Friday, September 30, 2005

Pet peeves

AJR has a piece on journalists' grammatical pet peeves. It includes the usual suspects, but a couple of gems are tucked in between.

From Andrea Billups, a staff correspondent at People magazine:
"I once worked at a paper where the top editor banned in a memo use of the term 'nitty gritty,' claiming it was Jazz-era slang for female genitalia. Having looked it up, I'm fairly sure that it's not. I suppose I would agree that it's jargon, though. But that was never the argument. It seems, in retrospect, a tad nutty if you ask me, but most editors, if they last long enough, come up with these insipid sacred cows that they enforce just because they can. Maybe it's just editorial dementia."
From Allan Fallow, managing editor of AARP Books:
"In the pages of a Time-Life book, you could not instruct the public to 'chop the onions finely'; ex-Managing Editor Jerry Korn insisted that adverb technically applied to the person doing the chopping, thus giving him or her a mincing appearance. Instead, he mandated all Time-Life cookbooks would henceforth command the reader to 'chop the onions fine,' employing an adjective that properly described the post-chopped condition of those vegetables."
And here's one -- from Linda Fibich, the Washington bureau chief for Newhouse News Service -- that I share wholeheartedly:
"'Declined comment.' As in, 'No thank you; I had a comment for breakfast.' A source declines TO comment."
I've had perfectly reasonable editors argue with me on that one. But I'd love to see them justify "he declined respond." Hmph.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Worker bees

This just in from the New York Times: "Adult-only spelling bees, born of nostalgia and spiked with alcohol, have become increasingly popular social activities for brainy hipsters in their 20's and 30's."

The story says they are drawing the type of people who might normally be found at art gallery openings or indie rock concerts.

My god. They're talking about me. I'm not brainy or hip by New York standards. Or any other cities', for that matter. And I can't really spell spelling-bee words. But I do enjoy indie-rock shows. And drinking.

I might go to one or two were I living in New York.

Said one of these spelling-bee creators: "It resonates with people. Everyone has a spelling bee story."

I do, too. There were two of us left in the Hadley Middle School spelling bee. I was in seventh grade; Nathan was in sixth. I was told to spell "absorb" and said A-D-S-O-R-B. I was out. Nathan spelled his word right and won.

My cool language arts teacher, with dictionary in hand, protested. He noted that my spelling was in the dictionary. They offered me the chance to get this party rolling again.

I declined.

New verb?

BTK was used as a verb on the dialogue-heavy "Gilmore Girls" last night.

One college student, trying to persuade a reluctant fellow student to be her roommate, said, "If you see me BTK'd, you'll know why."

An English professor at my alma mater, Wichita State, says in the Wichita Eagle story: "It's so callous that I can't imagine anyone in Wichita using it."

Obviously, she's never met my friends.

Column writing in half the time

I just read a baseball column disguised as a Mad Lib.

Here's a sample. I'm not making this up:
I'm (adjective) of Barry Bonds.

After a year of (verb ending in -?ing) about how rough his life is, the biggest (noun) in baseball is back in the batter's box. Apparently, he didn't jump off a bridge like he said the media forced him to.
The headline? I (verb) Bonds will disappear

At least it fits the story. And it did catch my eye; I would have never read that story without it.

Correct your e-mail; then we'll talk

USA Today columnist Craig Wilson wrote about grammar and spelling mistakes Tuesday.

There isn't too much in there that you haven't read already -- the usual pet peeves from readers.

But he does share this anecdote:
A college freshman e-mailed me the other day. He said he was interested in journalism and wanted some advice. I get e-mails like his all the time.

But his request was filled with misspellings, grammatical errors and one whopper of a run-on sentence.

I e-mailed him back and said I'd be more than happy to chat with him, but only if he corrected his e-mail and sent it back to me.

I wasn't being a jerk, I told him. Honest! I was trying to help. I also said his submission would have earned him an immediate F in journalism school.

Never heard from him again.

Maybe he "could care less," as so many do these days.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Get smart

Blogger Colby Cosh has rounded up some of the worst heads on the death of Don Adams, so I won't bother.
"Would you believe...? Comic Don Adams of Get Smart is dead" -Miami Herald
"Agent 86 makes 82 – missed it by that much" -The Courier-Mail, Brisbane
"We'll miss him by about that much" -The Daily Texan
"Cone of Silence descends on Smart" -The Australian
"Would you believe dead as a doornail?" -City Pages, Minneapolis-St. Paul
(Link via Notes from a Teacher)

Those dangerous quote marks

We use quotation marks to mean a lot of things -- to show that someone's speaking, to introduce an unknown word, to draw attention to a pun and to cast doubt on the words' sincerity, just to name a few.

And reader studies show that people often have a hard time figuring out which use headline writers are going for.

The Boston Globe has a prime example of the problems that can crop up (via Regret the Error).

Here's the headline: Passengers aboard plane salute fallen 'hero'

And here's the follow-up note from the editor: A headline in yesterday's City & Region section on a story about the return to Logan Airport of the body of an American soldier who died of wounds suffered in Iraq used quotation marks around the word hero. The headline should have made clear that quotation marks were being used because the pilot of the plane had announced to passengers that a hero was on board. Without that context, the headline appeared to call into question the soldier's heroism.

This problems are especially grievous in headlines, but the same caution should be applied to the text of stories, too.

You should almost always avoid quote marks around one word. This includes sentences such as:
The indictment accuses him of "knowingly" breaking the rules.
Is that quote from the indictment? Or is it implying that there's some catch with knowingly?

Another example:
Reid also tells FHM that Playboy has offered "millions" for her to do a nude spread.
Take out the quote marks. They add nothing but may distract a lot.

Related posts:
>Buttering up for an interview
>The danger of single-word quotes

Dallasites, prepare yourselves

Bill Walsh and Wendalyn Nichols -- two people who are as delightfully knowledgeable as they come -- will be speaking at a workshop in Dallas toward the end of October.

Here's the synopsis for "Copyediting: 100 Things Every Copy Editor Should Know":
It's time to make being a copy editor a lot easier on you. This workshop will help you work more efficiently, accurately, and confidently. The full-day session has three major components:

(1) A survey of what you need to know to solve grammar, usage, and style problems with confidence. You'll learn in depth about essential, up-to-date copy-editing resources, gaining an insider's firsthand perspective on the strengths, weaknesses, uses, and abuses of current dictionaries, stylebooks, usage manuals, thesauri, language websites, and other resources.

(2) A frank discussion of the workflow and interpersonal problems that frustrate copy editors and hold them back. You'll have the opportunity to talk over your own situation with the workshop leader and your fellow professionals, and get their help.

(3) A session with a well-known local guest speaker who will share his or her perspective on problems that confront many copy editors and how to solve them.
The session runs all day Monday, Oct. 24, from 9 to 4:30, with a break for lunch. It's $299.

Sessions are also planned for Boston (with Wendalyn and Barbara Wallraff)
Washington (with Wendalyn and Bill)
Los Angeles (with Wendalyn and Melissa McCoy, AME for copy desks at the LA Times)
San Francisco (with Wendalyn and Marilyn Schwartz, managing editor of the University of California Press)

Monday, September 26, 2005

O, Lynne Truss!

Ugh, I haven't been able to blog all day because of technology trouble (on Blogger's end, not mine, for once).

But here's a start:

I laughed (out loud!) at this news release from Baylor University about Lynne Truss speaking on campus when I got to the graf about sponsor levels:
Lecture sponsors include Clark, Central National Bank and the Waco Tribune-Herald at the Managing Editors' level, and Ted and Sue Getterman, Bill and Kathy Wardlaw, Baylor Department of Journalism, Community Bank & Trust, Wells Fargo Bank and the Waco Hilton at the Copy Editors' level.
Way to represent, lowly copy editors!

Truss has a new book coming out in November, and she's sweeping across the U.S. Here are some dates.

Her new book is "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door." And, in a fun coincidence, there's a mistake in the title at

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lessons learned from Katrina

Here are some style notes I've collected. Feel free to e-mail me more (or add them to the comments), and I'll add them here.
  • Underwater is one word as an adjective or adverb.
  • Floodwater is one word.
  • Buses has only two S's.
  • Tropical-storm-force winds needs two hyphens.
  • Canceled has only one L.
  • Levees are breached, not breeched.
  • Beware the abundance of adjectives. (Remember "show, don't tell"?)
  • Mph is acceptable in all references to miles per hour or miles an hour.
  • Whiskey has an E when it stands alone, but it's Scotch whisky.
And this isn't a rule that I can find, but it makes a lot of sense to me. So, here goes: There's no need to hyphenate mph, even as a modifier: Winds held steady at 35 mph and The 35 mph winds held steady. This follows the same pattern as dollars, percentages and millimeters.

Any arguments or additions?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Language jokes

The Language Log post about the BC comic strip also referred to a joke about grammar, which I've heard before but still makes me laugh. (Really, I'm a sucker for these jokes.) Here's one version:
A gentleman wanders around the campus of a college looking for the library. He approaches a student and asked, "Excuse me young man. Would you be good enough and tell me where the library is at?"

The student, in a very arrogant and belittling tone, replied, "I sorry, sir, but at this school, we are taught never to end a sentence with a preposition!"

The gentleman smiled, and in a very apologetic tone replied, "I beg your pardon. Please allow me to rephrase my question. Would you be good enough to tell me where the library is at, asshole?"

And here's one more language joke from the page; this one was new to me:
A Mexican bandit held up a bank in Tucson. The sheriff and his deputy chased him. When they captured him, and the sheriff, who couldn't speak Spanish, asked him where he'd hidden the money. "No se nada," he replied.

The sheriff put a gun to the bandit's head and said to his bi-lingual deputy: "Tell him that if he doesn't tell us where the money is right now, I'll blow his brains out." Upon receiving the translation, the bandit became very animated. "Ya me acuerdo! Tienen que caminar tres cuadradas hasta ese gran arbol. Debajo del arbol, alli esta el dinero." The sheriff leaned forward. "Yeah? Well..?"

The deputy replied: "He says he wants to die like a man."

Here come the Grammar Police

Any votes on what grammatical error this BC comic strip (via Language Log) is referring to?

There are four theories at Language Log:
  1. It should be "We are the people" (copula deletion)
  2. It should be "Us the people"
  3. It should be "We, the people"
  4. It should be "We the persons"
My vote is No. 1 or maybe No. 3. But none of the possibilities are good -- or effective comic-stripping.

Language Log has a good rundown of why none of them work. (And, yes, numerous insults to Strunk and White are made in the process.)

September spawned a monster

When AP puts a colorful noun in a story, headline writers pounce. I can't believe how many headlines I've seen with "monster" in them.

Here's a sampling:
Rita Swirls Into 165-Mph Monster in Gulf [ABC News]
Storm becomes category 5 monster [Dallas Morning News deck]
Monster Hurricane Rita takes aim at Texas [Investor's Business Daily]
Hurricane Rita growing into a monster [Ottawa Sun]
Rita turns into monster hurricane [Mail & Guardian]
Gas up? Monster hurricane Rita heads for the oil rigs [WHAS]

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

LexisNexis ... free!

Jonathan Dube points out at Poynter that there are free sections of the expansive (and expensive) LexisNexis available.

Its U.S. Politics & World News section is available, comprising articles from 4,000 foreign and international news sources. There are sections broken down by regions and topics. You can also find transcripts for TV news shows and press briefings from the White House and the military. Right now, there's a huge area devoted to Katrina news.

Why would the company give away something so many of us covet? Dube explains:
LexisNexis first started offering a package of free news headlines after the Sept. 11 attacks. The company did it again at the beginning of the Iraq War and again for the 2004 presidential election. After that, the company generously decided to allow it to live on indefinitely, and it morphed into the site you see today.
So try it out tonight and see how much use you can get out of it. I could see this becoming a daily stop for those of us without free access.

The dash is the new semicolon

After a comment about dashes after the previous post, I'm inclined to share a pet peeve.

I recoil when two independent clauses are joined with a dash. It's a dash splice, like the comma splice we all learned to hate in junior high. If the comma splice is universally derided, can not the dash splice follow in its course?

Why "What happened was not very good -- we all just got a bit carried away"? What's wrong with making that two sentences?

And, the more I think about it, a lot of that talk in the Financial Times article I wrote about yesterday is poppycock. James Wolcott said: "The semicolon adds a note of formality, and informality has been all the rage for decades. 'Real' writing is butch and cinematic, so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases."

We have lost a lot of our love for formality. But no need for "hinges between phrases"? You must be joking.

I'm starting to think that maybe dashes are the new semicolons.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A treatise on semicolons

This article on semicolons in the Financial Times is a truly delightful read. It discusses the reasons behind Americans' distaste for the mark, whereas the Brits can't get enough.
"You're kidding," said Ann Keatings, an applied linguist, as she absorbed the news I had brought from the US, where I have lived for the past 12 years: Americans see the semicolon as punctuation's axis of evil. Or at least many of them do. "But I like semicolons," she protested, "they allow a writer to go further." Trevor McGuinness, a business manager, was equally incredulous. "Hazlitt," he said, smacking the table indignantly, "look at Hazlitt!" Had midnight been closer and the bottle emptier, we might have taken him literally; but the point still floated within the grasp of sober minds: if so great a prose stylist as William Hazlitt had embraced the semicolon, then surely we could too?
I'm a fan of the semicolon. But I don't like to use them before conjunctions, and I use them only between two independent clauses. But even with these restrictions, I like them more most Americans, I suspect.

What do America's high-thinking literary types say? Trevor Butterworth, the article's author, quotes several.

There's Bill Walsh, quoted from "Lapsing": "The semicolon is an ugly bastard, and I try to avoid it."

There's "postmodern writer" Donald Barthelme, whom I'd never heard of before, who says: "Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly, I pinch them out of my prose." Of course, the way that sentence is punctuated, what do I care about his thoughts on the semicolon, anyway?

There's Louis Menand, who made his first appearance in A Capital Idea when he shat all over Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves": "There's an animus against the semicolon because it adds nuance," he says. "It makes the reader think that the relationship between two independent clauses is more complex."

Butterworth takes a thoughtful look at why American journalism cuts out the commas.
"I use semicolons and I never really enforced a hard-and-fast rule," [Michael] Kinsley responded recently by e-mail from the West Coast, where he has been running The Los Angeles Times' opinion pages for the past year [woops, not anymore]. "But if abuse is going to be common," he continued, "it's simpler and safer to have a flat-out rule. It's like drug regulation. Drugs are banned sometimes because a minority of users will have negative side effects, or because taking them correctly is complicated, although many people could get it right and would find them helpful. Actually, I'm opposed to that kind of thinking re drugs, but I am OK with it regarding punctuation. Punctuation can't save your life."

So how then does the semicolon endanger writing? "The most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism," explains Kinsley, "is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is. I suppose there are worse crimes in the world. (I don't know if Osama bin Laden uses semicolons or not.)"

"It's true that American writers tend to scorn and spurn the semicolon," says James Wolcott, Vanity Fair's artfully acerbic critic. "But those with more Anglophile tastes in literature and journalism, such as Gore Vidal or the editors of The New Yorker under William Shawn, sprinkled it liberally. It may be a fear of being thought pretentious, even poncy. The semicolon adds a note of formality, and informality has been all the rage for decades. 'Real' writing is butch and cinematic, so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases."

Note, though that the AP Stylebook isn't necessarily a fan. Here's the entry:
semicolon (;) In general, use the semicolon to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma can convey but less than the separation that a period implies.

The basic guidelines:
TO CLARIFY A SERIES: Use semicolons to separate elements of a series when the items in the series are long or when individual segments contain material that also must be set off by commas:

He is survived by a son, John Smith, of Chicago; three daughters, Jane Smith, of Wichita, Kan., Mary Smith, of Denver, and Susan, of Boston; and a sister, Martha, of Omaha, Neb.

Note that the semicolon is used before the final and in such a series. ...

TO LINK INDEPENDENT CLAUSES: Use semicolon when a coordinating conjunction such as and, but or for is not present: The package was due last week; it arrived today.

If a coordinating conjunction is present, use a semicolon before it only if extensive punctuation also is required in one or more of the individual clauses: They pulled their boats from the water, sandbagged the retaining walls, and boarded up the windows; but even with these precautions, the island was hard-hit by the hurricane.

Unless a particular literary effect is desired, however, the better approach in these circumstances is to break the independent clauses into separate sentences.

PLACEMENT WITH QUOTES: Place semicolons outside quotation marks.
And I've never been a fan of using semicolons in a series just because the separate items are long. So what? A comma works just as well.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Double entendre

Well, it doesn't take much of a dirty mind to read this headline the wrong way. (Thanks, Michael.)

Of course, maybe that's the right way. The double meaning was certainly intended.

I'll refrain from reproducing it here in case any of you read the blog at work. But remember when you click: Someone was at work when they wrote that.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dummy type

NewsDesigner has one more example of why you need to watch what you say in your dummy type -- and that goes for headline writers as well as designers.

Always remember: Anything you type might be published.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Words of advice

Here's five years of Testy Copy Editor knowledge boiled down to seven points. (Or, here are the only seven things we agree on.)
  1. There is no such thing as a miracle.
  2. We do not refer to soldiers as "peacekeepers."
  3. We do not show stories to anyone outside the newspaper before publication.
  4. Newspapers published in English use headlines written in English.
  5. We do not allow people to render their names as logos.
  6. The term "black box" serves no useful purpose. Use "flight data recorder" and "cockpit voice recorder."
  7. Dictionaries are the second-to-last refuge of scoundrels.
Just to prove that I'm the pedant you all expect me to be, it's No. 5 that gets me the most riled up -- probably because it just seems so easy that I can't understand why I ever see it wrong. And yet plenty of right-thinking friends will argue against it. I can do nothing but change it at work and pull my hair out at home.

J.A. Montalbano's made plenty of good arguments about why U.N. peacekeepers are really U.N. soldiers. Consider this from a Testy ACES handout (pdf):
International forces deploy soldiers. Avoiding this euphemism saves you one day from writing the headline "Peacekeeper fatally shoots mother, 2 children." If you must make it clear, for some reason, that France is not invading Haiti, and need to explain the purpose of the mission, say the troops or soldiers are there to "police" the region.
Anyone disagree?

Monday, September 12, 2005

The rise of the ampersand?

This article on the rising use of the ampersand comes with the good and the bad.

There is the interesting information:
The ampersand symbol is a combination of the letters "et," which is Latin for "and." In an article by award-winning design consultant Max Caflisch on the Adobe Systems Inc. Web site ( d.html) he writes that "one of the first examples of an ampersand (is) on a piece of papyrus from about 45 A.D." The ligature became a standard device for calligraphers and its use spread with the invention of printing in the early 15th century. And it has recently been adopted by computer programmers.

According to, the term ampersand "comes from the practice once common in schools of reciting all 26 letters of the alphabet followed by the "&" sign, pronounced 'and,' which was considered part of the alphabet." This recitation ended in the words "per se," as was common to signal that a letter could be used as a word itself. Thus the phrase "and, per se" evolved into "ampersand" and "crept into common English usage by around 1837," according to
And the not-so-interesting:
Hollywood has a new symbol to which standard rules of usage and reference do not appear to apply. It has crept from the corporate and commercial world that was its natural domain into the mainstream, text-driven, keyboard-and-cell-phone culture with the speed of the Nike swoosh and the stealth of kudzu.

It is called the ampersand, and it is out to conquer the world. ...

"It's such a long word for such a short symbol," says Erica Olsen, a copy editor at the California College of the Arts.
The article quotes Bryan Garner, but I can't imagine he didn't have anything more interesting to say than this:
When asked if it is a symbol or a word, modern usage authority Bryan Garner, editor of Black's Law Dictionary and Garner's Modern American Usage, describes it as "a symbol for a word." Its rise, he says, is part of the movement toward grammatical economy where "saving characters is very much at a premium," he says.
But the symbol isn't covered in "Modern American Usage" from what I can see.

By the way, I didn't see a thing in that piece that convinced me that the use of the ampersand was indeed on the rise. And I'll keep you posted on any articles involving the rise of the virgule (which I do believe is happening), the octothorpe or the interrobang.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A capital offense

Here's a play about a copy editor -- "Bone Dry aka the Copy Editor Murders" -- that sounds as if not one copy editor would enjoy it.
[Playwright Paula] Cizmar's language strains clumsily to be cool (dogs are muttsters; hummingbirds are h-birds), and the people she puts on stage are more narcissistic abstractions than characters. Eddi, the central character and ostensibly the repository of our emotional investment is cloying, self-pitying -- and she uses "impact" as a verb, which would be a capital offense among every copy editor I know.
But, if you still want to see it, make your way to Minneapolis. It closes Oct. 16.

Copy editors of the world, unite and take over

New York state is increasing its focus on grammar education. Check out this lede from Newsday:
Attention students ... No, correct that ... Attention, students: Missing commas and dangling participles could well cost you points in the school year now opening.

It's Revenge of the Grammarians. An expanded series of state tests is adding new questions on grammar -- a topic all but abandoned in many classrooms a generation ago. The tests will be taken on Long Island this school year by 210,000 students -- triple the number assessed in English here last year.
Ah, the comma of direct address. Wonder if that'll make the test. Sounds like some copy editing practice is in order.
To measure students' grammar skills, each new English test for grades 3, 5 and 7 will include a paragraph in which students will correct errors in spelling, punctuation, word usage and sentence structure.
The article has a cute headline: "Tense testing ahead."

Saturday, September 10, 2005

"Confessions of a Tourist: Lust in translation"

Forgive me, but I seem to have stumbled upon some soft-core copy editor porn.

From the Sunday Times, no less.

Watch me do a double-take

But it's not a misspelling: There is a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians named Jhonny Peralta.

And they're not even copy editors

The language pet peeves of everyday people.

An example:
I automatically discount the opinions of those who:

* mix up "discreet" and "discrete". (I bought a book which included the word "Discrete" in the title. The back cover had a footnote explaining the difference between the two words. I view the fact that this is necessary as a sign of the coming apocalypse.)

* talk about "facists" or "rascists". (Facists discriminate on the basis of facial appearance? Rascists: those who kill grandmothers with axes?)

* call people "rediculous" or "dellusional". (Our own PP has been cured of this at last!)

* say "rouge" when they mean "rogue". (Of course, that happens in Warcraft, not here, but it still irritates me.)

I used to be bothered by "different to" (as opposed to "different from") but I gather that's a regional difference, not incorrect.
And another:
affect / effect. One of our customers almost always uses "affect" when they should be using "effect" - it drives me batshit insane because any fixed typos have to get tracked back to the customer for approval, stalling their entire order.
And then this poem about misspelling:
Eye halve a spelling chequer,
It came with my pee, see;
It plane lea marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye Cannes knot sea.

Eye strike a key oar type align,
An weight four it two say,
Weather eye am write oar wrong--
It chose me strait aweigh.

A soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long,
And eye can put the err or write
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Sew eye have run this poem awl threw it
Ewe must bee please two, no?
Its let her perfect awl the weigh;
My chequer tolled me sew.

Three language columns

A Winston-Salem Journal columnist explains the phrase "greater than the sum of its parts" and why a band playing a Britney Spears song is covering it but one playing a Beethoven number isn't.

James J. Kilpatrick writes about keeping it simple. (I think this is what almost all his columns are about, but whatever.) I did, however, like this sentence, despite its cheesiness.
Specialized vocabularies are foie gras and peacock's tongues. Today we're serving meat and potatoes.
And the best of the three: Verbal Energy's Ruth Walker writes about headlines that shift as you read them. And that's a bad thing. Her example headline is from the Guardian:
New academy schools fuel education row
What's a noun and what's a verb? She had to read it a few times to figure it out, through process of elimination.

A word on the last word of this confusing headline: "Row" in this sense has nothing to do with taking your boat gently down the stream. This "row" rhymes with "how now" and is a staple of British headline writing: It covers, with admirable succinctness and a dash of informality, concepts otherwise expressed by Latinate polysyllables: controversy, disagreement, contention, debate, dispute.

Except for that "w" stretched open like a salesman's sample case, it's a short word, only three letters. It's even shorter than one of my favorites, "flap." And of course all these describe events or phenomena that are the very stuff of politics and journalism: Newspapers need such words the way tailors need cloth.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The language of Katrina

Geoffrey Nunberg has a segment on "Fresh Air" today (a longer, written-out version is here) on the language of Katrina.

He covers "looters" vs. "finders":
Of course the looters should be shot, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan said. But by looters she meant the people who were taking what they wanted and not simply what they needed.

That was pretty much where people were drawing the moral line, but it as they waded into unforeseen semantic subtleties. You were within your rights to walk out of a supermarket with a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Skippy, but woe betide you if your bag turned out to contain Carr's Water Crackers and a tin of foie gras.
And he covers "refugees," "evacuees" and, ahem, "internally displaced persons." Some newspapers and wire services have defended the use of "refugee" as meaning simply someone who seeks refuge. But that doesn't seem right -- ducking into a ski hut to wait out a blizzard doesn't make me a refugee. ...

"Evacuees," "victims," "displaced," "refugees," "survivors" -- as with the question of what to use in place of "looting" of food and water, there's no ideal solution here. But that's as it should be. If you weren't struggling to find the right language to describe what you were seeing ofter the last two weeks, you probably weren't paying close enough attention.But one of the most interesting things to come out of the article is his note on how the press has been using
"refugee" disproportionately in the neighborhood of "poor" or "black" or in reference to the people gathered in the Astrodome. He fleshed that out in a post at Language Log.

In Nexis wire service articles mentioning Katrina over the past week, articles containing evacuee outnumber those containing refugee by 56% to 44% (n=1522). But in contexts in which the words appear within 10 words of poor or black, refugee is favored by 68% to 32% (n=85). And in contexts in which the words appear within ten words of Astrodome, refugee is favored by 63% to 37% (n=461).

Those disparities likely reflect the image of refugees as poor, bedraggled, and abandoned, which would make the word seem apt to describe the people getting off the buses at the Astrodome. That stereotype may be unfair and invidious in its own right, as George Rupp, the CEO of the Interntional Rescue Committee, was saying this morning on WNYC's Bryan Lehrer Show, where I was also a guest. But the way the press is using the word refugee now hardly does much to dispel the stereotype. And while there may be polemical reasons for advocates of the displaced to use the term, the way Woodie Guthrie did in his song "Dust Bowl Refugee," that's hardly what the media are getting at when they use it, or what President Bush was thinking of when he objected to the use of the term the other day.
In my last post on "refugees" vs. "evacuees," Chris has posted a comment about CNN that's interesting. The station will continue to use the term "refugee," and Lou Dobbs said last night:
The president, Jackson and others apparently think that news organizations created the term refugee just to describe victims of Hurricane Katrina. Hardly. Even a cursory review of reporting of such disaster of Hurricane Andrew, the 1993 midwestern floods and wildfires through the west have all prompted the use of the term refugee by news organizations. I'm proud to tell you that this network has resisted others telling them how to use words. Rejecting, in fact, the United Nations suggestion that we use, instead of refugee, the expression internally displaced persons. I love that one.


Here's how I've been wasting my time today:
Audio clips from online dictionaries sing the hits of yesterday and today. The fun of karaoke meets the word power of the dictionary.
The Beatles, the Smiths, the Beastie Boys, my favorite Liz Phair song.

The Ramones. Fred Astaire. Britney Spears. A-ha.

It's a weird mix, but it works.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

New Orleans insurgency

The Army Times (owned by Gannett) writes about fighting the "insurgency" in New Orleans.

This follows the usage of "insurgent" in Iraq to apply to anyone fighting the U.S. occupation, a move away from the definition of "a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government; especially: a rebel not recognized as a belligerent."

As Phil Blanchard once pointed out at Testy Copy Editors:
"Insurgent" is best reserved for its political meanings; Howard Dean fits the definition of an insurgent Democrat. "Insurgent" also sometimes describes a rebel who is not violent.
We're witnessing a shift in the meaning, from the above definition to something more closely resembling this one:
1: a person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority (especially in the hope of improving conditions) [syn: insurrectionist, freedom fighter, rebel] 2: a member of an irregular armed force that fights a stronger force by sabotage and harassment [syn: guerrilla, guerilla, irregular]
You get to decide how lenient to be in your publication. How would most readers understand the word?

Refugee or evacuee?

Some news organizations -- including the Dallas Morning News, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Columbus Dispatch -- have stopped allowing the use of "refugee" to refer to displaced New Orleans residents.

No one argues against the fact that these are people seeking refuge. And they fit most dictionaries' definitions of what a refugee is. But people don't like the foreign-country connotations that come along with it.

Jesse Jackson and the NAACP's Brian Gordon spoke out against the word: "It is just wrong," Jackson said. "They are citizens displaced by a disaster."

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus took issue. Said Rep. Diane Watson of California:"'Refugee' calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens."

The president even weighed in.
You know, there's a debate here about refugees. Let me tell you my attitude and the attitude of people around this table: The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens.
It's not just talking heads. One story I read quoted a 60-year-old woman, Clara Rita, who said: "I can't stand people calling me a refugee. I am an American, and I love America. But right now things are bad."

Honestly, I think the arguments against using "refugee" are more damaging than actually using the term. As one blogger summed it up, they imply: Refugees are those foreign people in dirty little countries! These are Americans! There's nothing shameful about being a refugee. If anything, this might make us look at refugees throughout the world in a new light.

That being said, I don't think we should use the word, anyway. It doesn't matter if it's technically correct; it's become a distraction. Better to use "evacuee" or "survivor" or whatever instead and not make readers pause.

(But please don't adopt the preferred language of former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, who likes "citizen refugee.")

UPDATE: An AP story says the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have banned "refugee," as well.

AP and the New York Times are still using the word.
"We have not banned the word 'refugee,'" said [Times]spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. "We have used it along with 'evacuee,' 'survivor,' 'displaced' and various other terms that fit what our reporters are seeing on the ground. Webster's defines a refugee as a person fleeing 'home or country' in search of refuge, and it certainly does justice to the suffering legions driven from their homes by Katrina."

And William Safire shared his opinion, saying he didn't see any racial overtones.
"A refugee can be a person of any race at all," he said. "A refugee is a person who seeks refuge."

He first suggested using the term "hurricane refugees." After thinking it over, though, he said he would probably simply use the term "flood victims," to avoid any political connotations.
Any stories from newsrooms elsewhere?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Flying in to cover Katrina

With journalists struggling to put out papers in the devastated regions of the Gulf Coast, news orgs are shipping in help.

My friend Nick Jungman left the Wichita Eagle for Columbus, Ga., where the staff of the Biloxi Sun Herald has set up shop.

Communication was tough, he said Thursday:
Spirits are generally high, but several people have no idea whether their homes are still standing, and there are members of the staff that have never reported in. Communication with folks in Biloxi and Gulfport only comes from their trips to transmit from Mobile, where the phones and networks have been working, and some calls using Knight Ridder's satellite phone, which VP Brian Monroe has in the field.
The Sun Herald has managed to publish, on paper, every day, which is incredible. Nick said they were putting out 24-page papers that they were trucking the five or six hours down to the Mississippi coast.
People are desperate for the most basic information -- how to get water, where to get food, how to find their families. But because practically nothing works -- no electricity, let alone telephone and Internet -- the newspaper is pretty much the only source for all that. ... It's even being distributed locally in Columbus because some people from the Mississippi coast are sheltering in the area. We have a picture in yesterday's [Wednesday's] paper of a woman who broke down crying when she saw the devastation in her hometown ... in her hometown newspaper.
All this gets done with a small staff and help from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
I'm here with four members of the Biloxi desk -- assistant city editor, wire editor, graphics editor and designer -- plus KR reinforcements -- myself, two from San Jose, one from Miami, one from Macon and one from Aberdeen, S.D., with more to come. Plus the whole staff of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. They've practically reassigned their managing editor to helping us, and their picture editors and copy editors are pitching in on top of their normal work.
Columbus' pressroom prints the local paper and then the Biloxi paper. It must be a madhouse there.

A little about the production angle, since a lot of you newspaper folks will be interested in the details: Nick is the copy chief at the Eagle, making a transition to report on the business desk. But he does have some design background. For the Biloxi paper, he's doing mostly pagination.
I've learned a new pagination system almost from scratch (DTI). ... We all pitch in editing as we have time, and a lot of editing happens on proof. It's hard because communicating with folks in Biloxi has been a real challenge. They had been either dictating to us over a satellite phone or driving to Mobile to transmit via Internet. Today [Thursday], the phone company got DSL and a landline up and running at the Sun Herald, which is helping immensely.
>An update from San Jose's Kevin Wendt, also helping the Biloxi paper []
>'Sun-Herald' Presses On, But Many Employees Unaccounted For [E&P]
>Top Knight Ridder Execs Describe Visit to Biloxi [E&P]

Thursday, September 01, 2005

In which I learn new words and clarify some old

William Safire taught me some slang this week. (And though I'm not very hip for my 27 years, few newspaper columnists are up on even me when it comes to the parlance of our times.) His On Language column gives a name to the roll of fat that hangs over a pair of too-tight low-rise jeans: the muffin-top on a woman, the stud-muffin-top on a man. Very cute.

And this Word Watch column offers a refresher on the difference between flounder and founder.
A ship that founders is one that fills with water and sinks. The word can also be used to mean "break down, collapse or fail," as in, "The business lost money and foundered."

A person who flounders is struggling to move or thrashing about trying to gain footing. It might make you think of a fish that is flapping around out of water, since "flounder," when used as a noun, refers to a type of fish.
(This is one I looked up again just last week to be sure; as the column points out, the two meanings can be pretty close when used metaphorically.)

A copy editor's investment strategy?

One of the Motley Fool founders talks about investing in the "verb companies":

Tim Beyers: How can you differentiate between a fad and a real, live Rule Breaking opportunity?

David Gardner: Mindshare. It is one of the most powerful drivers of the best Rule Breaking businesses. Yet mindshare doesn't show up as an asset on corporate balance sheets. And there's no "price-to-mindshare ratio."

Still, there are a handful of examples where mindshare has preceded market success. These are the verb companies: TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO), Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), FedEx (NYSE: FDX), and Taser (Nasdaq: TASR).