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Words Aug. 25

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“We [engineers] have great, not grate, influence over vast fleets of cement trucks and earth-movers, and I shudder, not shutter, to think how difficult it would be to get in and out of the Heritage West building [home of the Arkansas Times] if a ten-foot high wall should appear overnight and surround the building … ” That is from an e-mail I quoted Aug. 11. The e-mail was written in response to my light-hearted suggestion that there might be an engineer somewhere lacking in language skills. The Aug. 11 column has evoked another communication, from another engineer, Steve Heye of Little Rock. He writes: “You [actually, the first engineer] made an error in terms by calling the vehicle a ‘cement’ truck. It’s a concrete truck. The late Dr. Thomas Fry, University of Memphis, had a standing rule that you would lose a letter grade if you said ‘cement’ when you meant ‘concrete’ or said ‘dirt’ when you meant ‘soil.’ Cement is a powdered material added to gravel, sand and aggregate with water to make concrete. Cement is to concrete like flour is to cake. Dirt is the stain left by soil.” I had to inform Mr. Heye that while I doubtless have spoken of cement trucks and cement mixers many times when I should have said concrete, the erroneous reference on Aug. 11 was made by a fellow member of his profession. “He should have known better,” Mr. Heye said. I’m not sure that the dirt-soil rule of Mr. Heye’s old professor still holds true in non-technical usage — Random House seems to suggest otherwise — but I’m not starting any more fights with engineers. Incidentally, Mr. Heye confessed that some of his own usage draws reproach. “I still call it a ‘hot’ water heater, which drives a plumber crazy,” he said. Coincidentally, I received a communication from Bob Hilton saying that The Observer, “in their (her? his?) column of 8/11” committed “an all-too-common word abuse, ‘hot water heaters.’ ” I would scold The Observer — her, him or they — were it not that I usually say “hot water heater” myself. Old habits die hard. Often as not, I refer to the large appliance in the kitchen as an icebox.

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