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/.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Just one word: plastic

An opening paragraph in this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Sitting at a table of strangers in a steamy gymnasium, Michael Brisco poked at turkey on his Styrofoam plate and reflected on the reversals that had buffeted his life these past few months.

Styrofoam is a trademark for a kind of polystyrene manufactured by Dow Chemical for use in insulation and boat construction. Disposable cups and dishes made of plastic foam are not made of Styrofoam.

The carelessness of journalists — admonitions against using Styrofoam for foam plastic plates and cups have been in The Associated Press Stylebook, other stylebooks, and in-house style manuals for decades — has surely reinforced public carelessness with this word. Editors can, and should, rap the knuckles of writers who disregard such niceties, but Styrofoam may be well on its way toward joining kleenex and xerox and the other trade names that the public has transformed into generic words.