Saturday, January 2, 2010

Don't do yourself a mischief

I had better issue an ***ICK ALERT*** for potentially offensive content below.

(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.

Don't give up the ship*

A reader has written to express “gratitude for your blog, which helps me keep the faith,” and adding, “I, too, am an unemployed copy editor who is too old to be hired yet too young to retire and am trying to figure out what to do next.”

There is ample reason to be discouraged. Not merely in faltering daily newspapers, but also in magazines, books, and Internet sites, there has been a large-scale abandonment of the discipline of editing and an acceptance of shoddiness as the norm. The depressed economy aggravates the situation, so that when an actual editing position opens up, scores, or even hundreds, of qualified applicants swarm over it.

There is my own melancholy situation, with dozens of fruitless applications and inquiries over the past eight months. A couple of possibilities I bungled on my own, but when I am invariably turned down or ignored, speculating about other reasons is inevitable: I am too narrowly qualified as a newspaper copy editor, or I am overqualified, or too old, or too expensive (they think) — too easily rejected out of hand. (Just think, dear reader, would you like to have me as a subordinate?)

And yet, even though the day may come that I wind up bagging your groceries, I have not given up and do not intend to.

The freelance editing jobs that have come my way in the past few months have demonstrated two important points: People need editing just as much as they ever did, and I can deliver the goods. To those two points, I can add a generalization: If everyone is to make do with fewer editors, it is important to employ qualified ones and allow them to function properly.

Positive glimmers can be discerned. Twenty-two students have signed up for my editing course at Loyola for the coming semester. (How many will remain after the first class is a different matter.) They are not interested in newspapers, but in their majors in advertising and public relations and other areas, they have been led to understand that a grasp of editing is essential for people who want to make a living with language.

There are you, gentle readers, a sturdy band always returning to this site, perhaps, like my correspondent, finding encouragement here. There are many others doing the Lord’s work, too. Bryan Garner has brought out a third, expanded edition of his dictionary of modern American usage. Grammar Girl has a huge audience for her level-headed advice (delivered without my pomposity and affectation). The estimable Jan Freeman took a major smack at peevologists with her commentary on Ambrose Bierce’s cranky manual of usage; she continues to hold the line with her column in The Boston Globe.

All of these, and more, are offering a moderate and informed prescriptivism to people who want to write more clearly and more precisely, without the bogus rules and idiosyncratic shibboleths that have burdened students and writers for generations.

Let me remind you as well, that the sun has begun to track northward again in this hemisphere and the daylight is slowly lengthening, the American economy is beginning to crawl out of a hole, and we have a fresh year to work with. I have retooled the resume and am preparing a renewed campaign for employment. Those of you in my situation should be doing the same. There is work to be done; it remains for us to find it.

In the meantime, I have not given up. I have kept the faith.

*I am aware, irony fanciers, that Captain Lawrence died shortly after saying something like this (the actual words were “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship”) and that the Chesapeake was compelled to surrender after a disastrously short battle with HMS Shannon. But still.