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Houston, we have an increasing problem

Since the Monitor ran the "Ramadan Diary" series this fall, I've become more aware of the new moon each month: Ramadan begins and ends with a new moon, and our Saudi stringer kept track of her weeks of fasting by watching the phases of the moon.

The same moon shines on Boston, too, and I've been noticing the moon floating over Symphony Hall, as a silver sliver in the darkening blue evening sky as I drive home from work. Each day the sliver is a bit less slender. This is what is known as a waxing crescent. "Crescent" means "increasing," and these two words (from the Latin crescere, "to come forth,") have cousins in the word "create" and its relatives.

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Would that all metaphors for "increase" were as simple as the phases of the moon: It gets bigger or it gets smaller. Lunar imagery doesn't drag in tangled metaphors of lighter-than-air craft, ballistics, or explosives.

Here in newspaperland, we're always in the market for more metaphors for increase, for growth, for having more of something. Not to give away any trade secrets or anything, but news reporting is often a matter of noticing what we seem to have more of (traffic, terrorism, cellphones, iPods) than we used to, and writing about that. (There is also a school of journalism focused on what we have less of - time, cheap oil, cellphone-free public spaces, civilized conversation - than we used to: Call it the waning moon school of reporting.)

It is on the waxing crescent side that we tend to get into trouble, however. We tend to equate "more" with "up," e.g., "Stuff costs more" = "Prices go up." Then the "up" metaphor takes on a life of its own - achieves liftoff, so to speak.

"Housing prices soar" is such a familiar turn of phrase that most people probably don't register it as a figure of speech anymore - although I'm just literal enough that it conjures up an image of hang gliders with big black numbers ("$275,000," "$675,000," "$2.3 mil or B.O.") painted on them, way up in the sky.

From numbers going up or down, we quickly move to things themselves going up or down. Thus not long ago this newspaper reported, "Households with five or more people have fallen by half since '70." I suspect we meant to say "the percentage of households..."

"Skyrocket," as a verb, is another vivid verb whose trajectory sometimes escapes the force of both Earth's gravity and logic. "Skyrocket" is what numbers of feral pigs in East Texas were recently reported to have done - although to be fair, I should stress that it was the numbers, and not the pigs themselves, that were said to have taken flight.

But "explode" may - how shall I put it? - pack even more of a punch than "skyrocket." It's widely used, especially with regard to markets. This is unfortunate given how often, alas, the news media must report on an actual bomb hitting shoppers in an actual market.

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Nonetheless, in a dope-sheet on "how to improve your writing," readily available on the Web from one of our fine state universities, the following sentence appears: "Fortunately, DandyCorp. invested in chicken necks just before the poultry market exploded." It's meant as an example of incorrect usage - failure to use the past perfect tense ("had invested"). But if you can read that bit without its bringing up a mental image of feathers flying everywhere, you're a better person than I.

My favorite, though, is from a commodities trading publication: "Cocoa exploded higher yesterday morning and left a massive gap on the daily charts."

Beware the mad chocolate bomber!

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy


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