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/.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Christmas is coming. Save yourselves

Another holiday season looms menacingly over us, and some merchants, desperate to flog their inventory, have even resorted to taking out advertisements in newspapers. As the annual burst of synthetic cheer* overtakes us, a few measures are available to minimize the horror. One of the best is to resolve to shun holiday cliches.

Versions of this list, compiled with the assistance of fellow Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, have been published annually as a public service on this blog.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’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 mention 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.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.

“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 — and dignity — 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.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in 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.

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

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And, typically, they do not scan.**

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality is a comfort to them. It is for such people that television exists.



*Apprehension knows its fellows. Some of you may recall lines from Tom Lehrer’s Christmas carol: “Kill the turkeys, ducks, and chickens, / Mix the punch; drag out the Dickens; / Even though the prospect sickens, / Brother, here we go again.”

**If you are under the misapprehension that the twelve days of Christmas are a countdown to December 25, be advised that Christmas is a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

25 comments:

  1. A note on subliteracy: I suppose that again this year we can expect to hear the tiresome objections to Xmas from people who do not understand that it is an innocuous abbreviation. The Roman alphabet X in this case is understood as the Greek letter chi, also X, which is the first letter of Christos. Xmas in no way takes Christ out of Christmas.

    As to the fevered but inane debate over Christmas tree and holiday tree, I can only conclude that there are many people who have a lot more free time than I do.

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  2. How about mentions of figgy pudding?

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  3. With all your proscriptions, what's left of the spirit of Christmas?

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  4. How about any fa la la la's? A lump of coal for all writers there as well?

    Thanks!

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  5. What's left after my proscriptions? Perhaps room for the imagination in place of mere parroting of what has been written a thousand times previously.

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  6. John, your quoting Lehrer's splendidly splenetic carol has reminded me of two similar literary outbursts. The first is Calvin Trillin's "Christmas in Qatar" (not enough space for the whole thing, alas, but here's the chorus):

    I'd like to spend next Christmas in Qatar,
    Or someplace else that Santa won't find handy.
    Qatar will do, although, Lord knows, it's sandy.
    I need to get to someplace pretty far.
    I'd like to spend next Christmas in Qatar.

    The second is from Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy" comic strip:

    Jingle presents!
    Beat the pheasants!
    Reindeer tastes like SPAM!
    Kick the elf,
    Engorge yourself,
    And ambush Santa's van! HEY!

    I trust that the classic "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie" from "Pogo" is too well known to need repeating--although if the younger generation draws a blank on this, I'll be happy to oblige.

    And a happy Winter Solstice to all.

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  7. I say "yes!" to it all. Hahahahahahahahaha!

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  8. You have Christmas books showing up in your amazon.com ad. I bet they use some of the stuff on your list.

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  9. Thanks, John. This is always great.

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  10. So, I agree with much of what you've written, John. But as much as you seem to favor the traditional, I have to wonder: where is the line between "classic" and "cliche"? I mean, we sing "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" each Advent, and "O Come All Ye Faithful" on Christms Eve. Classics...or cliches?

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  11. "What's left after my proscrptions? Perhaps room for the imagination in place of mere parroting of what has been written a thousand times previously."

    Exactly my point. Christmas as we know it would be history.

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  12. Cherie -- There's a vast distinction between worshipers singing "O Come All Ye Faithful/joyful and triumphant..." in church and reporters putting "O Come All Ye Faithful to the mall..." it in the lede of the stock Black Friday story. The former is sincere and the latter is shoddy.

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  13. I completely agree. I am a fan of Jim Carrey's character work, and was especially intrigued to hear that he voiced all of the ghosts in Disney's version of A Christmas Carol. However, I found myself unable to drag myself to the theater to see yet another telling of the same story. How many times do we need to retell this same tale?

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  14. Singing certain hymns and carols during specific seasons of the Liturgical year is a far cry from cliches hurled at us by the Vast Secular Commercial Conspiracy. While Christmas is the favored holiday for this, we also hear variations at Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and those made-up feasts of artificial adoration, Mother's and Father's Days. Some companies tried Grandparent's Day, but fortunately it fell flat. Happily they never attempted Aunt's and Uncle's Days and Step-Parent's Days (although there are greeting cards for Step-Parents). The only alternatives are to ignore the kitsch, noise and Fake Adulation, listen to Handel et alii and read.

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  15. And it's time to change the photograph again. Seeing you sitting in sunny Italy is bad enough in good weather: in grim November it's actionable.

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  16. What's the difference between "tautology" and something that's simply redundant?

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  17. A tautology, Bryan Garner explains, is more narrowly understood as a term in logic and rhetoric for a restatement of something already said, in different language that does not add new information. A redundancy is a more general term for a word or phrase that merely duplicates the sense of another word or phrase, as in the example "advance planning."

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  18. 'tisn't the season to be jolly for some, then.

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  19. And to think us engineers used to make fun of the English majors... :-)

    John H, Chairman
    Department of Redundancy Department

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  20. I can't wait until all copy editors are out of work. You people are the pathetic parasites of the newspaper industry. What do you actually create?

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  21. To answer "Anonymous's" question, our economy is full of "pathetic parasites" who create nothing. Daytraders and arbitrageurs, to name just two of many examples that leap to mind. That's advanced capitalism. Why should copy editors be expected to actually produce anything? That's what the Chinese are for.

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  22. Yeah, without that value, McClatchy's stock would have gone from $60 to 10 cents, instead of 35 cents!

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  23. Copy editors may not create anything braand new, but they do, in fact, often create readable prose from unreadable. My suspicion is that someone who would wish copy editors out of existence because they're "the pathetic parasites of the newspaper industry" is prob'ly not much of a reader (certainly not much of a thinker), else he would've noticed all the instances in books, newspapers, blogs, etc. where copy editors might save careless (or less-than-sterling) authors from looking like just plain bad.

    I also wonder whether he's a sour-grapes character whose lack of tlent for the written word was pointed out by a copy editor.

    Whatever the case ... what a joke of a comment from a fool of a commenter.

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  24. But surely 'tis the season for cliches, if ever there is one.
    I'm a reporter and I love all this, just in the right context - obviously you don't file a story calling a Christmas Day rapist a bit if a Grinch.
    Lighten up guys.

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