John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, July 17, 2009

C'mon, AP, tell us about the Olden Times

It’s the little touches that make newspaper/wire service journalism look as if it was written exclusively for people who remember the Eisenhower administration. For your inspection, this Associated Press headline:

Senate saw carbon copy of courthouse Sotomayor

Feel free to mention in comments the last time you used carbon paper or saw someone use carbon paper. Full marks if you have had to explain to a child what a carbon copy is. Extra credit if you have had to explain to an adult what a carbon copy is. And please name any newspaper that was lazy enough to use the AP headline in the print edition.

And now I have a busy day of writing ahead and have to sharpen my quills.

21 comments:

  1. There must be a list somewhere of sayings and expressions that are now out of date. The only one I can think of right now is saying you'll dial someone's phone number, even though what you're really doing is punching the buttons. (I have tried to explain dial telephones to my 5-year-old.)

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  2. But "dial" still appears on my Internet-powered phone at work, and DJs still refer to current groups' "records."

    If you want to see a young person's eyes roll back in her head, try explaining ditto papers to her. Especially how we liked to sniff the papers fresh off the hand-cranked machine for a fleeting high.

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  3. For what it's worth, I get almost 4.5 million Google™ hits for carbon-copy, including a backup/cloning utility for Mac. I suspect one doesn't have to know what carbon paper is to know what a metaphorical carbon copy is. It's only us geezers who do know what it is that think the phrase might be confusing to all those young sprats.

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  4. And remember when people used to roll up the windows in their cars?

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  5. But ... English is littered with obsolete expressions of the same nature, some hundreds of years old. They fossilise into metaphors. When was the last time you were hoisted by your own petard? A few minutes ago, methinks!

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  6. Was just thinking about carbon paper during a recent re-watching of "Animal House," specifically, the scene where the elderly secretary throws away the carbon paper from the exam but the evil frat guys swap it for a lookalike & the Deltas all fail the test.

    Have also been thinking about expressions based on obsolete technologies/tools -- "tape" seems to get a lot of mileage still, even though most everything we record nowadays is digital. From taping TV shows to referring to someone as "caught on tape."

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  7. Go to your email. Now, go in to "compose" or "new mail" or whatever your server calls it when you are writing a new email. Notice that in the portion where you write the address and subject, there is also a space for Cc. Carbon copy. Most kids know what a carbon copy is, even if they don't know what carbon paper is. The headline says "carbon copy", not "carbon-papered copy."

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  8. Anonymous, people still do roll up their windows. The base model of the 2009 Toyota Matrix, for example, does not include power windows.

    As for carbon paper, I'm sure I saw some within the last couple of years, but the last time I can really remember was probably 20 years ago, when my parents had some for use with the electric typewriter.

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  9. Plenty of people have a vivid notion of what a harrowing experience is, though they wouldn't know a harrow even if one rolled over their supine bodies. And I myself have no problem with opening tin cans, wrapping their partly-used contents in tinfoil, and putting them in the icebox, though I am only fifty-one.

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  10. I think there's general agreement that the e-mailed "CC" stands for "Courtesy Copy," no?

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  11. You don't have my agreement, Schultz! =)

    I assume the yellow copy of the receipt doesn't count as a 'real' carbon copy (a modern variant of carbonless copy paper perhaps? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbonless_copy_paper), so I guess the last time I saw carbon copy in action was someplace where they still used the hand-cranked credit card duplicators...

    Anyway, I'm reasonably young and am familiar with the term, and I think most young people, at least of my generation, understand it enough to get the sense of the headline. That said, it does sound a bit unnatural to me.

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  12. Patricia:
    What you witnessed in Animal House was the theft of a mimeographic master, not carbon paper. You see the secretary pull it off the machine and throw it in the trash in the scene prior.

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  13. Why would the use of "carbon copy" here be any different than using, say, "spitting image" or "real McCoy" or "dead ringer"? It's an idiomatic phrase. Who cares were it came from?

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  14. "Spitting image" is being widely transformed into "spit and image" because people are unfamiliar with the original term. I'm not sure that you grasped the point of the post. I wouldn't use "real McCoy" for the same reason that I wouldn't use "carbon copy." Both of them have a geriatric smell.

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  15. I've explained cc to both children and adults, but my favorite old-technology-related question was from a neighborhood kid (about 8) and was asked about 20 years ago (I am not kidding): He came into my apartment, following me around chatting, and somehow we got on to the topic of lunch, and he asked me where my microwave was, and I said I didn't have one, and he then asked in a seriously shocked and confused tone (while standing in front of my gas stove): Then how do you cook?!

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  16. FYI - If you sew, you use a type of carbon paper to trace darts and other markings from the pattern onto the fabric.

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  17. Geriatric smell? You mean, like wearing a bow tie?

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  18. I saw someone using carbon paper last Friday at my local Indian restaurant. Maybe their order book came from India, where a lot of older technology remains in use.

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  19. "Spit and image" and "spitting image" sound alike in many accents, and are equally old, as far as the record goes: the beginning of the 20th century. Spit meaning 'exact likeness', as in "He's the very spit of his father", has been around rather longer, though not often used today. The linguist Larry Horn argued that the original phrase was spitten image, using an obsolete participle of spit.

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  20. John, interesting. And if you pronounced any of those variants in the context of "...in the likeness of..." would any American English speaker above the intelligence level of cretin look at you and ask "What do you mean?"

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  21. Loretta wrote, "DJs still refer to current groups' 'records'" in speaking of obsolete meanings. I hold that recording always produces records, whether those records are preserved on media of vinyl, CD, DVD, Blu-ray, tape, or even paper. In fact another commenter uses the word "record" to refer to digital vis-a-vis analog preservation of sound, another useful distinction of different varieties of recordings.

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