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/.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Don't do yourself a mischief
(That should hook you.)
Those of you who were at least moderately sentient in the 1960s and 1970s may recall Tom Lehrer’s little proposed theme song for a film version of Oedipus Rex (and the younger sort will have some cultural education to undergo):
When he found what he had done,
He tore his eyes out, one by one,
A tragic end for a loyal son
Who LOVED his mother.*
I suspect that this may not be one of Jan Freeman’s favorite tunes, because she has written in The Boston Globe about her distaste for self-maiming hyperbole:
My nominee isn’t new, but last February I noticed it in a classier location than its usual haunts. At John McIntyre’s language blog, You Don’t Say—where readers are asked to “keep a civil tongue in their heads”—one commenter posted a complaint about the language of a TV weatherman. “Tonight he came up with ‘the evening-hour time frame’,” said the commenter. “Made me want to dig my eyeballs and eardrums out with a soup spoon.”
She goes on to comment:
At the Baltimore Sun, where McIntyre used to run the copy desks, the eye-gouging imagery would be off limits, he confirmed. Figurative language that’s “gratuitously violent or distasteful” is unwelcome, as the paper’s writing guidelines make clear. “Hyperbole, and particularly death hyperbole,” is not to be used flippantly. “Repulsive metaphors have no place in the paper.” The cautionary example is an oyster simile I won’t quote, since it might make you want to…you know.
Not that I mind quoting the cautionary example from The Sun’s “Guidelines on Writing and Editing” (largely disregarded but which, damn my modesty, I had a hand in developing):
Repulsive metaphors have no place in the paper. Here are some illustrations: “The sleek gray meats of the oyster, Sagoff once said, remind him of something you'd see on the floor of a tuberculosis ward.”; “For years, the city's been drooling over the real estate in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.”; “Mr. Gore didn't search for huge globs of government fat lying around waiting to be lopped off.”
Well, assuming that you still have eyes to read this, it’s clear that I am less squeamish than Ms. Freeman, or perhaps The Boston Globe — surely they don’t talk like that in Boston.
But while I’m willing to grant a little more latitude in my own blog posts and to the comments I authorize on this site, I think that she is on to something. The ready resort to exaggerated reaction to minor irritations, and the partisan impulse toward apocalyptic metaphor over political differences** suggest not only a diminution of civility but also a tendency toward hysteria, both mild and extreme.
Use your indoor voices, please.
*Yes, he loved his mother like no other;
His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.
One thing on which you can depend is,
He sure knew who a boy’s best friend is.
**On Facebook, a friend liked Bryan Garner’s word the the day the other day — CATCHPENNY, adj. = sensationally appealing to the ignorant — but couldn’t think of an appropriate use. I suggested lawyer-dentist Orly Taitz's catchpenny campaign to prove that Barack Obama is not an American citizen.