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/.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tapped out

In multiple articles you will see or will have seen that Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been tapped for the Supreme Court by President Obama. As a short verb, it is hard for headline writers to resist its use.

But I’ve always disliked the use of that word because of its association with fraternity initiations. Naming a Cabinet officer or federal judge ought to involve more dignity that being invited to join Rho Rho Rho.

Now — thank you, Bill Walsh, for your tweet crediting @edzaf — I have an additional reason to dislike this “unfortunate headline verb in reference to a female nominee, given the prevalent slang meaning.”

No prizes for guessing what that “prevalent slang meaning” is.

It's summer, already

As regularly as the swallows return to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, journalists reach for seasonal cliches. If you read a newspaper or watched television news over the Memorial Day weekend, you inevitably encountered the phrase unofficial start of summer.

The phrase might lead you to think that there is an official start of summer. There isn’t. June 21 or 22, when the ill-informed may tell you that summer begins, is the summer solstice. Summer, by the third week of June, is well advanced everywhere, except perhaps Minnesota. (A friend in Minnesota tells me that if summer there falls on the Fourth of July, they have a picnic.)

Similarly, December 21 or 22 is not the beginning of winter but the winter solstice. The vernal equinox in March is not the first day of spring, and the autumnal equinox in September is not the first day of fall. But journalists will use these handy dates as a peg for their annual commemorations of the obvious.

Thirty years in the paragraph game, and I never figured out the point of stories, often on the front page, about things that everyone already knows: When the temperature hits a hundred degrees or more, the paper is sure to tell you that it is hot outside; when there is a foot of snow on the ground, count on the paper to inform you that it is winter.

Perhaps such stories are the journalistic equivalent of phatic speech — small talk or chatter that instead of conveying substantial information expresses feelings or establishes sociability. Talk about the weather is a classic example. For my part, I much prefer gossip.

Anyhow, as I was spreading mulch around the azaleas yesterday, with temperatures in the eighties and the humidity rising in advance of the afternoon thunderstorm, I did not require a reporter or news anchor to let me in on the arrival of summer. No doubt you, my readers, in your far-flung locations, observe your own seasonal markers. If you’d like to tell me what marks the start of spring, summer, fall, and winter in Arizona or Colorado or Upstate New York or any of your other venues, feel free to comment.