Posted by: cochinblogger | February 25, 2011

Mosquitoes, Trainees, and Other Suckers

Queer, what a big stain my sucked blood makes
Beside the infinitesimal faint smear of you!
Queer, what a dim dark smudge you have disappeared into!

“The Mosquito” by D.H. Lawrence

On a hot afternoon many years ago, a trainee editor walked in with furrowed brow and deposited the following offending sentence in my lap: “Argon gas is usually passed through the outer tube, which creates a Venturi effect and sucks the liquid up through the inner capillary tube.” I read it through once, and looked at her quizzically.

“What sucks?” she asked.

I could see her point. Effects don’t suck. Could the outer tube suck? Do gases suck? I thought of waterspouts. The blue sea looked inviting …

“I’ll tell you something that SUCKS,” she said.

I came down to earth. The final word had almost been spat out as a nervous, high-pitched scream. She had not been quite the same person since I lectured her on the subtle shades of difference between the relative pronouns that and which a couple of days ago. She had listened with rapt attention, but her knuckles had turned white.

“What sucks?” I asked.

“This book,” she said.

Very helpful.

The boss, probably thinking she had heard the dreaded “F” word, came to investigate. The last time she’d the heard the word said this loud, there had been fisticuffs over a disputed suspensive hyphen. Result: three editor-days lost, and blood on the new office carpet.

“What’s up?”

“We’re trying to find out who or what sucked a liquid of indeterminate composition. Care to help?”

“Find some other sucker.”

Right. She wasn’t the boss for nothing.

The trainee was looking at me expectantly. I can be the man of action when the mood is upon me. I swiveled around on my chair decisively, disturbing a couple of somnolent mosquitoes digesting their blood meal under the chair. It was the work of a moment to call up the Venturi effect on Wikipedia.

Ctrl_F, “suck,” and there it was. Hmmm … not very enlightening.

Out of the blue came a flash of insight. Since “sucking” is a strong verb and there is no active sucker — err, sucking agent or actor — in sight, the right thing to do is to switch the voice from active to passive. So, “Argon gas is usually passed through the outer tube, which creates a venturi effect; as a result, the liquid is sucked up through the inner capillary tube.” The trainee brightened, and exited the room. I looked for my manuscript on the table — and froze.

There, on the brand-new Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition) lying open on the table, was a black blob. I took a closer look. Suspicion confirmed. A new blood meal. Mosquito too sated to move. Engorged. With my blood.

The bloodsucker! Wasn’t my job hard enough as it is?! My blood (what remained, that is) boiled, and I threw a sucker punch that landed unerringly on target.

Folks, you know what’s worse than blood on the new office carpet? Blood on the new Chicago Manual of Style, that’s what.

Bloody hell!

Today, though, I’m more liberal: I think it’s alright for the Venturi effect to suck. Or even argon, for that matter. In fact, I believe the latter is the sucker. Or is this philosophical hair-splitting? Or bad science? Or bad writing? Or bad editing? Or some or all of the above?:-)



  1. I think that some people would be shocked if they knew what they were saying when using the word “sucks” (as in the case of the book in this article).

    Others would just be surprised.

    When was it first used in this sense, and in what context?

    • I’m not sure I’ve understood your question, but this use of the word “suck” is standard in the sciences. Just look up Venturi effect in Wikipedia, for instance.

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