I’m trying, I really am. When I was younger I was an intolerable snoot (to use DFW‘s silly term), picking apart texts and holding up errors (real or factitious) with repellent glee. Years of linguistics courses, followed by more years of absorbing their descriptive approach, not to mention the tolerance that comes with middle age, have left me readier to roll with the punches, accepting the fact that the language changes faster than I can change with it, amused by my own irritation with usages I happen not to like. Even within the history of this blog, I’ve grown less eager to seize on linguistic misdeeds found in my endless reading; life is short and one can’t expect reporters and editors, increasingly pressed for time, to get everything right. I’ve even stopped expecting The New Yorker to live up to its former hard-earned reputation for accuracy. But some things are too much to be borne.

In this week’s issue, one of the “Talk of the Town” segments, Word Feast by Lauren Collins, is a chatty squib about the practice (imposed by a new general manager) of poetry readings before the “family meals” at the Union Square Café (which was one of my favorite restaurants back when I lived in NYC and could afford to eat at such places). My pleasure at the thought of people sharing poetry is, unfortunately, more than outweighed by my resentment at bosses who force their employees into jolly group activities. But that’s neither here nor there; the bone I wish to pick is with the very last sentence, describing the aftermath of the reading:

“Did we order forks, by the way?” someone asked, which could be considered iambic quadrameter.

This is so egregiously stupid a sentence, in two completely different but equally easily avoidable ways, that I am compelled to bring it here for public keelhauling.

In the first place, there is no such word as “quadrameter.” I can, alas, believe the twentysomething Ms. Collins was never exposed to even the most basic analysis of poetics in her doubtless expensive education, but could she not have opened a dictionary? And more to the point, did no one at the magazine (once famed, let me repeat, for its eagle-eyed editors and fanatical fact-checkers) read that sentence and say “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right”? The word is tetrameter, which comes from Greek tetra- ‘four-‘ (combining form of tettara ‘four’) and metron ‘measure’; it has been in standard English use for four hundred years. The fact that “quadrameter” is a bastard, half Latin and half Greek, like television, would be annoying if it were a real word, but it’s not—there’s not even a nonce usage recorded in the OED (which I certainly hope will ignore this citation).

Secondly, no it could not “be considered iambic quadrameter,” or even iambic tetrameter. This would be iambic tetrameter: “The forks! The forks! We must have forks!” The quoted sentence has no meter at all; if you inserted an extra syllable—“Did we order the forks, by the way?”—it would make a nice anapestic trimeter, and if you read it with a slight pause where the inserted word would be you could fit it into such a context (“How delightful a banquet we’ll have!/ Did we order forks, by the way?”), but it is neither iambic nor tetrameter, and no amount of strained emphasis will make it so. The last paragraph of that story is so wrong, so bad, that it should shame the once-proud magazine that ran it.


  1. John Emerson says

    So then: what’s the plural of octopus?

  2. I never took joy in finding errors in texts when I was young. I still recall the sense of profound disappointment I felt when I found my first typo.
    Errors of fact are another matter entirely. I froth like a madman when I read factual claims that are not true.

  3. Why is it that, when people talk about meter, they almost without fail call everything iambic? I noticed this a lot in some of my English courses. And what’s with the “could be considered”? Either it’s iambic tetrameter or it isn’t.

  4. Sarah Jensen says

    And what exactly is the “which” that could be considered iambic quadrameter? In addition to the egregiously stupid things you’ve pointed out, I’d add the fact that the last clause doesn’t seem to refer to anything. “A question that could be considered iambic quadrameter,” perhaps? Or maybe the forks….

  5. The quoted sentence has no meter at all.
    Sure it does. It’s trochaic tetrameter with an iambic substitution in the last foot. Iambic substitutions in trochaic meters aren’t as common as trochaic substitutions in iambic meters, though, so you could also say that it’s iambic tetrameter with trochaic substitutions in the first three feet. With no metrical context it’s impossible to be sure.

  6. Sure it does. It’s trochaic tetrameter with an iambic substitution in the last foot.
    Give me an example from an actual poem and we’ll talk. And in any case, “being capable of being shoehorned into a metrical context” is not at all the same as “having a meter.”

  7. Bob Helling says

    I’m so glad you aren’t an intolerable snoot anymore! I’ve always had a low threshold for snootiness and so I’ve mostly avoided the New Yorker.
    As for the text, I think I can find a way to almost justify calling it iambic pentameter. If you assume missing unstressed syllables before “Did” and “by” then it works. I’ve seen examples of missing unstressed syllables in iambic pentameter but I don’t remember ever seeing two.

  8. Nah, nice try, John, but I don’t think you can’t have inversion in the last foot. (I tried to scan it that way too.) Metrical demands are generally sterner at the end of a line — inversion is something you can get away with in the first foot, maybe the second, but after that — & certainly in the last foot — it’s just plain wrong.
    Not that you couldn’t write a poem with such a line in it. It just wouldn’t scan :->

  9. Now, you’re all just playing footsie. Stop it.

  10. If you front “by the way”, it becomes a headless, broken-backed line of pentameter, worthy of Lydgate, for what “worthy of Lydgate”‘s worth…

  11. rootlesscosmo says

    “How delightful a banquet we’ll have!/ Did we order forks, by the way?”
    If not, we can use
    The roast beef au jus
    For messy, but comical, play!
    It’s true, though, editing standards at The New Yorker aren’t what they were in Katherine White’s time. David Remnick’s review of Benny Morris’ book 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” contains the following:
    “The epitaph to “Righteous Victims” is the famous passage from Auden’s “September 1, 1939” that speaks to the degrading costs of war and persecution…”
    Surely he’s referring to an epigraph, not the words on the book’s grave marker?

  12. ya know, I like that Latin + Greek. Quinquemeter has a certain charm to it.

  13. Patently it would be ‘quintameter’.
    I think what is most annoying about the quoted sentence is that even if it were correct, it would still be stupid. So what if a random sentence could be considered pentameter, trimeter or such like? It’s an attempt at literary knowledge that falls flat on its damn face.

  14. That patent was the very reason I avoided the correct formulation. But as long as it is a bastard word, the bastardizeder the better.

  15. Since we’re on the topic of the New Yorker, could you weigh in on the (to my mind, incredibly pretentious) continuing use of diaeresis on words like “cooperate” in that magazine? I feel like it’s 1900 every time I see that construction.

  16. Hello, my name is Jens and I used to be a prescriptivist. I have not picked a nit for three years now.
    I can see HP doesn’t have much experience with the way cephalopi spawn.
    I heartily recommend The Digital Cuttlefish to anyone with a taste for verse and squid (and other things scientific). I hope David Marjanović , OM will back me up on that.

  17. So an octopus has eight feet, whereas ‘octopus’ has only one “finger.” Kind of ironic.

  18. Since we’re on the topic of the New Yorker, could you weigh in on the (to my mind, incredibly pretentious) continuing use of diaeresis on words like “cooperate” in that magazine? I feel like it’s 1900 every time I see that construction.
    Actually, I kind of like that, being an archaic sort myself (who sometimes wishes he were in 1900). Better they should stay back then if being in the 21st century means stuff like this.

  19. Noetica says

    Q has remarked on the dactylic weight of this “octopus”.
    How can I leave that without passing comment in verse?
    Dactyls are dandy. Iambics are not worth an obolus;
    Trochees are tricky, but equally light in the purse.
    (That’s an opinion from Nash and James Joyce, but more terse).

  20. Noetica says

    ). → .)

  21. Jack Butler says

    Thanks for the posting. Quadrameter, indeed. That’s just willfully stupid. Not only has the person not looked in a dictionary, but the person has never, apparently, read Herrick or Donne or Marvell. Surely you would have heard the word in a lit class at some point?
    Was glad to see another poster observe what I did, that the line actually is a sort of pentameter, with a catalectic first foot (a common enough practice, though not as common in pentameter), and a bobbed fourth foot, the pause of the comma substituting for the unaccented syllable. It is a clunky and awkward pentameter, though, monotonously jiggling around on the same pitch.

  22. Jack Butler says

    Feel compelled to observe, regarding the comments of a few of the other posters: There is a great deal of difference between rhythm and meter, and the terms for sorts of meter in English–iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactylic–are only approximate terms for sorts of rhythms. Scansion is an x-ray of the rhythm, not the rhythm itself. It is a rare line that has only one sort of foot in it, so it is perfectly sensible to speak of something that is “mostly iambic.” Rhythm is a gift of the ear, not of absolutes. Most rhythm in most accentual-syllablic poetry tends to the iambic, probably because that is a simple and basic rhythm, and more closely approximates speech than some of the others. For a look at how a second-rate poet forces meter onto rhythm, look at Poe’s famous piece, The Raven. It is enforced trochaics, and you can hear the forcing. Anapests and dactyls lend themselves more easily to comic effect than iambic, especially dactyls, which are rare otherwise.
    I published quite a few poems in The New Yorker, incidentally, back when they knew what tetrameter was.

  23. jamessal says

    I’m fast becoming embarrassed by how much of this I’m not following. Can any of you please recommend a good introductory book on poetry?

  24. rootlesscosmo says

    jamessal: I like Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.

  25. jamessal says

    Thanks so much — I’m headed straight to Amazon!

  26. Richard Hershberger says

    As a point of information, “quadrameter” gets over 2700 ghits. I’m not inferring anything from this: I’m just saying…

  27. Richard Hershberger says

    “So then: what’s the plural of octopus?”
    A check of Google Books, limiting the search to before 1850, suggests that “octopus” had the three plural forms you would expect, with “octopuses” being perhaps slightly more common that “octopi”, and with “octopodes” as distant third (the distance somewhat obscured by a signficant number of books in French coming up in the results).
    “Octopus” entered English via New Latin, which took it from Greek. I have seen the claim that in New Latin it retained the Greek inflections, but I have never seen actual citations backing this up. Regardless of this, with all three forms having been used in English for at least two centuries, I think there is a solid argument to be made that all three are correct.

  28. John Emerson says

    That’s actually been discussed here at length. I was just trying to get Steve started.
    Language Log

  29. “octopodes” is a lovely word. For some reason I’m visualizing Churchy La Femme referring to a group of “octopoodles”, but that probably never happened.
    It would be cool if I could compose “iambic” metered verse just by making sure to have the same even number of syllables on each line.
    “Can’t talk now, I’ve gotta go to the store”: iambic pentameter.
    “I spoke to her yesterday, and she’s going to”: iambic hexameter.

  30. jamessal says

    Oh, I remember my first that-shouldn’t-be-in-The-New-Yorker moment. Reading a profile of Peter Viereck about three years ago — actually the first New Yorker profile I ever read — I came across this:

    In the mid-sixties, Viereck stopped writing about politics and devoted himself to poetry and Russian history. (He may be the only American ever awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in both history and poetry.)

    “May be”? Why so cryptic? Either he is or he isn’t. No?
    Or is that really something that’s hard to check? See, I’m young, and it’s The New Yorker, so I’m doubting myself.

  31. Richard Hershberger says

    “That’s actually been discussed here at length.”
    I would have been surprised were that not the case. For this particular recurring discussion, I play the role of the voice crying in the wilderness: “‘Octopi’ is not wrong!” Even people with otherwise unblemished descriptivist credentials start channeling Bishop Lowth on this one.

  32. And the Ancient Greeks even used it!

  33. Throbert McGee says

    My first-year Latin book in high school included a brief but enthralling story about a puella who saved the life of her older frater after the lad was attacked by an eight-legged cephalopod whilst swimming in mare. (Of course, as we learned from Jacques Cousteau, these highly intelligent, soft-bodied molluscs are by nature quite shy and unaggressive — presumably the one that attacked the boy in my Latin book was rabid, or something.)
    In any case, the creature was not called “octopus” in the Latin text, but rather polypus — a 2nd-declension masculine noun with the plural polypi, and obviously derived from the Greek for “many legs.”

  34. John Emerson says

    Erasmus, “Adages” I i 70 (P.41, Adages of Erasmus, Toronto) translates the Greek polypodos into Latin as Polypi, and into French, I think, as poulpe or polyp(I’m reading and English translation). For Erasmus the significance of the octopus is its chameleonlike ability to blend into its background.

  35. marie-lucie says

    Le poulpe is one of the French words for ‘octopus’ but the more common word is la pieuvre. Both words derive from Latin polypus. Le polype can refer to either a small, stationary marine animal looking like a kind of flower (with a tube stem attached to the bottom of the sea and a ring of tentacles at the upper end) or a type of growth in some organs of the body.

  36. John Emerson says

    Someone at Pharyngula just used “platypodes” as the plural of “platypus”. We can have a whole new discussion.

  37. rootlesscosmo says

    Octopus in Italian–at least in Italian cooking–is il polpo.

  38. Blame the editor (An Editor Writes). The hack probably wrote
    “Uh, *did* we order forks? Hey? By the way…”
    and observed, quite correctly, that this phrasing (however clumsy conversationally) could be scanned as iambic pentameter. The extraneous ‘uh’ and ‘hey’ will then have been removed in copy-edit, whereupon some bright spark noticed that there were only eight syllables left, so, hey, it couldn’t be *pentameter* any more, it would have to be… er…
    I’m just sorry the writer didn’t avoid all this fuss by writing “The forks! The forks! We must have forks!”. It’s an improvement in so many ways.

  39. Terry Collmann says

    “So then: what’s the plural of octopus?”
    Luckily, the octopus is a solitary creature, so this question rarely comes up.
    Except on those occasions when a solitary octopus meets a solitary mongoose, of course …
    BTW, does anything rhyme with mongoose?

  40. marie-lucie says

    How about “humongous”?

  41. Ogden Nash, The Kangaroo:
    Those with cookbooks as well as boomerangs
    Prefer him in tasty kangaroo meringues.

  42. Nash? Snap!
    Humungous? Work on fungus, mundungus, huge compass; if you’re really adventurous, have a go at cunnilingus. (Context is everything; and remember to breathe.) For those of more timorous spleen, there’s always the triple assonance with s u s u r r u s.

  43. Now that’s intriguing. The filter accepted cunnilingus immediately. (Nay, with alacrity.) But it doesn’t like s u s u r r u s. Clearly we all stand in need of revision lessons.

  44. I thought “Susurrus? How the hell did that get on the blacklist?” and when I took a look, I discovered that (a domain from which I was getting spammed at one point) was there, and of course punctuation is ignored. So I removed it from the list, and we’ll see if this posts as written.

  45. Success! You can now susurrate to your heart’s content.
    But I just realized that “” has one fewer r than susurrus, so maybe the period serves as a wildcard? Anyway, it worked.

  46. (He may be the only American ever awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in both history and poetry.)
    “May be”? Why so cryptic? Either he is or he isn’t. No?
    Or is that really something that’s hard to check? See, I’m young, and it’s The New Yorker, so I’m doubting myself.

    The New Yorker writes not for a day or a year, but for eternity. While the Guggenheim Foundation endures, it will be impossible to say whether Viereck is indeed the only American so honoured, or merely the first – another could receive both fellowships next year, for example.

  47. Throbert McGee says

    Does someone have a recent edition of Charles Jenney’s First Year Latin handy? I’d be quite interested to know if that story about the menacing polypus is still included as a reading exercise; I remember it being towards the end of the book. (I took high-school Latin in the late ’80s, and our Jenney texts were only a few years old.)

  48. The plural of mongoose is of course polygoose.

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