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What was that again?

November 10, 2010 - Brad Siddons
The spoken word will be my undoing.

There is no question that I'm more comfortable with words down on paper, or at least my computer screen. They don't move around, and there is usually only one way to spell each one. It's when I — or others — start talking that I seem to have difficulty. Do you have the same problem? Well, I know I do.

Let's go way back to the end of the 1970s, when I first came to work here. As a new, very green reporter, I was often sent to cover rural township supervisors meetings. Nothing wrong with that; I could argue that what goes on at these meetings directly affects people far more than anything they do in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C. The problems I had arose from my lack of familiarity with certain municipal government-type terms. Like “amesite.”

Now I grew up in a rural area myself, and was not unfamiliar with construction terms. One side of my family owned a construction company, and I worked on subgrade and paving crews summers between college semesters. Why, my father was foreman of a paving crew for many years. I'd heard the stuff we put down called asphalt, blacktop and a few other things, but never, ever, had I come across that word. When I first heard it during a supervisor's meeting, I thought they were talking about doing something at a “site” somewhere. “Aim at the site” — ? I really didn't have a clue. Afraid I was missing something important, back at the office I ran for the dictionary and began to search. It is indeed a mineral, and is often used in the “blacktop” mix. So much for that mystery.

Don't ask me how, but my older brother wound up in the same business as I did, but he worked in big cities while I preferred the country. His first beat was in Baltimore, MD, and he too got tripped up by the spoken word soon after starting there. There was a fire reported deep in the city's bowels at a “tar factory,” and off he went in search of a place where they made tar. Well, that didn't work because the “tar” in question was the kind you put on your car, in fours — tires.

Jane Cannon Mort, a colleague here at The Sentinel, tells a good story about getting floored by a word while she was working at the Lock Haven Express back about the same time as I was getting started. She took some information over the phone from the local police regarding an automobile accident, and reported that “a settling torch” was used to cut the car open. What she meant to write, of course, was “an acetylene torch.”

So listen carefully. It does make a difference.


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