Phishers who can't spell – literally

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Who knew that copy editing skill could protect against identity theft? A few weeks ago I received a dubious e-mail purportedly from my bank, claiming I needed to update my "account information."

I trashed the message pretty quickly, because I've heard the warnings about e-mails like this. But what if I hadn't? Why did this message absolutely scream "phishing scam" anyway?

Well, for a start, it promised "incryption" of my data instead of the correctly spelled "encryption."

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The e-mail also had a reference to "SLL" instead of "SSL." I don't know much about "SSL," which protects the security of online transactions. But I do know it isn't "SLL."

Why is it easier for hackers to fake logos and write code than to get the words spelled right? Possible explanations:

•The Web is already rife with spelling errors, so that most people don't recognize them as tip-offs to a scam. (Sigh. Another sign of the precarious state of civilization.)

•People who have good writing and editing skills, or at least know enough to hire people who do, can earn a living more honorably than by phishing. (I'd like to think this goes without saying.)

•Copy editors are too noble a group to sully themselves in the employ of phishers. (This is the one my heart wants to believe.)

Bottom line: Spelling and grammar still count. Thank you, O English teachers of my 20th-century childhood! The knowledge you imparted protects me today from Internet scams we never imagined in the classrooms of yore.

A reader's lament

"I wish there was an antonym of 'literally' which people would use," a reader writes. "I suppose there is 'metaphorically' or 'figuratively,' but people do not use them," he continues. "Instead it seems common to say 'literally' when the opposite is meant. For example, I heard a football commentator say, 'He literally read the quarterback like a book.' But to read a quarterback literally like a book would entail sitting down in a favorite chair, spreading the quarterback across your lap, and gleaning information from the letters inscribed on the quarterback."

It's a vivid bit of imagery, isn't it? I would concur with the disgruntled reader that "literally" doesn't add much in his example.

But having to say "figuratively" when using figurative language is like having to say "joke" when you're trying to be funny. (Sometimes you do, in fact, and it's a sign that you're not.)

A simile or metaphor plus "literally" adds up to "hyperbole," which is an honorable rhetorical device.

But the other thing about "literally" is that sometimes life does ape art. Every once in a while, for instance, a view truly is breathtaking. "Oh, yes, that's where that comes from," one tells oneself.

Sometimes, however, the literalness of an idiom is a little too close to real life for comfort. The recent ice-covered sidewalks of Boston have reminded me of those in Bonn my first New Year's Day in Germany 11 years ago. I was a little surprised when a friend wished me "einen nicht zu wörtlichen guten Rutsch ins Neujahr."

Wie, bitte? Come again?

"A not-too-literal 'good slip into the New Year' " is how her comment would translate. It's a standard German New Year's greeting. Rutschen means to slip or slide, as on ice – exactly what I was trying not to do.

I've done a little research and found two sources that trace this idiom not to the verb rutschen but to a Hebrew word, "Rosh," meaning "head" or "beginning," as in Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

And that's the truth. Literally. But without "incryption."

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

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