Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Dyeing Art

The New York Times must have a shortage of e’s in its type font.  That is the only explanation I can think of for Christopher Buckley’s recent satirical op-ed piece that referred to a hairdresser “dying her ladies’ locks with Egyptian henna.”  All together now, class: dying is the present participle of die, an intransitive verb that means to “pass from physical life, cease to exist, disappear, sink, languish, stop.”  None of those meanings suggest themselves as anything a hairdresser—even a satirical one—would do to a client’s tresses.

I suspect what Mr. Buckley and the slipshod editors on the Times copy desk intended to say was dyeing, the present participle of dye, which means to "impart and new and often permanent color to."  Oh, for want of an e, the world was lost!

The e in “dye” and “dyeing” is our good old friend Silent E. Tom Lehrer’s song about that character didn’t get around to “dyeing,” although he did point out that Silent E could turn a dam into a dame, but when he tried the same thing on Sam it came out the same.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose hair is dying but is not yet either dead or dyed, pays his tribute to the English language’s favorite letter in this Owed to E.

            Hail to thee, blithe, brilliant E!
            Silent though you often be.
            Like white wine? Please have some more—
            See those e’s you can ignore?
            Noisy letters can’t keep quiet,
            Some can cause a jangling riot,
            Such as f, j, q, r, v—
            Rest in peace with silent E.


  1. Speaking of fonts--I remember decades ago when you were reporting for the Houston Press I visited you there. You kindly gave me a tour. I was especially fascinated by the old linotype machine--remember?


  2. I think the Press linotypes must have lacked some letters too. Our style was "employe" with one "e," "kidnaped" with one "p," and "okeh" instead of "okay."

  3. Anne Marsh [not Bernhard]June 16, 2010 at 7:07 PM

    For some reason, most "service" people who read my name pronounce it "Annie." I always want to ask them how they would pronounce "Mike," "Sue," or "Joe," when given the opportunity. Then I want to ask them if they remember learning to read in first grade, and that lesson about "silent Es." Then I want to slug them, as only my nearest and dearest are allowed the privilege of using the ... well, is it a "diminutive" when it's longer than the original?

  4. A lengthened name probably should be called an "augmentative"--but the lexicographers have other meanings for that word. One dictionary suggests "diminutive" indicates the quality of being "lovable, pitiable, or contemptible"--take your choice. So maybe "Annie" is best thought of as a "nickname," one definition of which is "a familiar form of a proper name."