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October 20th, 2004

The new black / more about buses

by Barbara Wallraff

M. Jones, of Madison, Wis., writes: “When I tried on an orange sweater in a boutique the other day, the saleswoman told me encouragingly, ‘Orange is the new black.’ Leaving aside whether that is or isn’t true, where did this expression come from? And is it just me, or is ‘this is the new that’ popping up all over the place?”

Dear M. Jones: It’s not just you — the expression really has gotten out of hand. Within the past few weeks alone, sources have told news outlets that purple, khaki, yellow, aqua, green, pink, brown, raspberry, pumpkin and white are, or might be, “the new black.” I’ve also read recently that satellite radio is poised to become “the new FM”; that “women are the new men in voting”; and that with respect to family size, three children may be “the new two.”

The original “this is the new that” phrase does seem to have been “ ... is the new black.” “The new black” has been with us for nearly two decades. The first new black was gray, in 1986. In 1987 the new new black was brown. After that, the next new black was either navy or red, depending on which sources you believe. By the 1990s, we had at least a few candidates to choose from at any given time — and here we are. As for whether orange is even in the running as today’s “new black,” it seems to me that at this time of year — around Halloween — orange is definitely orange, and the new black is the old black, which is, well, black.

Robert C. Geryk, of Detroit, and Richard S. Russell, of Madison, Wis., brought me up short when they wrote to disagree with something I said a few weeks ago: that “buses” is the “preferred plural” of “bus.”

Hey, folks, I don’t make this stuff up! The Associated Press Stylebook, Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage will all tell you the same thing I did.

It is true, as Robert Geryk pointed out, that dictionaries give both “buses” and “busses” as plurals of “bus.” However, every one of six dictionaries I checked gives “buses” first. And many — probably most — dictionary users have been taught to use the first plural. So “buses” not only is recommended by major usage manuals; it’s also seen in print much more often than “busses.” According to a database of American news sources, over the past month “buses” appeared in print about 33 times for every time “busses,” meaning vehicles, appeared. (All right, all right, “busses” is almost never used to mean “kisses” — but it could be!)

May I end this discussion with a general plea in favor of meaningful distinctions in our language, and against meaningless ones? “Your” and “you’re,” for instance, are spelled differently because they mean different things. If a distinction is widely made between “buses,” a common word for vehicles, and “busses,” an uncommon word for kisses, why fight it? Plenty of other language issues are more worthy of argument.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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