The Gulf of New Mexico.

I always perk up when I see that the New Yorker has a piece by John McPhee, and this one (archived) is the latest in his “Tabula Rasa” series of reminiscences. It is (needless to say) all worth reading; I’ll highlight a couple of especially Hattic bits. From the Proofreading section:

Reading proofs one time, I came upon a sentence in which 1492, a presumed error, had been changed to 1942. Crack a joke and watch it disappear. The 1492 was just hyperbole, a way of saying “ages ago.” Forget it. In the same set of proofs, fifty million shad were migrating up the Columbia River. Fifty million was an error ten times fact. Where did it come from? The New Yorker? No. In the magazine, five million shad went up the river. The mistake was unaccountable, but also caught. In my book contracts with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a clause added long ago states that if other publishing houses are licensed to publish my paperbacks they will require that their professional proofreaders meet with me and compare what we have found. […]

Meanwhile, the text [of Coming Into the Country, or, as the New Yorker would have it, “Coming Into the Country”] had to be proofread. Bantam hired a professional and required that she go through her finished read with me. We met at Bantam’s offices, in Manhattan, and she was not just cold; she was furious. She said she did not miss typos and did not make mistakes, and being summoned to go over proofs with me was a personal and professional insult. I said I was sorry she felt that way, but that I had many times experienced the need to compare proofs, and had it in my contracts. Could we just sit down and make the best of it? In some sort of cubicle there, we sat down and made the best of it. On the second or third galley was a typo corrected by her that I had completely missed. Next came a typo that she had not found. It surprised her. We found others that I had missed, then two more that she had missed. She said she was embarrassed, and quietly began to apologize. I told her not to, told her she was obviously better at it than I was, and her discoveries were rescuing my book. Tension was turning into compatibility, and I think I can say that both of us enjoyed the rest of that morning together.

I feel bad for both of them and am glad they relieved the tension, but I disapprove of the high-and-mighty attitude displayed by the professional (“I don’t make mistakes”). I understand where it comes from — proofreaders have to put up with a lot of crap and don’t get the respect they deserve, and they have to learn to fight their corner — but it’s still a bad idea; everybody makes mistakes, and you’re just going to wind up (as this woman did) looking foolish. At any rate, the section continues:

Typographical errors are more elusive than cougars. One of my sons-in-law, the poet Mark Svenvold, wrote a nonfiction book called “Big Weather,” about tornadoes and people who chase them, from meteorologists to simple gawkers. Mark went to Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, and rode around with both categories. When “Big Weather” appeared in hardcover, a sentence in the opening paragraph mentioned “the Gulf of New Mexico.” Where did that mutinous “New” come from, a typo right up there with “pretty” for “petty”? Mark said it was unaccountable. For a starter, I suggested that he look in his computer, if the original manuscript was still there. It was, and in that first paragraph was the Gulf of New Mexico. Remarkable, yes, but think where that paragraph had been. It had been read by a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, an editorial assistant, a copy editor, a professional proofreader, at least one publicity editor—and not one of these people had noticed the goddam Gulf of New Mexico.


This is from the Final Exam section:

There was a last and deceptive segment of the final exam. The deceptive aspect was that it seemed simple and wasn’t. There are eleven words in the English language that end in “umble.” What are they?

I confess I didn’t try listing them myself, I just read on for the answer, but I don’t think I would have come up with the “elusive eleventh,” though of course I recognized it when it popped its head up. And in the Litwill section, about the “literary will” he drew up to make sure publishers wouldn’t screw with his prose after he was no longer around to fight with them, he included this:

In general, please follow to the letter—and to the last absent or present punctuation mark—the Farrar, Straus & Giroux editions of my books. If you do, you will not dismantle various idiosyncrasies of style and punctuation that I chose to employ or create. If a comma is not there, please do not insert it. If commas are not there in adjectival strings, it was my intention that commas not be there. If you come upon an exxecutive, preserve him. He worked for Exxon. If, in “In Suspect Terrain,” you come upon the words “new and far between,” the words I intended were “new and far between.” If William Penn’s daughter wants a “rod and real,” stet “real.” If someone is “called to an office and chewed,” do not add “out.” In that instance, I preferred to leave it out.

That last out-less “chewed” caused me some tsuris back in 2009. (Incidentally, in researching this post, I discovered that my first discussion of McPhee was pretty churlish about his writing: “McPhee is one of those writers whose style I admire in short passages but who put me to sleep over long stretches.” I seem to have acquired better taste, or more patience, in the intervening two decades.)


  1. Michael Hendry says

    An officious proofreader story:

    I once wrote a paper on a passage of classical literature in which I made up a new word: ‘exterpolation’, thinking maybe I could get it into a later edition of the O.E.D. Any kind of willful change in copying a manuscript is called ‘interpolation’ but I was writing about a passage in which I thought a Mediaeval copyist had willfully omitted a negative because he misunderstood the intended sense. It seemed odd to me to call it ‘interpolation’ when someone is taking something out of a text, so I wrote “or should we call this sort of willful deletion ‘exterpolation'”, intending a pun on ‘extirpation’. It was of course altered to ‘extrapolation’ in the proofs, and even when I carefully explained what I meant it was still published as ‘extrapolation’, making me look like an idiot. (I probably should have sent it to a journal in an English-speaking country rather than Italy, but even that might not have saved my little joke.)

    I know of three serious uncorrected typographical errors in Library of America editions of works that had been published at least half a dozen times each, without anyone apparently noticing the errors. I need to send the second and third off to Notes & Queries, as I did the first. Can I mention them here, or would that cause N&Q to reject them after a web-wide plagiarism check? I’ve heard most journals do that now.

  2. I’d be glad to hear them, but of course you must be the judge of whether that would lessen their value to N&Q.

  3. and in that first paragraph was the Gulf of New Mexico

    Funny how the eye rushes past first paragraphs and only slows down to admire the view later on. I know it happens but I have a hard time avoiding it.

  4. An academic piece on literacy and spelling would be an embarrassing place for a typo, eh? It’s quite a subtle one with both semantic and spelled-alike interference.

    It’s been sitting there over a week now. Appears just before “What it looks like” if you don’t want to read the whole piece.

  5. I once wrote a summary of a baseball game in haiku (for good reason, I promise) and used the phrase “Boomstick thunders,” referring to a big blow from the bat of designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who swung a mean “Boomstick.” When a different website quoted me, they corrected to “broomstick.”

  6. @AntC: What do you mean? You don’t want them to drown, do you?

  7. I was expecting the eleventh to be a trick, and guessed umble. The twist is, there’s no twist.

  8. ktschwarz says

    McPhee and the New Yorker copyeditors are too high-class to check grubby references like Wiktionary, which lists 14 words in Category:Rhymes:English/ʌmbəl. (It says 15, but one of them is jumbled, included by mistake.) One of them is atumble; this is just a compound of tumble, but McPhee didn’t say that compounds were excluded; it’s only in a few dictionaries (besides Wiktionary, only the Century and OED), but it’s in use. Another is umbel, a botanical term for a type of flower; McPhee asked the question orally, it’s not clear whether he specified that the words had to be *spelled* with “umble”. The last one he missed is scrumble, defined as “A small piece of freeform crochet or knitting that can be joined to make a larger piece of freeform work” (also in use as a variant of the painting scumble that’s McPhee’s eleventh, and, according to Google and the OED, various other nonce-seeming uses; “-umble” has strong phonesthetic power, and nonce-words with this ending are common). The knitting sense is relatively new, not yet in any other dictionary, but it’s definitely in use since at least 2002; perhaps he was no longer teaching by then.

    You can find several more in the OED: even limited to non-obsolete words, and leaving aside compounds of the more common words, they’ve got chumble, dumble, drumble, strumble, thrumble, thumble. The first three are rare and British regional, granted, and the last three may be no more than nonce words, but McPhee said “in the English language” without qualification. And yes, these would have a bit harder to find before the OED was online, but not *that* hard — just make a list of English initial consonants and consonant clusters, go through and check them off: blumble? brumble? chumble? clumble? Half an hour, tops.

    Of course this is all just trivia, and I was glad see on reading the whole piece that the “Final Exam” was for entertainment not grades, but it leaves me feeling like McPhee didn’t have the curiosity to wonder how complete that list was, he just enjoyed the “gotcha” of one uncommon word among ten common ones, describing with relish how his students were stumped as “success turned into failure”.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    There is an item of ophthalmic interest among all this mere spelling.
    (I would say “valve” rather than “stent”, though. Stents are for ENT surgeons and people of that sort. Cardiologists and similar deplorables. I must say that I am surprised and saddened by this inaccuracy.)

  10. ktschwarz says

    David E, don’t google “eye stent” unless you’re prepared to be disappointed in your fellow specialists. Maybe an eye stent is something different from an eye valve? At least, someone has written a paper titled “A Comparison of the XEN Gel Stent and Ahmed Valve Devices in Preventing Postoperative Hypotony in Patients with Primary Open Angle Glaucoma”.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Is there no end to human depravity?

  12. Is it one of those?

  13. David E, don’t google “eye stent”

    Specifically “The iStent Trabecular Micro-Bypass Stent, or simply iStent, is the smallest implantable medical device, designed to lower intraocular pressure by facilitating trabecular outflow of aqueous fluid.”

    My Opthalmic surgeon was gung-ho for installing a lens with Micro-Stents for cataract surgery. Sheesh! they cost an arm and a leg, and regarded as an unjustifiable expense by my insurance.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Is it one of those?

    Yes, exactly that.

    I’m sorry to say that some of my colleagues are so unprincipled that they will implant one in your eye for a sufficient consideration.

  15. ktschwarz says


    Webster’s Second International defines it as a verb, “to render less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color applied with a nearly dry brush,” and as a noun, “a softened effect produced by scumbling.”

    Rolling my eyes at the New-Yorker-insider status-signaling here. He has to let us know that *he* would never lower himself to use Merriam-Webster’s *Third* International, or any subsequent Collegiate, which define the verb scumble as “to make (color or a painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color applied with a nearly dry brush”. Yes, what a collapse of standards that would be!

    MW and the OED (unrevised from 1911) don’t know of the verb before 1798 (and the noun later); Hathitrust takes it back to 1735. But surely English artists must have been discussing Titian before then — what verb did they use?

  16. I have to say, O Hat, that my opinion of McPhee’s writing is in line with your 2009 assessment, and the pompous, ponderous sample offered here does not alter that opinion.

    He writes in the manner of a Victorian schoolteacher determined to bash knowledge into the heads of his slow-witted pupils with whatever brute force is required.

  17. Michael Hendry says

    I only know ‘scumble’ from a favorite bit of Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution, Chapter VI (‘Art Night’), section 3:

    “The paintings were paintings of nothing at all. It did not seem possible to you that so many things could have happened to a piece of canvas in vain. You looked at a painting and thought, ‘It’s an imitation Arshile Gorky; it’s casein and aluminum paint on canvaboard, has been scratched all over with a razor blade, and then was glazed – or scumbled, perhaps – with several transparent oil washes.’ And when you had said this there was no more for you to say. If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art. By the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day; and most of the students never learned that there was anything else to do.”

    I’m glad to learn at last exactly what ‘scumble’ means. ‘Something rather like glazing but not quite the same’ had always sufficed before.

  18. He writes in the manner of a Victorian schoolteacher determined to bash knowledge into the heads of his slow-witted pupils with whatever brute force is required.

    There is something in what you say, but I guess I’ve come to allow for it the way I allow for Dostoevsky’s melodrama.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not entirely sure whether this “Dostoevsky Drinking Game” is a rip-off of one previously devised by my now-wife and posted back then at various not-currently-reconstructible places on the internet, or an independent shot at the same low-hanging fruit. But in either case the question should arise of whether a McPhee-based drinking game could provide equal enjoyment.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Unfair to single out Dostoevsky: Tolstoy would be just as suitable (though with somewhat different drinking cues.)

  21. Random internet search brought me to this quip by a (former) proof-reader: “Are there any books without typos at all? Yes, there are, by accident. All others have typos, even if you don’t see them.” (Russian text, just in case: Бывают ли книги вообще без опечаток? Да, бывают – случайно. Во всех остальных опечатки есть, даже если вы их не видите. )

  22. Tolstoevky is ancient history, what we need is an LH thread drinking game.

  23. The anecdote about McPhee and the proofreader surprises me. I saw once the price list for a professional copyediting outfit. You could have your copy proofread one, two, or three times, at increasing rates, of course, an with increasing probable accuracy. I gather that the pros know that even the best proofreaders are fallible (Hat only had three typos ever that I remember.) How could McPhee’s proofreader think otherwise?

  24. The 11th word I came up with was “unhumble”. While writing this comment, “unjumble” also came to mind, although I see fewer unabridged dictionaries coming up in a search for that one. I definitely think both are more often used in modern English than “scumble”.

  25. ktschwarz says

    There is a Tolstoy drinking game at the same blog with the Dostoevsky one, because of course there is.

    Google ngrams has scumble in a comfortable lead over unhumble and unjumble throughout the last 200 years; part of that lead is other uses like fictional character surnames, but it does seem to be mostly the art senses. COCA got 22 hits for scumble, again mostly art but not all, to 0 for both unhumble and unjumble. That surprises me too — I didn’t know scumble before today, since I don’t know much about art — but extrapolating from your own personal experience is very unreliable, that’s why there are corpora.

  26. Take a drink when:
    Finish the drink when:

    That guy may have a Russian-sounding last name, but he can’t be a real Russian (or Northern German.)

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Finish the drink when

    Yes, I was struck by that. I concluded that it must be a Russian idiom for “have another drink in quick succession.”

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Those are conventional instructions or stage directions for “American-style” drinking games, with a Russian author being the topic/theme, not an assumed participant. (A largeish glass not typically drained in a single draught is presumed.)

  29. How could McPhee’s proofreader think otherwise?

    I’m sure she didn’t actually think she was infallible; as I said, she’s just fighting her corner, wanting other people to respect her. Compare an Old West gunslinger saying “If I reach for my gun, you’re dead, pal.”

  30. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I like ‘Gulf of New Mexico’ – it’s a good example of the kind of thing that’s difficult to catch because all the words make sense.

    (I’ve caught mistakes before now in exam papers on subjects I know nothing about which have been reviewed by the setter and two other academics, and I think it’s partly because I have less expectation about what I’m going to see!)

  31. Here is my quick stab at a Languge Hat thread drinking game.

    Take a drink when any of the following happens:

    • FYLOSC is mentioned.
    • There is a discussion of ancient DNA.
    • Someone takes a swipe at Noam Chomsky.
    • A discussion uses two different names for a language.
    • Two people disagree about whether or not two speech varieties are separate languages.
    • Someone uses or mentions learning a new expletive.
    • Somebody wonders what has become of a former contributor.
    • Someone compares biological and linguistic evolution.
    • There is a discussion of anarchism.
    • Anyone attacks the conservative politicians of their home (or former home) country.
    • Kusaal is mentioned in a previously unrelated discussion.
    • Stu says something Grumbly.

    Take a second drink if someone expresses confusion about what the discussion is about.

    Take a drink if text is quoted, without translation, in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Hebrew, or Arabic.
    Take two drinks if text is quoted, without translation, in another language.
    Take a third drink if it is not clear what language the quote is in.

    Take a drink if any of the following writers are mentioned:

    • Horace
    • Dostoevsky
    • Tolstoy
    • Tolkien
    • Ezra Pound
    • Cordwainer Smith
    • David Foster Wallace

    Take a second drink if the author is alluded to or quoted, without mentioning the name of the author or the work.

    Take a drink if anyone mentions a speculative language family.
    Take two drinks if anyone mentions a fictional language family.
    Finish your glass if anyone brings up a bogus language family that they sincerely believe is real.

    Take a drink if someone posts a (non-spam) comment in a thread in which the last activity was more than two years in the past.
    Take two drinks if the last activity was more than five years ago.
    Finish your glass if it was more than ten years ago.

  32. “American-style” drinking games
    You Yankees are all a bunch of sissies. Real men drink shots, bottoms up. Real real men drink vodka from water glasses, bottoms up. Hic!
    (Seriously now, I wouldn’t have written my comment if the description of the game didn’t come from a blog with a Russian name and an author with a Russian-sounding last name.)

  33. David Marjanović says

    If William Penn’s daughter wants a “rod and real,” stet “real.”

    Stet? Latin for “may there stand”?

    I probably should have sent it to a journal in an English-speaking country rather than Italy

    Was that before all journal copyeditors were in India?

  34. Stet? Latin for “may there stand”?

    Yes, in the editorial process that means “leave as is, do not change.”

  35. I was called as a witness in a court case.
    Later i read the trial transcript.
    Not encouraging.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal is mentioned in a previously unrelated discussion

    But this is logically impossible.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Brett understands the genre. (Not saying it’s a great genre, but it’s a real genre, with stock conventions and whatnot.)

  38. “I definitely think” I employed too certain a phrasing in my previous comment. I would be surprised, it seems to me, etc.

    (This was all around not my most successful weekend at phrasing things well on the Internet.)

  39. I employed too certain a phrasing …

    I undercanstumble (a pet phrase of my grandmother).

  40. @AntC I let the author know about the typo. It seemed the kindest thing to do, and it was easy enough for her to fix (it being an online article rather than print).

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