Diktats, edicts, fiats and ukases*
All rulings about a publication’s house style are arbitrary. When there is more than one possibility for writing something — a number as a word or a numeral, a title abbreviated or written out, a noun capitalized or lowercase — a house style picks one for the sake of consistency, so as not to distract the reader.
But the power to make arbitrary rulings tempts those who wield it to enshrine their personal preferences in the publication’s policies. Editors, managing editors, assistant managing editors, copy desk chiefs and other tinpot autocrats leave their traces behind, sometimes shackling their staffs for years after their own departures.
Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey Jr., The Sun’s managing editor during the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s, affectionately memorialized in Russell Baker’s The Good Times, despised the verb gutted. It was an ugly word, he said, that was not to appear in his newspaper. The rule against it, from the “Whims and Foibles” section of The Sun’s 1958 stylebook, survives today in the electronic version.
It is widely disregarded, not just by the reporters, many of whom cannot be troubled to consult the stylebook, but also by copy editors, who are expected to have a working knowledge of the stylebook.
(I can, however, make a case against gutted. If we are writing, as we usually are, about burned buildings rather than fish, I don’t know what the writer means by gutted. Is the interior destroyed, with only the shell standing. Or is the interior seriously damaged but partially intact? Or something else. More precision would be good.)
Another departed managing editor hated the word escapee. The -ee suffix, he argued, is appended to verbs to indicate that an action is done to someone. But a prisoner who escapes is the actor, and therefore should be called an escaper. The logic is impeccable, but the English language does not operate by logic. While escaper is indisputably in the language — the OED cites a passage in the King James Bible — escapee has been the word in wider use for well over a century. We went along with escaper for a while, to placate authority, but escaper last appeared in The Sun in September 2001 and is not likely to make many future appearances.
As these two examples attest, while it’s easy to make a rule, it’s extremely difficult to enforce it in a newsroom full of journalists accustomed to going things their own way. Over time, a combination of defiance, lax enforcement and failure to instruct new employees further weakens the rules.
The real surprise is how long the bad ones survive. I’m confident that readers of this blog could offer a bounty of examples.
* All four are arbitrary rulings. Diktat is German, so no more need be said about authoritarianism. Edict is from the Latin verb edicere, “to proclaim.” Fiat is also from Latin, “let it be so.” Ukase is Russian, the word for a decree by the czar.