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Words Sept. 8

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In a hospital trade publication, Jeremy Peppas saw: “But most reporters are hardworking schnooks trying to support their families. They are good, decent, honest and fair-minded. Some few reporters are exceptional human beings.” “I’m trying to figure out what a ‘schnook’ is,” Peppas writes. “I think they meant ‘schmuck.’ but I’m not sure.” Schnook is slang for “an unimportant or stupid person; a dope.” One of my slang dictionaries says it comes from Yiddish, but Random House says its origin is “uncertain.” Schmuck, also slang, is definitely from Yiddish. Literally, it means “penis,” but it’s come to be used for “an obnoxious or contemptible person.” And then there’s schmo, slang for “a foolish, boring or stupid person; a jerk.” I’ve read that schmo was derived from schmuck, but once again, the Random House won’t confirm, saying only that schmo is “of obscure origin.” There’s no better advice on commas than that Lynne Truss gives in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” “The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians,” she writes. “It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person.” That line alone would be worth the price of the book. If you happen to get a free copy, as I did, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Simple as the rule is, Ms. Truss elaborates and illustrates for the slow learners. “More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity. For example: 1. Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual. 2. The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river-bank. … In the first example, of course, the comma has been misplaced and belongs after ‘on.’ The second example suggests that the vehicle swam to the river-bank, rather than the passenger. It requires a comma after ‘sank.’ ” E,S&L was a best-seller first in Ms. Truss’ native England, and now in the USA, and deservedly so. Not only a helpful punctuation guide, it is funny as all get-out.

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