<< back to the archive list

July 6th, 2005

Matchy-matchy and a “prepackaged sentence” contest / pronouncing etc.

by Barbara Wallraff

Marnie Richards, of Wichita, Kan., writes: “My friend Ann and I went shopping, and when I asked her what she thought of an outfit I tried on, she said it was ‘too matchy-matchy.’ OK, since when has it been a fashion mistake to wear clothes that match? But here’s the question I want to ask you: What is this ‘matchy-matchy,’ and what kind of fashion mistake does it refer to?”

Dear Marnie: Oh, go ahead and ask me anything. Yes, wearing clothes that match can be a fashion mistake. Here’s a little story to explain how and why: In the early 1980s I worked for a hard-to-like man who paid himself a lot better than he paid his staff. At some point he started buying his clothes at the city’s most pretentious department store. After that he looked different -- but prepackaged and phony. The mean joke we told behind his back was that a salesman at the store put outfits together for him, and the store tailor sewed on numbers somewhere discreet, to help our boss remember always to wear shirt number 7 with suit number 7, tie number 7 and belt number 7, etc. That’s the ultimate in “matchy-matchy.” Truly well-dressed people (and I don’t mean only people who follow fashion) show some originality, and they aren’t afraid to be spontaneous sometimes.

As for the word “matchy-matchy,” it probably was used by decorators and people in the fashion industry back in the days I’m talking about -- but I didn’t know it then. This informal term made its earliest appearances in the mainstream American press in the late 1980s. (It took another few years for it to catch on in Canada and Britain.) Even now you won’t find “matchy-matchy” in dictionaries, though it’s increasingly common in print.

The fashion blunder, by the way, reminds me of a common language blunder. Sentences like “We are unable to process your request at this time” and “We reserve the right to make changes for your convenience” are prepackaged and phony. The words are assembled in such a mechanical way that we could almost call them matchy-matchy. It’s good to put some life into the way we write and speak, too.

The next time you come across a truly awful prepackaged sentence (like the examples I just gave), will you share it with me, either by mail or on my Web site? No made-up examples, please: I’m asking for sentences that exist in the real world, so when you send me one, please also tell me where you found it. I’ll give an autographed copy of my book “Your Own Words” to the person who sends in the sentence that strikes me as the worst. In case of a tie, the book will go to the person who sends in the worst first.

Judy Brown, of Southfield, Mich., writes: “I commonly hear ‘et cetera’ pronounced ‘ex cetera.’ Public figures, judges, highly paid and seemingly highly educated television news commentators say this. What’s up? Doesn’t the abbreviation ‘etc.’ give them some kind of clue?”

Dear Judy: Apparently not. You’re right, though: The correct pronunciation starts with “et,” not “ex.” Why not mail offenders a copy of this column? Maybe that will clue them in.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list