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Native son

Mr. Joseph Michael Cierniak of Frostburg is exercised over a post on our Web site:

Sun coverage of broadcast icon* and Baltimore native Jim McKay, who died Saturday at age 86.

He points out that Jim McKay, who was born in Philadelphia and who came to Baltimore at the age of 15, was by no stretch of the English language a native of Baltimore.

And he is right. You are a native of the place where you were born, and you remain so until the end of your days. Ezra Pound made much of being a native of Hailey, Idaho, though he lived there only briefly in infancy and grew up in Philadelphia. I’ve only lived in Baltimore for 22 years myself and am therefore, though a Baltimorean, still classified as an auslander.

We should be grateful that at least we did not refer to the late Mr. McKay as a former native of Philadelphia, an ignorant construction that we have published all too often over the years.

Mr. Cierniak is, however, in error in taking one of our sportswriters to task, at some length, for the “Baltimore native” mistake. Reporters do not write headlines or photo captions or what we call teasers — brief lines directing readers to information elsewhere. All this material is written by a cadre of anonymous editors laboring through the day and night.

Don’t blame the shoemaker for a mistake by the elves.


* I have flailed away for years, to no purpose, at the use of icon to refer to a person rather than an image, and I have given up the struggle. Though I still don’t care for it, I endure journalists’ addiction to it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (12)


So what would a better construction have been there, to refer to his Baltimore heritage?

yo, what's with people shirking their Philly roots??? (and am I using "shirk" correctly?)
-a Philly suburbs native

I would think "icon" would be appropriate in the case of James McManus, since most people knew him only as an image: Jim McKay.

By the way, I'm enjoying this blog. As an aspiring writer I hope it can help me steer clear of common and un-common mistakes.

One of the few celebrities I'd consider an icon would be Michael Jordan, because of that little figure on all those shoes.

Really interesting the way the meaning of the word icon has bifurcated in recent years. It once meant a sacred image. Now it's used to mean either something elevated to a pseudo-sacred status (hence the celebrities), or, simply a pictorial image such as you find on your computer or phone screen. The only common thread the two usages seem to retain is an element of symbolic significance -- symbolic value in the first instance, symbolic meaning in the second

I have always hated that use of the word "native."

I was born in one state, but left there before I could remember anything. The second state greatly shaped me, far beyond the state of my actual birth could, and it is in fact the state by which *I* identify myself. I am an Iowan. Sometimes a former Iowan, sometimes an Iowan still.

We need another word.

In some cases, when we are dealing with someone who was not born in a place but significantly shaped by it (as Talley Sue Hohlfeld apparently was by Iowa), we might say, for example, "Iowa-raised," or even "Iowa-bred" (admittedly old-fashioned). In the case of Jim McCay, one might identify him as "an icon of Baltimore sports broadcasting." By the way, if I am not mistaken, the word "icon" meant originally "image" in Greek, but in the Eastern Orthodox tradition came to mean images that conveyed some pure truth (I expect there is more than a little Platonism involved here). So to call Jim McKay an icon of "Baltimore sports broadcasting" does not seem too far a stretch, in the sense that he exemplified the best of the genre.

"Icon," like "diva," represents a battle that's been lost. The fact that I don't like either is irrelevant to the reality of evolving language.

I understand the objection to "icon," but what would a better word be? "Legend" just sounds silly, and, as with "icon," the traditional meaning makes it look odd. Seems to me the new use of "icon" fills a real need.

You could also speak of me as a former Iowan, and simply never mention the state of my birth, I suppose.

Is that Iowa-raised or Iowa-reared?

I'd like to drag icons, and the word, to the trash.

When this stuff really matters, as in an obituary, it's not too hard to explain in plain English. I was born in D.C. and raised in Wheaton, Md.

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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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