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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Monday, August 17, 2009

The tale of the gnome

In the old days, when copy editors left newspaper one by one, instead of being pushed down a chute with a man holding a sledgehammer standing at the bottom, a decorum of departure was observed.

The chief of the copy desk or some other minor satrap delivered a few gracious remarks, small gifts were presented, the honoree made a short speech of reminiscence and thanks, and cake was cut and served. Occasionally, outliers from other news departments would wander over, especially after cake was announced.

At some copy desks, of which The Baltimore Sun’s was one, the farewell gifts included jocular items. As you might expect, such jocular gifts often carried with them a back story or personal association.

At one point in my tenure at The Sun, there was a copy editor on the desk whom a fellow editor referred to privately, because of his physical appearance and a disposition that it would be generous to describe as grumpy, as “the Garden Gnome.” The gnome departed, and so, in the fullness of time, did the other editor. When the latter editor retired, one of the farewell gifts was a plaster garden gnome.

The former editor was held in such low esteem and the latter in such affection that it became a tradition on the desk to present a garden gnome, the uglier the better, to each departing copy editor. It generally fell to the managers to acquire the damn things, either plaster or — even uglier — plastic.*

I suppose that many close-knit groups develop such rituals — append yours in a comment if you like.

But the tale of the gnome has a little moral: If you are disagreeable enough to your colleagues, you can expect to achieve a rude immortality.

*On the day I was dismissed, I harbored five garden gnomes in an office cabinet. The pending purge had been well telegraphed, but I had underestimated its scope. And I myself left cakeless and gnomeless.


  1. I think all your fans here would say that when it comes to you, John, "To gnome is to love him."

    Best wishes. Please keep up the great work.

  2. I have a collection of work IDs and nameplates of the departed.

  3. Ya know, when I left The Sun, you guys gave me TWO gnomes. Now, what does that mean?

  4. The closest I've had to that was passing on the copy chief's clipboard and taking a shot with the following semester's copy chief at my campus paper.

  5. As the first recipient of the gnome and, yes, the copy editor who nicknamed the grump, I remain vastly proud of my gnome, nearly six years on. I'm also quite proud that I was held "in affection," although I would have sworn that I was considered "an affliction." Must be a typo.

  6. In our newsroom departing colleagues traditionally clear their desks of years' worth of accumulated clutter by passing on "heirlooms" to those left behind. Here is a brief sampling of the sort of thing I have been bequeathed by departing co-workers: one boxing glove (for the right hand--no word on where Left is), a pink flamingo lawn ornament (missing its legs), a photo of David Hasselhoff (I did not ask why my co-worker had this in his desk), and a larger-than-life-size cardboard stand-up of Star Trek's Captain Picard. There not being enough room for the captain in my cubicle, he now resides in my family room.