A couple of days ago I was proofreading a chapter and came across this phrase:
…that were cramping their style.
Even though I’d written the words I was suddenly unsure whether the correct word was cramping or crimping. To cramp means to have a painful muscular contraction, among other things. To crimp means to bend or deform, among other things.
After trying to reason it through I could see utility in both terms. So I did what any good 21st century writer does: I asked the internet to solve the problem for me. Which led me to this useful (and often hilarious, if not absurd) list of common usage errors. The list clearly states:
What was said: crimp my style
What was meant: cramp my style
I was so happy to have this instant answer available to me, and so glad to have a long list of similar gotchas compiled for ease of search, that I Tweeted about the list.
Except…something about the answer bothered me. Maybe it was the degree of certainty implied. Maybe it was the fact that there was no sourcing of the opinion. I don’t know.
When I re-read the passage again I still felt like something was amiss. So I did another search, looking for confirmation, but I couldn’t find it.
In fact, when I quit searching for a direct answer, and instead went to a dictionary site* and looked up both words, I found no directly applicable reference for cramp. I did, however, find this under crimp:
put a crimp in, to interfere with; hinder: His broken leg put a crimp in their vacation plans.
Well now. With the score tied 1-1 in favor of each term, I was forced to embark on a whole new round of searches, the upshot of which is that I still cannot find an authoritative reference that clears up my confusion. In a link related to the usage list I did find a fairly exhaustive defense of cramp, but no outgoing link pointing to independent corroboration. Upon closer reading, however, I also noticed this:
From this sense we get the name of the carpenter’s cramp (hint for North Americans–this is the same as a carpenter’s clamp).
Now, the original usage-list link is from wsu.edu, which is Washington State University in Pullman, Washington — clearly a U.S. source. But the above comment has me convinced that the distinction between crimp and cramp that I originally relied on comes from England (or the U.K.). All of which puts me — again — back where I started.
Since I can’t spend the rest of my life trying to sort this out I’ve gone to several other dictionary sites in search of supportive evidence, and I cannot find any idiomatic reference under cramp. Crimp consistently seems to include a reference to “inhibiting or restraining” something, so that’s the word I’m going to go with.
But does that mean I’m right?
No. It’s entirely possible that both uses of the term are now accepted, even if one has come to common usage out of confusion. Language is a plastic medium, and quite often imprecise. (I’ve noticed lately that regional uses seem to be accepted more these days than they used to be. Given that sitting in judgment of another persons usage can often seem presumptuous, if not paternalistic, I can understand the appeal. I also acknowledge the utility of online dictionaries that track street terms and street usage of defined words.)
I can also see how cramp may have become a synonym of crimp in this instance, if it is indeed not the original root of the phrase. A cramp is a pain, so cramping someone’s style would mean — loosely — to afflict or injure their style. But I still think crimp is the more likely origin. If you imagine an unblemished sheet of metal as analogous to one’s style, putting a crimp in that sheet of metal would mar or disfigure it. Given that style is an affectation, and a sheet of metal might be seen as part of one’s facade, the linkage is a bit clearer to me in both spirit and utility.
In any case, the lessons here are pretty obvious.
Be careful of any online source. Not only are they often of dubious veracity, but for questions of English usage there is also the possibility of confusion between different regions and cultures.
Double-check your information if there’s any doubt. If you learned a word or phrase one way, but it’s used differently in another part of the country or planet, it’s going to be hard to prevent confusion unless you already know about it. In my case, the uncertainty was faint, but palpable, and I’m glad I listened. Absent any late evidence to the contrary, I really do think I had chosen the wrong word.
* Dictionary.com is a serial abuser of internet cookies, and in a WSJ article written this summer was deemed to install more tracking cookies on a user’s own computer than any other tested site. To defeat this routine and growing abuse, I agree that users should set their computers to disallow third-party cookies. (See your browswer’s help file.) I have done so for routinely, and cannot remember the last time that a site failed to function, except for a recent glitch with Google Mail.
– Mark Barrett