English and I have never spelt litre like that before. I am usually very vocal about what I feel is the laziness of Americans when spelling certain words and it seems that I have all along been guilty of the same crime.
    Language is a great thing, although I notice that on your website you don’t seem to have anything on Mongolian. Mongolian has vowel harmony which is rather a good thing. It is also a nice balance to the Chinese that I am currently studying as it is a lot easier to know how to say unknown words, and indeed write them.

  10. I studied Mongolian for awhile. I even have a box of books and tapes if this is a project of yours and your interested.

  11. “you’re”

  12. I’m up to m in my language of the week feature but Ive been slack. I promise it’ll be Mongolian if I get around to doing it tomorrow.

  13. Mongolian … is a lot easier to know how to say unknown words, and indeed write them.
    You’re joking, right ? Because of the notorious ambiguities in the Mongolian script it is frequently impossible to know how to read a word if you don’t already know what it means. Spelling is just as bad; for example final a or e may be written with an ordinary backward tail or an offset forward tail, and you have no way of telling which form of the letter to use in a given word unless you already know how the word’s spelt.

  14. Andrew, perhaps he was talking about the Cyrillic script for Mongolian?

  15. I always wanted to have a Nebuchadnezzar of Champagne at my wedding. The shipping costs from Drappier was enough to dissuade me, let alone the cost of the bottle.

  16. Sorry… “cost”

  17. The red soul patch worn by Scott Spiezio of the St. Louis Cardinals is supposedly called an Imperial (according to Spiezio). Others beg to differ. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=cardinals+spiezio+soul+patch+imperial&btnG=Search
    The New Yorker obviously thinks it was born on the other side of the Atlantique but has its coördinates all wrong.

  18. I second Greg’s little jab: use of the diaeresis is one of the most annoying of The New Yorker’s many precious little tics.
    Though perhaps actually owning a Patek Philippe would change my mind.

  19. I disagree about the diaeresis. In fact, when I noticed the use of the convention in the New Yorker while briefly living in the USA earlier this year, I liked it so much that I wrote a little article about it [http://www.flakery.org/search/show/251]. But then, perhaps I’m just strange… 😉

  20. Pretension, squared?

  21. Vremya ot vremeni chitayu vashi zametki i nahozhu mnogo dlia sebia interesnogo, spasibo! No v etoy vinnoy nomenklature ya nemnogo zaputalas’ – Vy pishete, chto 6-litrovaya butyl’ Bordeaux nazyvaetsia Imperial, a statya, na kotoruyu vyhodish’ po ssylke, imenuet eyo Jeroboam. Gde zhe pravda? A vot tut mozhno nayti interesnuyu informatsiyu o vodochnoy nomenklature:

  22. I’m British too, and I would never spell it liter. Indeed Merriam-Webster et al seem to believe that “litre” is the British variant: liter – Definitions from Dictionary.com

  23. Да, вы немножко запутались, но по этому поводу трудно не запутаться: Jeroboam равно шести бутылок Bordeaux, т.е. 4.5 литров, а Imperial равно восьми бутылок, т.е. 6 литров. I had to double-check myself when writing the post, to make sure!

  24. Da, eto slozhnaya sistema – chtoby razbirat’sya nado byt’ nemnogo frantsuzom! Spasibo. A kak Vam udaetsya pisat’ zdes’ kirillitsey? Kogda ya poprobovala, to eto okazalos’ nechitaemo, uvy!

  25. Ага, получается.О, сколько нам открытий чудных готовит просвещенья дух…

  26. Hey–watch your language–this is a family site 😉

  27. If you spell it ‘liter’ over in the crazy USA, then presumably you spell ‘metre’ ‘meter’.
    If so, I reckon you should be forced to call it the “meteric” system.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Naaaaah. German: Meter — das metrische System.

  29. I presume they used the real spelling because you Yanks haven’t got your backwards heads around modern measurements yet. As for metre vs. meter, the way I was taught was metre=length, meter=tool that measures it: a micrometre (stress on ‘mi-‘) is one millionth of a metre, a micrometer (stress on -cro-) is a tool that measures length at that kind of absurdly small scall.
    Blame any typos on Beijing’s weather and the rule that says heating doesn’t have to be turned on till November 15, the result being my hands are frozen.

  30. Fitzroy Cyclonic says

    So, Joshua A Smith, if that is your REAL name (peers hard at face before him)you are ‘usually very vocal about what I feel is the laziness of Americans when spelling certain words’, are you?
    Well, I suggest that you stop feeling that and feel something else pretty sharpish. Americans may go about spelling words how they have chosen to; if I were you I would be more concerned about the laziness of English when it comes to spelling (and misusing or killing)certain words.
    Fitzroy Cyclonic – English, as it happens, and a pompous buffoon with it.

  31. “Why is the New Yorker using the British spelling of liter?” is a dangerous question, since the next step is “Well, *do* they use litre consistently?” and then inevitably, “Why do they use both litre and liter at about a 2:1 ratio?” — and if you try to answer that you’ll fall into a black hole, looking for some subtle nuance that doesn’t exist. Better to back off and decide that there is no answer, other than “they just don’t pay attention”.

  32. Steven Cohen is now the owner of the New York Mets. What a world.

  33. I think I’ve posted this somewhere once upon a time: Around 1980, when the US government was going through one of its half-hearted spasms in the direction of metrication, there was a PSA called “The Metre, the Litre and You.” I supposed at the time that the film had been lifted from Canada by some bureaucrat unaware of the difference.

  34. I vaguely remember a time when US metrificationists were using “metre” and saying that spelling made units distinct from instruments (not a particularly persuasive argument) and matched the rest of the English-speaking world and the French. It does allow the two meanings of “micrometer” to be distinguished in spelling rather than just in pronunciation, but who cares.

  35. People who actually need to use micrometer measurements would never spell out the unit name anyway. It’s just “μm” or even “μ” (although I never use the single letter myself, as it really could lead to confusion). There is also a tendency, although it’s not as universal, to refer to the unit as a “micron.” That’s always the terminology I use, for example. It avoids confusion between the two meanings of micrometer much more pronouncedly than a difference in stress. However, what I would be curious to know is whether there is correlation between use of micron in speech and “μ” in writing.

    This is related to today’s xkcd, which looks like a cute gag but is actually subtly wrong. Astronomers wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the precise definition of a light year, since they never use that unit except in popularizations. Distances larger than the solar system are actually measured in parsecs.

  36. David Marjanović says

    or even “μ”

    That’s surprisingly common in German – and because the name of the letter isn’t mu as in English, but my /myː/, it even more surprisingly often leads to Mikro- being pronounced as if spelled Mykro-, with /ʏ/.

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