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.