national haiku day

So apparently April is national poetry month, and the 17th is national haiku day. Rather than trying to compose something new, I’ll share these Austro-libertarian haikus from a few years ago:

the vagaries of eggcorns

Yesterday’s word of the day at was vaguery:


I’ve never seen this word before. My spell checkers all reject it. When I look it up in my dictionary app, it isn’t there; not only that, but the app tries to correct it to the word with which I’m much more familiar: vagary, for which it is apparently an "eggcorn."

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the power of the comma

Lets eat[,] Grandma.Reuters editor, Tony Tharakan, sneaks a spurious comma into his post on how a comma allowed a Malaysian airline to sneak into the protectionist Indian market (h/t Grammar Girl).

He invites readers to identify his spurious punctuation mark.

Very clever.

I think I’ll follow his lead and invite you to find the (not one but) two (yes, 2!) false commas in this very post.

(Hint: they’re more than unnecessary; they change the meaning of what I’ve written to imply something that is false.)

(Crossposted at

What is a style sheet?

DigitalChicagoIn the world of digital publishing, style sheet is an ambiguous term.

It originated in the print-publishing industry. A style guide (or stylebook) is a book that lists the important rules of capitalization, punctuation, some basic grammar, some spelling issues, and the syntax of citations in footnotes and endnotes. At Invisible Order, our standard style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style. Other style guides you may have used or at least heard of include the Associated Press (AP) stylebook, the guide for the Modern Language Association (MLA) — even the venerable Strunk & White probably counts.

But there are various reasons a particular publication or company may want to diverge from the rules given in a style guide, while still wanting to remain consistent. If so, they maintain a document for their "house style." To avoid confusion, in IO we call this our house style guide, but the common term from the print world is "style sheet." As the name implies, it was not supposed to be longer than a single sheet of paper. It doesn’t have to be a list of differences from the main style guide; it can also be a list of the most important rules from the main style guide. You can see ours here.

Why would it cause confusion to use the term the way the print world does? Because at Invisible Order, we do both editorial and technological work. And on the technological side, "style sheet" means CSS (i.e., "cascading style sheets"): instructions to a web browser or ebook reader for the visual presentation of text and images.

I’ve worked on teams where someone would say "style sheet," and everyone thought they knew what the term meant, but the coders thought it referred to typeface, character size, and layout, while the writers and copyeditors thought it referred to commas, semicolons, and compound adjectives.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid the ambiguity. On the editorial side, we use the term "style guide" to cover both the Chicago Manual and our house style. We use "CSS" to be unambiguous on the tech side. And when someone talks about a style sheet, I smile and nod and look for an opportunity to make sure I know which kind they’re talking about.

(Crossposted at

the language of learning

Social Studies[Cross-posted to]

Mike Reid of has written about the Orwellian manipulation of language in “The Voice of Tyranny.”

As libertarians in the language business, we have both an ideological and very practical attachment to this subject.

In the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, Michael Knox Beran has written a fascinating and scary article about the history and ideology behind the school subject of “social studies” — a made-up topic, developed a century ago by progressives to replace the supposedly individualistic study of history with a collectivist focus on community membership, community ownership, and (originally, at least) economic central planning. Beran explains where this mission did and did not take hold, why, and how. I recommend the entire article, but of particular relevance to Invisible Order and other devotees of liberty and language is this passage on the writing style employed in social-studies text books:

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CharlottesWebBenjamin wanted to watch Charlotte’s Web (the animated version from the early 1970s) for Friday-night dinner and a movie. Many of the book’s greatest lines are preserved in the script. Here’s one of my favorites:

“I didn’t know you could lay eggs,” said Wilbur in amazement.

“Oh, sure,” said the spider. “I’m versatile.”

“What does ‘versatile’ mean — full of eggs?” asked Wilbur.

See also “the song of summer’s ending.”

censorship schmensorship

The worst part of censorship is —Is censorship illiberal?

As with so many simply worded questions, the answer depends on how we define our terms. I don’t say that as a dodge. I don’t consider this issue "merely semantic." I just notice with some annoyance that many people use the same term to mean different things where the difference in meaning is critically important.

For libertarians, censorship is wrong when it is a coercive authority suppressing communication (assuming that communication itself is non-coercive and non-fraudulent).

For many of us, that’s the primary meaning of the term: a government power used to suppress peaceful communication.

But for many others, who seem to oppose censorship "in all its forms," censorship includes plenty of peaceful private decisions that individuals and groups make about their own private property.

When I was in high school, my girlfriend was one of the editors of the school’s literary magazine. She and the other editors rejected a submission that was explicitly sexual and full of "dirty" words. The school newspaper sent a reporter to talk to her about censorship in the literary magazine. She tried to explain that lower- and middle-school students read the magazine, that it was an official representation of the school, that they didn’t take a black marker and cross out the offensive parts. They just didn’t feel the piece was appropriate for their magazine.

When she told me about the interview, I said, "You might have also mentioned that it’s not censorship. It’s called an editorial decision. The magazine never promised to accept all submissions."

krazykatbeforeandafterShe replied, "Darn! Why didn’t I say that?"

Well, she didn’t say it, because censorship is one of those words used largely for its emotional effect.

Semantic precision is often at odds with people’s agendas, so they usurp the connotation of one (often precise) meaning of a term and apply it to a much vaguer (arguably inaccurate) use of the term.

If you have your own blog and you moderate comments, you’ve probably experienced this: someone posts a comment that is irrelevant or incoherent or a string of vulgarities posing as an argument; you reject it; their next comment accuses you of censorship. I’ve even been accused of censorship for the mere fact that my blog is moderated. The fact that the commenter doesn’t see his words appear instantly under my post establishes me as a hypocrite: a libertarian who censors his opposition.

If you’re not constantly on guard for that sort of semantic manipulation, it’s pretty easy to let it slip by. But once you’ve accepted the manipulative terminology, you’ve lost half the battle.

Am I saying it’s dishonest to use emotionally loaded language? There are plenty of people who do take that position, claiming that only neutral language and examples are intellectually honest. But I make the opposite point in my blog post of many years ago "Will the real fascists please stand up?" and a year later in my LRC article "In Defense of Referencing Hitler." I don’t think the "neutrality" of language is a worthy goal. I think precision is the honest goal. Neutrality can just be another form of manipulation, as my comrade and Invisible Order colleague Mike Reid illustrates in his great article "The Voice of Tyranny: A Libertarian Look at the Passive Voice."

My rant today is brought to you by the Wikipedia article "Life, the Universe and Everything," and its very silly section on "Censorship." (I should warn you that there are some off-color words in the following passage. I left them intact. I wouldn’t want to be accused of censorship.)

This book is the only one in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to have been censored in its U.S. edition.The word "asshole" is replaced with the word "kneebiter", and the word "shit" is replaced with "swut". Possibly the most famous example of censorship is in Chapter 22 and 23, which in the U.K. edition mentions that a Rory was an award for the Most Gratuitous Use of the Word ‘Fuck’ in a Serious Screenplay. In the U.S. edition, this was changed to "Belgium" and the text from the original radio series describing "Belgium" as the most offensive word in the galaxy is reused.

I leave as an exercise for the reader a comparison of the preceding passage with my high-school newspaper’s treatment of the editorial staff of the school’s literary magazine.

the P-word

Here’s Barbara Mertz’s on a politically incorrect term in archaeology:

I would like to avoid the term “primitive,” because it implies a certain value judgment. I can’t do it, though. Alternatives like “preliterate” and “prehistoric” are at once too explicit and too vague. You know what I mean, and I know what I mean, so let’s stick to “primitive.”

Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always…”

Willa CatherForgive me for spoiling this week’s “puzzler” from Dr. Mardy:


On December 7, 1873, this woman was born in Gore, Virginia. At age nine, she moved with her family to Nebraska. Her life on the frontier inspired many later novels, including her famous “Prairie Trilogy,” which included “O Pioneers” (1913), “The Song of the Lark” (1915), and “My Antonia” (1918). One of America’s most respected female writers, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. In 1930, shortly after Sinclair Lewis was selected for the Nobel Prize, he said that he would have been pleased if she had been chosen for the award instead of him. In “The Professor’s House” (1925), she had a character say:

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always,
no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”

Who was this famous writer?

This week’s puzzler has me remembering fondly the release of Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s book Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is where I first heard of Willa Cather. I postponed reading the chapter called “Willa Cather’s Capitalism” until I had read her novel O Pioneers!, which I loved. It’s the only Willa Cather I’ve read so far. I hope to rectify that.

Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in CultureHere’s Stephen Cox’s introduction to Willa Cather:

“Economics and art are strangers.”

So said Willa Cather in an essay written deep in her last period of authorship.

For once in her life, Cather was wrong — though she was wrong for sufficient reason. Leftist critics had been hounding her about her novels’ alleged lack of relevance to current industrial and social problems. She responded by arguing that art must not be reduced to such partial and temporary terms. If this is “economics,” she suggested, then art should have nothing to do with it.

But “economics” need not be treated merely as a solvent for other modes of human experience. If one adopts a nonreductive view, the falsehood of Cather’s declaration about the estrangement of economics and art becomes obvious. Her own art was economic in every useful sense of the term. It was economic in its practical concern with buying and selling, prices and investments. It was economic in its analysis of the framework of institutions that supports the capitalist or market system. Finally and most importantly it was economic in its application of certain essential principles of choice and valuation that are crucial to an understanding of the capitalist system but that long remained obscure even to professional economists. Cather, a mere novelist, discovered them through her art.

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lavatorially speaking

From Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life:

Perhaps no other word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of toile, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet.