Plumb in the plums

(first published Dec 25th 2011)

Amid the drama, Haddin (21) and Siddle (34) rode their luck to stumps and the Australia wicketkeeper looked particularly fortunate when an lbw appeal was turned down despite it appearing plum in front on the replay.

I’ve been seeing an awful lot of these sorts of errors recently, such as this in today’s Guardian, but sadly failing to note them in truly pedantogeek fashion. These are the phonetic messes made of homophones, that is, words which sound the same, yet are spelt differently. Many moons ago, as one of the traditional and periodic ‘let’s reform the spelling’ dust-ups was taking place, one commentator criticised the idea of changing the spelling to suit the currently trendy pronunciation in these terms:
And with regard the common orthography itself, a controversy and question has been raised among us,-namely, whether words ought to be written as they are pronounced, or in the usual way. But this apparently reformed style of writing (viz. in which the spelling should agree with the pronunciation) belongs to the class of unprofitable subtleties. For the pronunciation is continually changing; it does not remain fixed; and the derivations of words, especially from foreign tongues, are thereby completely obscured. And as the spelling of words according to the fashion is no check at all upon the fashion of pronunciation, but leaves it free, to what purpose is this innovation?
That was (predictably) Francis Bacon writing in 1623, in his De augmentis scientiarum, though he was largely following on from Mulcaster in this analysis.
But the point about plums is simple. Why, oh why, does either the writer and/or the sub-editor not look at the word ‘plum’ and think to themselves ‘that’s not right’? LBW is described as ‘plumb’ when the batsman is hit on the pads dead in front of the wickets by a straight ball. Dead in front. Straight. This is not a fruity conundrum. The word is derived, quite plainly, from a weight used by builders and sailors – for builders to get absolute vertical, for sailors to work out their speed, and depth. The plumb itself is a lead weight, so called because its name in latin is plumbate.
So, the writer and/or sub have committed a homophonic howler, and replaced an image based on a lead weight on a string with a piece of fruit. Oops. Anyone who doesn’t understand this mode of dismissal will not be helped. In fact, they may well be forced to conclude that the batsman had insult added to the injury suffered when the ball hit him in the box …
More examples, good people …

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