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Red alert!

With another grisly holiday season looming over us, the coal-mine canaries on the copy desk are already scenting cliches. The first “jolly old elf” has already turned up, and Thanksgiving is still a week away. In hopes that word can reach you in time, I’m reprinting the post “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” from Dec. 22. 2005:

Nothing is harder to keep fresh than the language about something that happens every year. For several seasons now, The Sun’s copy desk has circulated in-house a memo on holiday cliches to eschew. The list below, compiled by Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, was published in an earlier form on the Poynter Institute’s Web site under the title “Avoid holiday cliches.”

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”)

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires the inclusion of Hanukkah in to holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:01 PM | | Comments (9) | TrackBacks (1)


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» Yes, Virginia, ’tis the season for winter weather conditions with all the trimmings from a Jolly Old Elf from Tor hates the internet
John McIntyre rules. His blog is all about use or misuse of words. He works for the Baltimore Sun, which would probably make anyone rule by association. They should really have a design intern from a small state school out in Washington state who also ... [Read More]


Bah -- humbug -- another way to be trite for the holidays is to mention Tiny Tim et al.

I would add a single, sweeping, even more difficult commandment as well:

Do not use any lyric from any Christmas carol, unless you are actually referring to the carol in question.

Ah, yes, those weather tautologies. We have one guy in New Orleans who unfailingly adds "hours" or "time frame" to every noun referring to time. Every time he refers to "the morning hours," or "the noon time frame," or "the afternoon hours," I want to jump in my car, drive to the TV studio, and throttle the guy. If he'd just drop the word "hours" from his vocabulary, the news show would have five extra minutes every night for sports.

Amen exclamation point.

How about a ban on "Santa helps the needy children" and similar constructions?

I looked up trimmings. It means, as I suspected, the usual accompaniments to the meat. So, yeah, it's cliche, but its meaning isn't different from what a reasonable person would expect.

Anyone but me remember the 'Pogo' Sunday sequence in which Walt Kelly created a supposed trip to Siberia just to set up the gag, 'Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia'?

Domagio. I shall miss 'tis-ing and 'twas-ing. What about "and lo-ing"?

How about a ban on entries from The Department of Redundancy Department such as requesting an avoidance of "winter weather conditions" when "weather conditions" has already been included on the list of phrases to avoid?

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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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