Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's good to be the king

Memories have not yet faded of the pleasure derived from being the benevolent despot of The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, so I took a natural interest in learning that Randy Michaels, the CEO of the Tribune Company, has issued a ukase forbidding the use of 119 words or phrases on WGN-AM.

Some of his preferences merit hearty endorsement. I was rolling my eyes at giving 110 percent from the mouths of blowhard coaches at mandatory school assemblies forty years ago. Anyone on television or radio who refers to snow as white stuff should be sent to a re-education camp in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the winter. He scorns close proximity (where else would it be?) and the confusion of podium for lectern.

Some preferences may leave you shaking your head. No seek for look for. Motorist is out, officials verboten, pedestrian eighty-sixed. Don’t ask me why. I can understand tired vogue words like diva, idiotic weather-speak like shower activity­ for showers, and affected diction like perished, but allegations has always seemed to me to be a perfectly good word for unproven claims.

Still, it’s his radio station, and he has say-so.

What will be interesting to see will be the long-term effect. Those of us in the paragraph game were long familiar with decrees from Jupiter Optimus Maximus coming down from the summit of Olympus.

One Sun managing editor took exception to escapee. The –ee suffix, he insisted goes with the name of the person who is the object of the action, not the doer of the action. He decreed that any miscreant who slipped his collar was to be referred to as an escaper. And so we did, for a time. But that managing editor moved on, and the decree lapsed into desuetude. At some point, I silently deleted it from the electronic stylebook, and no one noticed.

But some idiosyncratic directives linger long after the departure of the lawgiver, even past the point at which anyone can remember its rationale. Newspaper stylebooks and copy desk lore are full of these fossil remnants. The phenomenon has been explored in Jan Freeman’s excellent Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, which identifies arbitrary edicts about usage that have survived for generations in American newspapers, along with other idiosyncratic preferences that are completely, and rightly, ignored. It is analogous to the way that people retain actual rules of grammar and usage mixed with utter superstitions from their childhood, solid ware and junk eternally mixed.

But, as I said, it’s Mr. Michaels’s shop. He has the scepter, and, baby, he can flaunt it.

Some people at WGN will see it as their responsibility to honor Mr. Michael’s directive to the letter; some, I suspect, will take glee in subverting it at every opportunity. And someday, when Mr. Michaels himself has progressed to fresh woods and pastures new, some of his strictures will remain in force and some will have dropped from living memory.

And no man can say today which will be which.


  1. Hmm. I recall Randy Michaels as the one who sent those long, inane e-mails that didn't really say much. I seem to remember a lot of corporate speak reminiscent of "110 percent," but I might be wrong.

    I *am* fairly sure they had those stupid corporate buzz words, though. I wish I still had access to those old e-mails so I could see the kind of crap he wrote and come up with a list of words he can't use in e-mails. Oh well. I guess I should just let bygones be.

  2. I enjoyed the reference to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He can also be called Jupiter Tonans (thundering). I wonder though if Jupiter would be on Olympus? I associate that locale with Zeus, with whom Jupiter is usually linked as the Roman equivalent. I suspect such linking was mostly done by Romans, for their own satisfaction. I suddenly realize that apart from a vague notion of somewhere in the skies, I don't have a clue as to where Jupiter would be. Above us, certainly.

  3. "Ukase" -- what a great word.

  4. Ah, remember the editor who banned superlatives in descriptions about people? And, he was right.

  5. Patrick K. LackeyMarch 10, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    Imagine reporting live on the air while trying to remember which 119 words and phrases not to use. For many radio and TV personalities, 119 is more words and phrases than they know. To fill dead air, they have to give 119 percent, if not 120.

    Just a thought: people don't rise in management by speaking clearly.

  6. This reminded me of the days when I had just started working on the old Arkansas Gazette copy desk. Its stylebook had been largely borrowed from the New York Times, including some pretty archaic language, by J.N. Heiskell, the man who edited the paper for 70 years.

    I'll never forget my first night on the job. I was handed a dog-eared copy of the newspaper's stylebook, and I began studying it. It included spellings like "drouth" for "drought," with handwritten admonishments in the margin like "Mr. Heiskell will get you if you get this one wrong!"

    Mr. Heiskell, it should be noted, had been dead for more than a decade when I started working at the Gazette. But, until the day I left the Gazette, I had an image in my head of Mr. Heiskell, like Marley's ghost, coming down the hallway, shaking his cane, until he was at my desk, shrieking at me for violating one of his rules.

  7. Is "close proximity" all that bad, though? Things are proximal or distal, but just as "distance" then describes the degree of separation in combination with qualifiers (far distance, close distance), "proximity" could similarly describe the degree of closeness, no?

  8. Patricia the TerseMarch 11, 2010 at 1:53 AM

    I want to ban the use of "icon" (the Greek Orthodox Church prefers "Ikon") for any star, athlete, celebrity or any other unworthy of a divine connection.

  9. From romeneskoblogs:

    An NPR blogger uses all 119 words banned by Tribune's CEO in one sentence.

  10. Maybe he's banning "pedestrian" as an adjective?

    I'd support that, actually.

    As a noun, though, it's sort of useful.