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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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, May 11, 2009
You see, in the spring of 1970, my freshman year at Michigan State, one of my roommates, Michael Hyatte, suggested that the end of the world was imminent (Kent State, Nixon, etc.), that human beings were about to be divided between the freaks and the straights, and that I had better get my act together if I didn’t want to spend eternity with Lawrence Welk and Arthur Godfrey.
So I did due diligence. I acquired and listened to some albums. I sat for much of a day in a muddy field outside Lansing listening to Jefferson Airplane and a series of other bands. It was stupefyingly dull, perhaps because I was the only person in the audience not stoned. And then the world did not come to an end, which I understood to amount to a divine mandate to be as stuffy as I liked. I have not consciously attended to popular music since.
This attitude was reinforced a year later when Patricia Nedeau, whose advice was not to be disregarded, told me, “John, you are not a denim person; you are a tweeds and woolens person.” I have been faithful to her counsel.
Dr. Johnson said, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” and I have been listening contentedly to Bach and Handel and Haydn and Mozart ever since. (With occasional indulgence in 1920s jazz recorded by Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks Orchestra.) You may prefer Jimmy Buffett or Madonna or Nine Inch Nails or New Kids on the Block or any of those other performers of whose existence I am dimly aware; I don’t begrudge you your innocent pleasures, unfathomable as they are.
For my part, a wee dram and a Haydn string quartet make life as sweet as it gets.
The Star Trek franchise has, over more than forty years, attracted legions of fans, many of whom apparently have encyclopedic recall of details from the television shows and movies. Once you have identified a Romulan as a Klingon, scorn will be heaped on you up to the eyebrows.
The journalist who approaches any specialized topic strides into a minefield, and the details are triggers. Religion is treacherous because of the distinctive language in different denominations or branches of faith. (I used to have to remind Sun copy editors that orthodox has to be capitalized in writing about Judaism or the Eastern branches of Christianity. Never mind the occasional references to “massive Christian burial.”) Science and medicine abound in technical detail — remember the column that said you could stop hiccups with carbon monoxide?
Popular culture is just the same sort of specialized area: Star Trek, the Harry Potter books and films, Doonesbury. No matter how much you may think you know, the chances are excellent that there are readers who know the subject better than you do, and they are waiting for you to stumble.
Not that you should transform yourself into a Trekkie or Potterite, but you should make sure that you know people who are in appropriate fan groups. Show them what you’re working on, and allow their robust interest to spare you the horselaughs.