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March 30, 2007

On the spike

Rummaging around the Internet the other day, I came across a Web site offering more than 200 euphemisms for death and dying:

Many were familiar—"buy the farm," "climb the Golden Stair," "ring down the curtain and join the Choir Invisible," "shuffle off this mortal coil." But there were several novel ones, the most engaging of which was "cooking for the Kennedys."

"uying the farm"has always seemed a little odd, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable offers a hint as to the possible origin. Brewer’s has no entry for "buy the farm," but the "Buy. Bought It" entry says, "One has paid for death with one’s life." So presumably one pays for the farm with one’s life. Coming from a long line of farmers, I’m inclined to suggest an additional sense, that dying is the only way for a farmer to close the mortgage.

The purpose of euphemism is to distance the speaker or writer from a phenomenon that distresses. Death being one of the ultimate stressors, it appropriately has a large accumulation of circumlocutions. Many are gentle or innocent, such as "go west,""go to sleep"or "go to one’s reward." Many attempt to fend off the idea of death with a mordant jocularity: "buy a pine condo," "kick the oxygen habit," "move into upper management."

An account of the origins of the famous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" sketch reports that it was coming across the listings under death in a thesaurus that inspired the sketch, in which the gimmick was to work in as many euphemisms for dying as possible. (The same technique was the basis for their equally famous but less resonant "Cheese Shop" sketch.)

The Web site lists nothing particularly pertinent to newspapering, but there are possibilities. "To write 30" suggests completion, alluding to the practice in hard-copy days of typing “"30-" to indicate the end of a text. To "spike" a story is to kill it by impaling it on a copy spike as unusable. "To close the final edition" is a little obvious. And no doubt the exciting new realm of electronic publication will quickly kick up its own nominees.

You have anything to add?


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (7)

March 28, 2007

I'm not that John McIntyre

People in my hometown, Elizaville, Ky., were excited to hear that John McIntyre had appeared on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Local boy makes good.

Googling suggests that the John McIntyre on the Limbaugh show may have been the John McIntyre of Real Clear Politics. So Local Boy is still just an ink-stained wretch editing copy for a great metropolitan newspaper. (Neither, by the way, am I the John E. McIntyre who is head of preservation at the National Library of Scotland nor the John E. McIntyre who was sentenced to prison in Florida for sending child pornography over the Internet.)

But a look at the political expressions at led me to reflect a little about civility. Thirty-five years ago, I was a callow undergraduate, a McGovern Democrat, working in the summers at the Flemingsburg Gazette in Fleming County, Kentucky. Jean Denton, the publisher’s wife and editor of the paper, was as hard-core and principled a Nixon Republican as I have ever met. Privately, each of us thought the other’s political views repugnant, but we got along fine.

One reason was that we celebrated the things we agreed on, such as murder mysteries, dedicated schoolteachers and Joan Didion’s prose. We also enumerated our shared dislikes, such as the fractured syntax of the copy coming into the Gazette, and the disagreeable character traits of local figures (most  of whom have since paid Charon’s fare, carrying their faults with them, so there is no point in naming names).   

But the main reason was that we treated each other with respect and civility. Jean never spoke down to me as if I were some naïve and overly impressionable twerp, and I never, in word or tone, suggested that she was a bigoted mossback. We liked each other, we respected each other’s good qualities, and we overlooked minor eccentricities.

People who complain about bias in the news media go awry by missing the point. Half the time, they carp that the bias isn’t the bias they would prefer to see. Or they purport to hold up some entirely unreal yardstick of personal "objectivity." Who would want to read reportage from someone so apathetic, so namby-pamby as to have formed no opinion whatsoever about the issues of the day?

What we need is civility and respect. Civility and respect demand that multiple points of view get attention, and get attention without distortion or ridicule. You can write about opinions you do not like, just as you can work collegially with people whom you do not particularly care for.

Nixon is gone, and I’m not sorry. I thought he was a bad president. In fact, in the four decades I have been a voting adult, I’ve not had the experience of living under an administration in which I could think that the president was both an effective executive and an admirable person. But I’m a journalist; I’m supposed to be skeptical of everyone.

Jean Denton is gone, too, and I miss her. She and her husband, Lowell, were kind and generous to me. They gave me my start in this peculiar business, and they thought well of me even when they didn’t agree with me. ("Is John Early still backing that Communist?" Lowell once asked a colleague in the office.) Civility and respect beget more civility and respect in return.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:52 AM | | Comments (0)

March 26, 2007

It's in the dictionary

You reach for a dictionary seeking certainty, and it turns out to be a rope of sand.

A regular feature on the examinations in my copy-editing class at Loyola College is a section in which students are to identify and correct misspellings. The most recent midterm exam contained nickle, which one of my students marked correct and which I marked wrong. She appealed, pointing out that her dictionary listed nickle as an alternative spelling.

So it did. It was a Merriam-Webster publication. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which I recommend for the class because it is the one the Associated Press uses as a basis for its style, does not. Neither do Random House Webster's, the American Heritage Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary. (Well, the OED does list nickle as a North Midlands variant of nicker, or woodpecker, but my student is not from the Midlands.)

Neither, for that matter, does the editing textbook assigned for the class, which includes nickle in its list of misspellings.

But I raised the student’s grade a point; I’m not a brute.

Lexicography, at least in current understanding of the craft, seeks simply to record the language as people speak and write it, and all of us should be grateful to the assiduous attention lexicographers give to their obscure labors.

It is also clear that language can’t be fixed. If it could, dictionaries would tell us to say that the covering garment worn during cooking is a napron, the original 14th-century spelling, “corrupted,” as the OED puts it, by the migration of the initial consonant to the indefinite article. But they don’t insist on it, and neither do I.

If such an error, if you insist on calling such a change an error, persists, then it becomes standard. Napron is now apron. So nickle, over time, may well achieve legitimacy in multiple dictionaries,  as supercede for supersede has done in getting itself mentioned as a variant.

But there are things one would like to have nailed down. To imply something is different from inferring something. Accommodate should have a double m. A podium is something to stand on, not lean on. People should pay attention to what they say and write.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (3)

March 21, 2007

Word games

I stink at Scrabble. Tucked away in a closet at the house, a box with a deluxe version of the game has been gathering dust for years.

I’m no good at crossword puzzles, either. Never got hooked on them, never mastered their peculiar vocabulary. I have, however, learned the fundamental principle of newspaper journalism: Never mess with the crossword puzzles. The people who like them like them with a frenzy, and they will come at you by the hundreds and thousands if you muck about with their puzzles.

James Thurber and his friends played a version of the word game Ghosts that they called Superghosts. You can read about it in his essay "Do You Want to Make Something Out of It?" in Alarms and Diversions. In Superghosts, as in Ghosts, the players go around a circle, each adding a letter until a complete word is formed; the distinction in Superghosts is that letters can be added at both the beginning and the end. Experienced Superghost players are the kinds of people who would recognize, say, that cklu is the middle of lackluster.

I’d really stink at that.

I know how to spell Vercingetorix.  I can edit copy. I can write headlines in a tight count — you try summarizing a 750-word story in five or six words, not one of them longer than six letters. But I am hopeless at all word games.

This comes up because my learned colleagues at the District of Columbia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and The Sun’s diversity committee have scheduled a benefit Scrabble tournament that I will not attend on May 5, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at The Sun’s Community Room. For details about costs and registration, consult The Sun’s Liz Kay, at, or The Washington Post’s Doris Truong at

I’m told that the prizes will be exciting.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:43 PM | | Comments (5)

March 19, 2007

Return of the grumpy old guy

Watch out for falling mortars.

Item: A dispatch from the Associated Press on Saturday carried a sentence beginning, "Two mortars fell near the Foreign Ministry." And a quick Google on "mortars fell" turns up thousands of pieces of artillery dropping from the skies.

A mortar is a weapon. It fires shells. Mortar shells or mortar rounds arc through the air and explode. It doesn’t seem to be a lot to ask for news services to get this right.

Item: Over the weekend I excised a couple of references to athletes’ quest for "Olympic gold"

Olympic Gold, a quality semi-gloss interior enamel, available at Home Depot.  While "Olympic gold" is not the most irritating sports cliche, its emergence at intervals, like cicadas, annoys with its predictability.

Item: For those addicted to anniversary stories, which apparently includes every journalist in the United States, the war in Iraq poses a complication. The Associated Press writes that the anniversary of the start of the war is March 20, which was the date in Iraq. But the date was still March 19 in the United States, so our national/foreign desk has decided to consider March 19 the anniversary.

Not so sure here. We don’t say that the combined naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands at lunchtime on Dec. 7, 1941, because that’s what time it was in Washington, D.C. The time events occur at the place where they occur is how we conventionally report. Admittedly, that damnable globular nature of the planet complicates things with time zones, but we ought to have figured out how to manage that by now.   

Item: A high school freshman has written (Who knew that anyone was reading these dispatches?) to inquire about the word nemesis. He had been through a category of “words from mythology” in a vocabulary workbook that defined nemesis as "(1. due punishment for evil deeds 2. one who inflicts such punishment (from Nemesis, goddess of vengeance)" And he asks, "Does modern use of nemesis, butchered by some sports analysts, stray from the word's original meaning?"

Oh, yes. The word has been completely trivialized. As recently as Agatha Christie's Nemesis, published about 35 years ago, it was possible for the author to play on the irony of an elderly British spinster, Miss Marple, as the agent of cosmic justice and retribution. Today, the word usually means some high school sports team.

But there may a more serious issue here. A high school freshman appears to be well advanced on the road that leads to becoming a cranky old guy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:18 PM | | Comments (3)

March 14, 2007

Grumpy old guy

Grumble, grumble:

A reporter on National Public Radio referred this morning to Iraq as the war-torn nation. Is there anyone with a radio in the United States who is unaware that there is a war in Iraq?

Why have newspaper reporters seized on in the wake of in the sense of after or because? Do they all aspire to own yachts? Or does it just contribute to some desired effect of pomposity? It is the wake of a larger boat that causes a smaller one difficulty. So is using in the wake of a sneaky way of suggesting cause and effect without establishing the circumstances as such?

In the wake of is one of those metaphors worn so smooth by overuse that they have lost their original impact and blurred their meaning. Free rein is another, which explains why it so frequently turns up in copy as free reign.

One of our reporters used the “X is not alone” transition for today’s editions, and it slipped past the copy desk. You know the device, because you have seen it a thousand times. An article begins with description of some person’s situation that is representative of a larger issue. Then “X is not alone,” followed by the description of the larger issue. This device has become such a cliche that omitting the “X is not alone” sentence makes absolutely no difference.

Well, it sometimes does to the writer. Another Sun reporter once complained that the copy desk had deleted the “X is not alone” sentence from an article. I explained that the device was a cliche that we had been trying to eliminate from the paper for a decade. The writer’s response: “It’s not a cliche when I use it.” 

Another article in this morning’s paper described a woman who had lived with an older man (and who is a suspect in his death) as the man’s one-time paramour.

Paramour? What’s today, 1935?

Also, it’s supposed to rain this afternoon and then turn cold. Feh.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (6)

March 12, 2007

Hearing voices

The complaint comes with an almost liturgical uniformity and regularity: "You’re interfering with the writer’s voice."

That’s entirely possible. Some voices mumble; some stutter. Some shout into the reader’s ear. Sometimes a Florence Foster Jenkins mistakes herself for a Rosa Ponselle. [Note below] Usually the complaint to the copy desk about interfering with the voice means that a copy editor has canceled a maladroit attempt at humor or lanced and drained an adjectival inflammation. It requires restraint not to bark back the advice of Wolcott Gibbs to New Yorker editors circa 1937: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” 

But the editor’s task is more complex than that rebarbative impulse would suggest. Another New Yorker editor, Roger Angell, son of Katharine White and stepson of E.B. White, includes in his memoir, Let Me Finish, some key advice on editing he had from William Shawn: “It’s no great trick to edit a piece of fiction and turn it into the greatest story ever written. Anyone can do that. It’s much harder to take a story and help the writer turn it into the best thing he is capable of this week or this month.”

Editors have to remind themselves constantly that it is not their job to turn the text into the story or article they would have written. Of the hundreds of writers I’ve encountered in 27 years as a professional copy editor, not one has ever said, “Gee, I wish I could sound like you.”

No, our job is to draw out of the text the best that the writer has been able to accomplish. Often that means clearing the underbrush that clutters the view. It may mean recombining the parts in a more logical order, or highlighting one element above the others. It may be as simple as replacing imprecise words with more exact ones. But in all this, the copy editor cannot get beyond what is offered. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.”

For this delicate process to work, both parties have to learn humility. Not every writer’s effort succeeds. Not every editor’s suggestion improves the text. The smart ones listen to each other.

[Note: Florence Foster Jenkins regularly provoked laughter at her voice recitals, capping her career by renting Carnegie Hall in 1944. A recording of her attempt at the Queen of the Night’s aria "Der Hoelle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from Mozart’s Magic Flute has been sending opera buffs into paroxysms of mirth for decades.]

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (2)

March 8, 2007

Raw sex

In 1980, every story in The Cincinnati Enquirer’s computer system carried a six-letter slug — the one-word working title for stories moving through editing and production. SCOTUS, for example, would be a Supreme Court story. The most popular slug was RAWSEX.

About 90 percent of the time, RAWSEX turned out to be an entirely mundane effort: The city desk realized that no one on the copy desk would rush to pick up a story slugged ZONING. But the copy desk would snap at a story slugged RAWSEX like a trout after a caddisfly. And maybe one time in 10, the subject was actually racy.

You, too, dear reader, have been hornswoggled. This post is about sex and gender. A Sun reader has asked why journalists insistently write gender when we mean sex. The reader had been taught that gender refers properly to grammar, sex to biology.

What may have been a useful distinction at one time has become hopelessly blurred. Gender is in place in legal and academic language, as well as popular usage, to indicate sexual identity in social and psychological aspects, and it is unlikely to be dislodged. This makes sense if one is trying to differentiate between physical characteristics (sex) and sexual identity or sexual behavior (gender). Gender is thus a neutral, technical term,  while sex tends to mix up biology with, well, you know, s-x.

And gender has been an underutilized word in English, which, unlike Greek, Latin, the Romance languages and many others, doesn’t bother with gender for most of its nouns. Now it’s beginning to earn its pay, especially as the theorists of human sexuality coin more and more terms to describe human sexual permutations: gender role, transgender and the other related concepts that social scientists have been energetically developing for more than 30 years.

As far as general usage goes, so long as you can avoid the social-science argot, gender is fine; it’s sex that leaves some readers queasy. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (2)

March 5, 2007

If beggars could question

How frequently do you (as a copy editor or otherwise) come across the phrase "begs the question" as a synonym for "raises the question?" How close are we to altering the original definition?

Few things make me this angry.

So wrote an irate Jason Jones. Let's look at what has exercised him.

"To beg the question" does not mean to raise or pose or provoke a question. It is a technical term in logic for a circular argument.

Edward P.J. Corbett's Classic Rhetoric for the Modern Student (as useful for his list and descriptions of tropes as for his list and descriptions of fallacies) gives two examples. The lawyer who says, "My client would not steal because he is an honest man," is begging the question. A longer version: "'God exists.' 'How do you know that God exists?' 'The Bible says so.' 'Why should I put my credence in what the Bible says?' 'Because it's the inspired word of God.' God is worthy of a more cogent
argument than this."

Writers who were not taught logic in school -- evidently a great many -- will think that to beg a question means to give rise to a question.

In that they are like the multitude of writers who have appropriated technical but dimly understood language. A parameter, for example, is "a constant, with variable values, used as a referent for
determining other variables." If you are a mathematician, that definition from Webster's New World College Dictionary probably means something to you. If you are not a mathematician, you are probably using parameter to mean a boundary or limit or guideline, or perhaps nothing in

People do write this way. Some even talk this way. Eventually, loose applications of technical terms to different contexts find their way into the dictionary, some embedding themselves in the language. That is fine. But in the interval, anyone who wishes to write precisely will be cautious.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:15 PM | | Comments (15)

March 1, 2007

Hey, apostrophize this!

By now you have seen it. State Rep. Steve Harrelson of Arkansas has filed a measure to declare that the possessive form of Arkansas is Arkansas’s.

This is not the first legislative effort to regularize the state’s name. As the Associated Press dispatch about the Harrelson measure explains, a legislative resolution in 1881 “formalized its [the state’s] current spelling and pronunciation, making the final ‘s’ silent.”

The traditional — some would insist orthodox — means of forming the possessive is to add ’s to the singular form. It is the form that The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes, though the text notes that because “feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions.” 

Associated Press style, which is the basis for the house styles of a multitude of publications, follows a modern practice of using the apostrophe only with words ending in s. And well, English is a big language, with room for multiple practices. It was no so very long ago that Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen were writing your’s, her’s and our’s.

And while it is public-spirited of the legislators to take time away from their important work — Arkansas has officially established, for example, a state bird, flower, song, tree, gem, insect, fruit and vegetable (the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato, which is technically a fruit but commonly called a vegetable), instrument, beverage, mammal, rock, mineral and American folk dance — efforts to regulate language are probably misguided.   

The French Academy’s efforts to repel foreign terms, particularly Americanisms, are famously futile, and the efforts by various governments to make English their official language have come in for ridicule, including a post on this blog:

When I worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer the municipal authorities of the city of Hamilton, Ohio, decreed that the official name of their city was Hamilton! Apart from a mildly amused account of their action, The Enquirer declined to use the exclamation point, and I suspect many Hamilton!ians did as well. Whatever the Arkansas Legislature might eventually do, I suspect that Arkansans and others will continue to form the possessive according to their individual preferences.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:59 PM | | Comments (4)
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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