Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Newspapers are so prissy

 A recent Washington Post article said that former Attorney General William Barr "likened Trump’s claims [of voter fraud] to excrement from a male bovine animal." You know, bullshit. A writer ought to be embarrassed over resorting to such coy circumlocutions, but this is what U.S. mainstream newspapers have led us to expect. 

For years at The Sun, house policy on bad words was to provide the initial letter followed by two em-dashes. Writers had previously used the initial letter with a hyphen for all the subsequent letters, but John S. Carroll said he didn't want reading the news to be like working the Jumble. 

Submissive to the policy, I wrote a post on this blog reviewing Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word without once using the word fuck and a similarly seemly review for The Sun of Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Such policies survive, of course, because most of the readers of daily newspapers are older people, who we think are used to more decorous language.* When The Sun allowed some profanity or vulgarity to escape into print, letters would come in chastising the editors for putting such words where impressionable young people would see them. (I challenge you: Show me a young person who reads a newspaper.)

I am of that decorous era. When I was a child, the only profanity my grandfather ever uttered was a deep, throaty Hell!, and then only on special occasions. I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as did many of my newspaper colleagues, and despite our youthful freedom of speech we remained captive to the straitlaced standards we inherited, even though our readers are hearing those very words daily. 

Oh, our weekly free newsstand effort to entrap younger readers once caused a minor stir with DOUCHEBAG as a headline on the cover, but the boldness faded. 

I have slipped The Sun's yoke in retirement, and while I do not plan to write here quite as I used to speak in the newsroom, I embrace the freedom, when something is shitty, to say that it is shitty.

*My former Sun colleague Steve Auerweck once presciently suggested changing the OBITUARIES logo to SUBSCRIBER COUNTDOWN. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The spell of spelling

 Many Sunday afternoons when I was in the fifth and sixth grades at Elizaville Elementary were spent copying the week's spelling words, ten times each, to be submitted Monday.

English spelling is a notorious mess, a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, ecclesiastical Latin, and words that Britain and the United States lifted from indigenous peoples. The need to master spelling as a mark of literacy made Noah Webster's Blue Back Speller a bestseller in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. 

(Also in the nineteenth century, misspellings were common fodder for humor, mocking the subliterate. We have the word OK thanks to the jocular spelling oll korrect in a Boston newspaper.)

A friend has lent me a copy of Book One of The Twentieth Century Spellers, Maryland Edition, published in 1912 by Appleton, and it is a window into public education a century ago. 

Each week has a specified set of words, with spelling and syllabification, and a set of example sentences using the week's words. 

But there is more. One finds an abundance of the sententiae adults love to unload on the young: Alice Carey's verses beginning "True worth is in being, not seeming; / In doing each day that goes by / Some little good, not in dreaming. ..." 

There are occasional interpolations of random information: "The Chinese are a curious people and live a great distance from us. They are different from us in many ways. They think that one girl in a family is enough. They prefer to have boys. Their near neighbors are the Japanese." 

And, of course, patriotism: "Admiral Dewey received great honors after his triumph over the Spaniards in the harbor of Manila."

To a modern reader, the example sentences each week read like found poetry:

"The fox is covered with fur.

"Did John peddle the potatoes from house to house?

"The bird flew out of the cage.

"The class can sing the song by rote but not by note.

"The stone was a real diamond

"Did you hear that whispering?"

Did John encounter the fox on his route selling potatoes? The students' singing is faulty, but the diamond is genuine. The bird is free, but the whispering is ominous. 

The appendix of Local Words is a little window into the Maryland of the time: Annapolis, brickyard, bombardment, cotton duck mills, Cecilius Calvert, Mt. Clare Shops, slavery, tonging, Wells and McComas

Did you hear that whispering? It was the past. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

On the first morning of retirement ...

I picked up the Associated Press Stylebook from my desk and placed it on the shelf. 

Penguin has been bringing out Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret mysteries in new translations, and I think I'll read one out on the porch before the day grows too hot. 

In the afternoon I can join my former colleague Fred Rasmussen and the assorted barflies he has gathered about him at Zen West to sample the healing waters. (Damn, Fred's at work today and I am not. Sad.) Retirement merits a quiet ale. 

Then, I think, since it's to be a hot day, I'll chill a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and make a Nicoise salad for dinner with Kathleen. 

Moving forward, this version of You Don't Say is the blog I set up in 2009 to continue writing when The Sun laid me off, and at least temporarily I will post here occasionally. One benefit is that people in the United Kingdom and Ireland who would like to read it should now be able to see it. 

The impulse to harangue the young has not completely faded, so if you have a class to teach in the Baltimore area this fall, I'd be open to a guest appearance to talk about grammar, usage, editing, or journalism. 

Not gone yet.