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RED PEN: Know-it-all downgrades to know-it-some

BY LAURA MOYER

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

A TOME is a book.

But not every book is a tome.

Several weeks ago I gently corrected a reporter who wrote the phrase “a slim tome.”

The other day a different reporter tried it, using tome as a synonym for a children’s picture book.

No and no.

A tome is a large, heavy, scholarly book.

In today’s English, the New Oxford American Dictionary says, the word is “chiefly humorous.”

That’s being generous. It’s not funny; it’s breezy.

Even as attempted humor, tome can’t be applied to just any printed matter with a spine and a couple of covers.

Here’s quoting Bryan Garner in “Garner’s Modern American Usage”: “Tome refers not to any book, but only to one that is imposingly or forbiddingly large.”

Garner’s reference book, which I got for Christmas, has 942 pages and weighs 4.4 pounds. I find it tremendously helpful and not “imposingly or forbiddingly large.”

Still, it’s big. It’s a deep, scholarly blue. If you dropped it on your foot, it would hurt.

I wouldn’t call it a tome, but if somebody else did and I were copy editing, I’d let it go.

NOT JUST PRESBYTERIAN

The problem with being a know-it-all is that sometimes what you think you know, you don’t.

I was gearing up for a nice smackdown of the misuse of the word manse.

A manse, I remembered, is the home where a minister—especially a Presbyterian minister—lives.

But I’ve seen it used as a short, breezy synonym for mansion. That, I was going to say, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Guess what.

While my Webster’s New World Third College Edition does give the Presbyterian minister’s dwelling definition first, it says the word has an “archaic” meaning as any large or grand home.

I would not have been surprised if Webster’s had allowed manse for a mansion based on modern misuse. But I was surprised that it is “archaic,” implying that the broader definition came first.

Sure enough, the New Oxford American Dictionary says the use of “manse” to mean “the principal house of an estate”—with no religious connotation—dates to the late 15th century. It says the word comes to English from the medieval Latin for a house or dwelling.

Once again I find that I am merely a know-it-some.

Laura Moyer of The Free Lance–Star is a lifelong compulsive copy editor. A version of this column appeared in her Red Pen blog on fredericksburg.com. You can reach her at 540/374-5417 or lmoyer@freelancestar.com.

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/features/2012/06/28/red-pen-know-it-all-downgrades-to-know-it-some/