A friend of the Lounge called us the other day for wordly advice while he was at work - he's a lobbyist for a nonprofit organization in our nation's capital. He reported that he was in the middle of 'crafting position papers.' What, as opposed to writing them? we wondered. And suddenly, a chilling sense of deja vu descended.

This was not the first time that a gratuitous (to our minds) stretching of the notion of craft came to our attention. Back in the days before the Language Lounge existed (hard to believe that was less than two years ago), we Loungeurs were mainly homeless, forced to wander about, valiantly policing the language on our own. At that time, one of us made strenuous objections to another use of craft, when a popular coffee-dispensing chain characterized one of its products as 'hand-crafted latte.' To quote from our pre-Lounge edict issued at the time:

This compound expression is an insult to generations of skilled craftspeople who have mustered the effort and discipline to create something beautiful by hand. To apply 'hand-crafted' to the routine tasks of the modern-day equivalents of soda jerks cheapens the whole concept of handicraft.

We are happy to report that, even though the pre-Loungeur was unable to speak ex cathedra (as he now does, from the BarcaLounger), his cry was heard, and 'hand-crafted latte' joined 2004's annual list of banished words from Lake Superior State University.

If you study the word map for craft in the VT and click up its the hypernym chain, you'll see what is objectionable in these two uses of craft: it means 'make by hand with much skill.' It is a species of 'make out of components,' which has fashion and forge (we'll return to forge in a minute) as its members. These are in turn particular species of the very general make, which as you can see has many varieties: compose, for example, which we would think is more suitable to the writing of position papers, and fabricate, which is probably more suitable to the steaming of lattes. We would much prefer it if craft were reserved for the making of things that involved a great deal of skill, effort, or cleverness.

The modern trend seems to be away from this. In support of this, we present Exhibit A, a sample of usages lifted from contemporary newspapers (courtesy of Google News):

01 attended the event. The Governor's speech was crafted with two audiences in mind: university presi-
02 eas and influence of a man, Carl Schmitt, who crafted the legal decisions that allowed Adolf Hitler
03 s. A malicious attacker may be able to send a crafted IP packet to a Windows workstation or server
04  Kentucky was eerily similar - the Razorbacks crafted a big lead and failed ... Opinion Headlines 
05 ers in industry and government with solutions crafted to meet their specific challenges and enable
06 paint on the 42.7-metre (140.09 feet) statue, crafted by Indian sculptors, located outside the Sub
07  profile is in line with the firm's carefully crafted iconoclastic image. Door, window maker opens
08 ed to cause a buffer overflow via a specially crafted playlist containing a filename starting with
09 Times, India - 13 hours ago ... 'Meticulously crafted over four years, Bambi II captures the beaut
10 tting into generics might erode the carefully-crafted brand image of Mara Moja or Action. ... Bud 
11 everal of the agencies from Anheuser's roster crafted about 50 spots. In the end, Anheuser will ch
12 n says to stay committed, resolutions must be crafted in inspiring ways. 'I will ... aeYou have to
13 sing battle. Five years on there is carefully crafted 'real life' wherever you look. For ... Intel
14 as a full size sport utility vehicle that was crafted by the Ford Motor company to compete with Gen
15 ead this document's nearly 16,000 beautifully crafted words you will start to scratch your head at 
16 described the ship's visit as a 'PR exercise' crafted to boost the ailing cruise company's image in
17 ... attorney's dream. If it becomes law, well-crafted lawsuits could tie the legislation up in cou

The ad writers for the aforementioned coffee shop chain can perhaps be excused for taking liberties with craft, since these days nearly everyone else does. It's a journalistic convention to refer to legislation as being crafted (see, for example, sentences 2 and 6 above), and perhaps this usage is acceptable: it surely takes consummate skill to appear to be benefiting the public while actually abusing or robbing them. But in the list of exhibited sentences, we still find some usages an unnecessary stretch: number 4, for example: how do you craft a big lead? What are its constituents? Or number 15, which gushes about 'this document's nearly 16,000 beautifully crafted words.' Surely, if any crafting took place it would be of the sentences and not the words: the words already exist. Newly crafted words have a way of not being readily recognized and anyway, what would you ever do with 16,000 of them?

Sentences 2, 16, and 17 point up the double-edged nature of craft, which you can observe if you return to its word map. Even when used as a verb, there is a way for craft's ragged relations - craftiness, cunning, guile, etc. - to creep in. Writers often exploit this to cast a slightly disparaging tone on the artificer or his motives, as in the sentences noted, and this goes some way towards explaining the popularity of craft for things that are not, in the strictest sense, crafted.

In the end, we did not admonish our lobbyist friend on his use of craft, but we lament somewhat that young writers (and he is rather a young thing) are too easily influenced by the bad habits of journalists and publicists, whose choice of words may be guided by impeachable motives.

Here's food for thought. In writing the epic of English literature that has been described as “the greatest novel of the century” (that's Anthony Burgess, and the century was the 20th), James Joyce penned Ulysses - all 267,000 words of it and using a vocabulary of 30,000 words- without once using the word 'craft' as a verb. You have to ask yourself then: just how often do you need it? Further, you'll remember that at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, young Stephen Daedalus sets off for Paris in order “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” No craft there either. The easy explanation for Joyce's choice of words is that forging is what you do in a smithy. But young Stephen certainly had the option of crafting the uncreated conscience of his race, which would also have given him an alliterative advantage. We expect that he went with forge because it pulls in a whole train of useful associations (form, mold, shape, invent, devise . . .), along with carrying a sense of permanence and endurance. It was the right word for the right occasion: the policy that is always advocated here in the Lounge.

Our factoid about the nonuse of craft in Joyce was gleaned from the very clever concordancing library of a chap at Imperial College London, Mr. Robert Craven:


You can see what words were deemed banishworthy in 2005 by visiting the pages LSSU's website devoted to that. A remarkable thing about the university's lists is that there is an unusually high correspondence between their banished words, and the American Dialect Society's words of the year!



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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Tuesday May 30th 2006, 3:05 AM
Comment by: mari P.
Very interesting!

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