Wordworking

At my first newspaper job, I hated the 2 p.m. mail call. That was when Reese Fant would separate all the day’s mail into the black cubbyholes for the reporters. More days than not, I received a postcard.

The postcards were from a retired high-school English teacher, and just about every day she had some withering comment to make about my grammar, word choice, style (or lack of it).

I hated those postcards at first.

I think you know where this story is going, but I think you’re wrong. The natural story arc is for me to recognize the importance of word precision and embrace the subtleties and nuances of the English language and become an evangelist for its proper use.

Truth is, I hated those postcards at first, and within a couple years I came to absolutely loathe them. In fact, I actively rejected my fine Northwestern University-honed journalism education to write in a coarser style to see if I could cause this retired teacher to burst a blood vessel.

I know this sounds messed up from a person who trades in words, but I am far more interested in meaning over the veneer of style.

This attitude was reinforced when I was introduced to the world of professional cabinetmakers. Before my first photo shoot with one of them, I can remember studying everything I could about the joinery nomenclature that was particular to fine cabinet work.

The next day, here is what I learned.

1. Everything is a “rail.” Table aprons? Rails. Leg stretchers? Rails? Mediary stiles? Rails. Muntins? Rails. Mullions? Again, rails. And on and on. Rail, rail, rail. Did this diminish his work? No. Did it diminish my understanding of his work? No, again.

2. Everything is a “groove.” Dado? Nope, groove. Rabbet? Bzzst! Groove. Cross-grain rabbet (a fillister?). Groove again. A long mortise? Yup, a groove.

3. Every operation is “run.” Crosscut? No — run a cut. Rip? Run that to 7”. Mould an edge? Run the edge? Cut the tenon? Run the tenon. Run was the only operation. And when you make furniture for a living, you have to run, period.

Why am I telling you all this?

Today I read an interesting book, “The Wrought Covenant,” from the Brockton Art Center, which was recommended to me by Peter Follansbee. It’s a gold mine of information on early furniture, but one of the essays had the following statement:

“We should further the retrieval of a proper seventeenth-century furniture typology by referring even to the individual parts of each form as much as possibly by their correct period name and placement; if we are to enter the craftsman’s world and his community aesthetic, we must learn their organization from his point of view, not ours.”

This stuff really makes me crazy. On the one hand, using words in a precise manner makes it easier to talk about things across a distance, such as when using the Internet. On the other hand, the language divides us. We discount people who haven’t learned the precise words for a haunch or a bolection.

Well, screw that.

If the meaning is clear, we are cool. Period. If the work is solid, we are cool. I am not silently correcting your grammar or word choice. I don’t give a poo if you don’t call it a dado or a micro-bevel or a “land.” In the end, anyone who becomes immersed in the craft will get the hang of the lingo. But until then, to quote one of the best movies ever, “Lighten up Francis.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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42 Responses to Wordworking

  1. …and this is why so many people read your writing. Carry on.

  2. John Vernier says:

    Word!

  3. aschenher says:

    I agree, I think the key is consistency when you are communicating. As long as someone calls the same thing by the same name every time in a given day. it will all make sense.

  4. Eric R says:

    Amen brother !

  5. FJ Abraham says:

    I know you are but what am I?

  6. Mike Russo says:

    Woah….bolection….I had to look that one up and I’m still not sure I understand what it is! This is why I read this blog all the time! 🙂

  7. Ron Dennis says:

    Chris – The desire of “, using words in a precise manner makes it easier to talk about things across a distance,” should always remain far below your first obligation to communicate.

  8. Crepes Suzette says:

    Thanks, Big Toe.

  9. John Cashman says:

    That’s a great book, from the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, about two miles from my house. It’s worth a trip.

    But don’t touch my stuff, or I’ll kill you.

  10. Jim says:

    Agree… communicating the point effectively is definitely more important than getting hung up on “proper wording”.

    I’ll have to put checking out both the book and the museum on my list – Brockton is right next door to me as well.

  11. jverreault says:

    Yeah, Warren Oates was great in Stripes. Oh, and I agree with you on the rest of it…but I still want to know the real names just in case.

  12. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Thanks, for this bit of insight from another perspective. As a practitioner of different timber framing methodologies from Asia, the Middle East and our own indigenous forms, I am always astounded when someone, (expert?) will try and correct my nomenclature, sighting some definitive “European,” text or reference. As if the craft of “Timber Framing,” (let alone woodworking in general,) had it’s archetype created by said reference.

    I recently, once again, had a well seasoned contractor try to state, “Well yes, Timber Framing is nice, but not very practical. No body builds that way today except a few here and maybe in Europe, where the craft came from….” The rather large group gathered, (architects and builders alike,) collective shook there heads in agreement at the statement, until I spoke up. I explained, not trying to sound condescending, that the art and craft of the “Timber Wright,” had it’s origin in the Nile valley, perhaps over 15 thousand years ago. It appears to have moved East, not West, from there, where it seasoned and blossomed for several thousand years before ever being practiced in Europe. I also explained that the indigenous peoples of North America also had been building in many varied forms of post and lintel timber framing for thousands of years before the Europeans ever set foot on this continent. Post and lintel timber framing forms, all with there own nomenclature, is still in practice today, and is the dominate form of architecture in wood still, even in the twenty first century.

    Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

  13. dave jeske says:

    “What kind of chisel is that”? The question can bring on a cold sweat. How many names can you possibly give a simple chisel? “It’s a Cabinet maker’s chisel, or a bench chisel, no, a bevel edged bench chisel, Well, really it is a bevel edged, socket bench chisel.” “Isn’t that called a firmer chisel?” Well, perhaps. “When does a firmer chisel become a paring chisel?” “Can you pare with a bench chisel?” “How about dovetails, can you use a bench chisel for dovetails”? “What is a dovetail chisel, anyway”? “Are butt chisels just short bench chisels”? “If you use them for dovetails are they dovetail chisels?” ……on and on. Chris, please write the Definitive Guide to Naming Chisels. Or let’s just call them chisels and be done with it.

  14. pfollansbee says:

    I didn’t know you were going to read that book – I just look at the pictures.

  15. David Pickett says:

    If somebody’s life or liberty hangs on the precision of language, as for example in legal documents or technical reports on passenger aircraft or large dams, then by all means bother about exact words, grammer, spelling and meaning. For what we’re doing, it doesn’t matter so much. Just get the information out there, and have fun doing it. If we’re a bit confused, we can always ask. Or just try it and find out for ourselves.

  16. Wilbur Pan says:

    “That’s the fact, Jack!”

    “THAT’S THE FACT, JACK!”

  17. amosswogger says:

    I just put a couple postcards in the mail.

  18. Chuck Bender says:

    I believe you really meant “rail” when you said “rail”. I’m happy to run one for you if you’re still unclear.

  19. Love this post. This elitist stuff happens everywhere-with sports, hobbies, work, etc. I hear it most riding bikes and it drives me crazy.

  20. Justin Tyson says:

    “…which was recommended to my by Peter Follansbee.”

    That should have said “which was recommended to ME by Peter Follansbee.”

    You’re welcome. 😀

  21. Devon says:

    /Hattie McDoogal (from Futurama) voice on
    So you mean the kerjigger is is lashed to the whatyamacallit on pieces of a certain late 17-centruy period made exclusively in Provencal France?
    /Hattie McDoogal voice off

    By way of squandering the 3 elective hours in my undergraduate plan I took an “advanced communication” class. In the last week of the semester the professor communicated the following: ‘None of the rules for communication that we have covered should ever become more important that effective communication. That is to say as long as you make yourself understood to your desired audience you have accomplished the goal of good communication’.

  22. Bubba Squirrel says:

    What grates on me the most is the situation when I’m trying to follow an article on how a piece was built and the author starts throwing in pretentious terms, like “drawer blade.” I agree with your position completely. If you have to stop and try to figure out what a term or phrase means, concentration is broken, enthusiasm wanes, and interest sags.

    On the other hand, Mark Twain is said to have written that “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”. Mark had a pretty good point, too, but there’s a huge difference between a word chosen to convey meaning and information, and one chosen to attempt to impress and illustrate a high level of technical knowledge.

  23. Patrick says:

    So my wife asked me how I first got interested in woodworking and I replied, high school; but now I know that it all started in first grade when I read those famous words: See Dick run. Run Dick run, Run. Run .Run.

  24. joecrafted says:

    It is a worthy goal to write accurately and precisely (they are not the same thing), just as it to work wood in such a manner. Sometimes jargon helps. Sometimes it harms. You can use a crosscut saw to rip stock and a rip saw to crosscut stock, but often choosing the correct tool for the job makes the job that much easier. Trying to water it down by telling a beginner to ‘saw to the line’ might end up with them breaking out a hacksaw.

    There has to be some common frame of reference otherwise you get chisels being used for screwdrivers. That frame of reference hinges on words and jargon. So IMO no, I can’t say that words don’t matter. If they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be a word for specific items or actions. “Cut semi-complete hole in wood. Cut stem in other wood such that it fits the semi-complete hole. Press together and glue.” Yeah, that would make for some nice looking mortise and tenon joints, huh? Which is easier to write? Which is easier to comprehend once you have a baseline of knowledge? Before I started woodworking I wouldn’t have known a mortise from a tortoise.

  25. Doug F. says:

    “This is the kind of tedious nonsense with which I will not put up.” – Winston Churchill, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, 1944. Written by Churchill on a long winded, drawn out report by a cabinet minister on a topic of little consequence.

  26. James says:

    Yah, Dude. Wicked Pissa stuff, kid.

  27. Tim Henriksen says:

    Great post. Thank you. Now if you would just get off our backs about our iPhone, instagram filtered photos.

  28. Tico Vogt says:

    “Run a through chamfer on the rails and a stopped chamfer on the stiles.” Is it asking too much to expect woodworkers to understand that kind of terminology? Really, compared to shipwrights we have a very small nomenclature. Words can be fun and why fear using them? They have rich histories, just as tools do. People developed them as a means of bringing clarity to working situations. In addition, they add dignity and color, so everything isn’t reduced to its basest element.

    Use them or loose them. You see everywhere their demise, being replaced by “thing”. We are an anti-intellectual people afraid of them fancy words.

  29. Megan says:

    Woodworking readers and woodworkers are two nations divided by a common language? (sorry Winston)

  30. fitzpatm says:

    Also, I’ve long been meaning to write a PW blog post on my favorite “Chris” words. “Spendy” and “knurled” fight for preeminence.

  31. Graham Burbank says:

    Just wait until you waste three days trying to figure out what the heck some fancy-pants designer meant by “oak with a CERUSED finish” . Finally after a word search I was enlightened to find out the rest of the furniture universe calls this a pickled finish (or at worst, limed). Egads! Guess if you want to justify the price, you gotta whore up the terminology.

  32. Raney Nelson says:

    “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in. Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.”

    There will always be folks who’d rather be right than be effective. Fortunately, it’s not hard to encourage them to do it elsewhere.

  33. Stuart says:

    Reblogged this on Stu's Shed and commented:
    A really interesting perspective on elitism, language use, and the real craftsmen who make the objects of our desire, rather than wax lyrical about them, by Chris Schwarz.

  34. I’ll admit I’m a fan of Strunk & White, Orwell, Zinsser, and Barzun, so I’m very hard on my own writing. Everything I write gets revised and rewritten, including comments like these I get my editing kicks tearing up my students’ writing sometimes, but I try to go easy on blog posts. When I’m reading woodworking blogs, I’m “off the clock,” so to speak. I keep my red pen firmly capped.

    This is, however, the best-written woodworking blog I know of. I’ll gladly read anything Chris writes because I know the writing will be good.

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