To Crimp or to Cramp?

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:

—Idiom
15.
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

Ditchwalk Delivered via Email

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve found the same thing many times, when searching for some odd grammatical rule or idiom. I’ve found that, the majority of the time, if I don’t know a rule, there is usually confusion or conflicting information. Many times, I find that the answer is “both ways are now acceptable” or “the American rule is X and the UK rule is Y” or “the Chicago Manual of Style says X but the APA says Y.” Or, like you found, I’ll find multiple answers that flatly contradict each other.

    As a perfectionist, I always want to find the correct answer (especially when it comes to writing and grammar), but I very often end up in the situation you’re in: more knowledgeable about some interesting linguistic trivia, but no closer to finding a definitive answer to your original question.

    • says

      I’ve known for some time that the utility of the internet has become badly eroded relative to things like product recommendations, etc. For non-commercial information, however, I hadn’t realized how dubious the internet was as a resource until now.

      In retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised. Every computer/tech issue I’ve tried to resolve by looking for people who had a similar issue has invariably led me to countless posts from well-meaning technophiles who were 100% sure they knew what the problem is — and they were all invariably wrong. “It’s your BIOS!” “It’s a bad motherboard!” “It’s malware!”

      The internet is a great forum. It’s unparalleled in giving voice to opinions. But knowledge requires, at some point, authority, and many well-intended opinions are also an attempt to establish or demonstrate authority. While I cannot say categorically that the answer to my question (or any question) is not available online, I do know that sifting through the noise is simply not possible.

      About the only positive I can see in all of this is that I now know I have plausible cover in those instances where I do get it wrong. :-)

      • says

        While the best thing about the Internet is that anyone can post whatever they’d like for all the world to see, that’s also the worst thing about the Internet. And you’re right: it’s become harder and harder to separate accurate product reviews, forum tech support, or grammatical advice from the inaccurate, uninformed, or even intentionally slanted or deceptive.

        I feel like I have some skill in searching for information online: I know how to phrase a search query; I can page quickly through search results, skimming over the useless hits; I know how to find answers on forums and in comments; and I can generally tell reliable sources from the amateur or biased. But it does seem to be getting harder and harder to find accurate information — the signal-to-noise ratio seems to be getting worse. And, too often recently, I’ve had experiences similar to yours, where I spent a good amount of time trying to ferret out an answer and finally emerging with nothing better than a “maybe.”

        I used to marvel at how literally all the information in the world was at my fingertips, available online to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. But there’s also an infinite amount of inaccurate, malicious, and deceptive information and content online as well. And it seems to be getting harder to find the former amongst the proliferation of the latter.

        Not to get on too much of a tangent, but I wonder if enough people get frustrated with the uncurated nature of the Internet, will they abandon the “information is meant to be free” credo and will we start willingly paying for curated, edited, moderated, fact-checked, reliable information and commentary online?

        • says

          …I wonder if enough people get frustrated with the uncurated nature of the Internet, will they abandon the “information is meant to be free” credo and will we start willingly paying for curated, edited, moderated, fact-checked, reliable information and commentary online?

          I think the number of people who are interested in facts or knowledge is a small subset of all the people who are looking for answers to questions. I think the majority are happy with any answer, or with an answer that confirms their own opinion. For example, if you want to know what the better or more reliable products are, you should obviously join Consumer Reports’ site — but most people don’t do that, for whatever reason.

          Given the choice between a paid online service and a paid resource in my home, I think I’d prefer the latter in most cases. I do use an online dictionary and thesaurus most of the time, but I also uses physical resource manuals that I know and trust. If someone were to charge for their online dictionary or thesaurus, I’d just go back to the physical copies I have on the shelf.

  2. says

    For a colloquialism like “cramp my style” for which there is no officially correct rule, I’d say the best bet is to poll your friends; majority wins. In this case, I’ve never in my life heard anyone say “crimp my style,” and if I saw it in print I’d assume it’s a typo. So “cramp” wins.

    But, to back that up, here’s a definition on Wordnik.com:
    “11.To shut in so closely as to restrict the physical freedom of”

    Cramp it is.

    • says

      From the same site, for ‘cramp’:

      –idiom
      15 cramp (one’s) style To restrict or prevent from free action or expression.

      From the same site, for ‘crimp’:

      4. To have a hampering or obstructive effect on: Supplies of foreign oil were crimped by the embargo.

      ?

      I think the only solution is going to be rewriting the phrase so as to avoid either word. :-)

  3. says

    In taking yet another look at the possible roots (pun intended; wait for it) of these phrases, I’m struck by the possibility that the phrase ‘crimp my style’ may come from the hairdressing industry. A style would be a hairstyle, and crimping a style would involve using a curling iron or some other means of altering the original hair.

    In any case, a search for both phrases turns up almost no useful comparisons or sourcing, and the bulk of the negligible number of hits come from repostings of the original list cited in the post. Short of hiring an etymologist, I think this one’s going to remain a mystery.

  4. Jamie says

    So glad I found this. After an xhaustive discussion with my son- who sourced the Everett Herald editorial writer and forced me to point out that it doesn’t make them right – it was wonderful to read this…to which my son replied, “who cares enough to write this?”
    I do!

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