Monday, January 31, 2022

Call the pressroom

 You've seen it. A reporter dashes in to a busy newsroom with a hot scoop, and a crusty old editor picks up a phone, usually a candlestick, and barks into it, "Stop the presses!"

I've had occasion, often on a night when the Orioles were in extra innings, to call the pressroom about slowing or pausing the run to get the game score into a few thousand copies. (Really, nighttime baseball is unnatural.) But in forty years in the paragraph game I've only heard "Stop the presses" twice. 

The first occasion was the Saturday evening when Princess Diana and her boyfriend went for a drive. I was at the desk, and the Sunday edition of The Sun was falling nicely into place when a bulletin came over the wire services that Princess Diana had been in an automobile accident. My reaction was that of any seasoned journalist: "Shit!" I said. "We'll have to get something in about that."

The phone rang. Bill Glauber, then The Sun's London correspondent, was on vacation--in Paris. It was a serious accident, he said, and he would file. So we carved out some space on the front page for a story about Princess Diana having been seriously injured, and typeset the page for the first edition. 

The phone rang again. Glauber said we should be ready. "I think she's dead. They're not talking about her the way they would if she were alive or expected to live." 

We had just typeset the front page for the second edition when a bulletin came over the wires: Princess Diana dead. "Shit!" I remarked. And the news editor called the pressroom and said, "Stop the presses. We're tearing up Page One."

Forty minutes later, an eternity in press time, we typeset a front page with Princess Diana's death as the lead story, written by our correspondent on the scene. And in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where we were then in competition with The Washington Post, the deadlines for The Post's Arundel and Howard editions were earlier than ours, and we beat them on the story on those jurisdictions. Sweet.

The second occasion was three o'clock in the morning after the 2000 presidential election. Half the lights in the newsroom had gone off automatically. We were holding Page One and one inside page for the election story. Finally a service called the election, and we typeset a front page with a BUSH WINS headline. 

The telephone rang. It was Paul West, from The Sun's Washington bureau. "They're still counting," he said. 

The news editor picked up the phone: "Stop the presses." We sent through a TOO CLOSE TO CALL headline and instructed the pressroom to junk any copies that had been run off with the previous headline, and also to destroy the plates immediately. We didn't want to be tagged with a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN embarrassment. 

Last night The Sun's plant at Port Covington published the paper for the last time. The Sun has been printed continuously in Baltimore since 1837, apart from a brief interval after the Great Fire of 1904 destroyed the newspaper building, and tonight begins production of print editions at Gannett's plant in Wilmington, Delaware. 

The presses have been stopped. 

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Knowing your ass from a hole in the wall

Tweeted and posted yesterday: Let me just say that a breach is where you have broken through the wall and a breech is where your ass is. You may be interested in more of the why and the wherefore. 

Breach encompasses a sense of breaking. The noun can mean a broken condition,  a break in a wall from battering ("Once more unto the breach" in Henry V), a violation of a law, or a break in previously friendly relations. The verb means to break or violate. 

Breech originally meant short pants covering the hips and thighs, often as breeches or britches, later broadening the encompass pants in general. Breech also means buttocks, the part of the body covered by the breeches, the place at which the body forks into the legs. In childbirth, a breech delivery is one in which the fetus emerges buttocks/feet first instead of head first. In firearms, the breech is the part at the rear of the barrel, and a breech loader is a firearm in which the ammunition is inserted at the breech. A breeches buoy is a suspended canvas seat for transfer or rescue in water. 

Broach, like breach, is associated with breaking. It can be an instrument for piecing, a spit, or a tool for tapping a cask. The verb means to break open, such as literally to open a cask of beer or figuratively to open a subject for discussion. 

Broach, confusingly, since English is not necessarily an orderly language, is an alternative spelling for brooch, an ornament fastened by a pin or clasp. 

It's your language, and it's your responsibility to make sure that what you say or write is what you mean. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

When education is not one of your community values

 The McMinn County School Board, which removed the Holocaust graphic novel Maus from its schools, evidently employs someone able to write a sentence. This is its formal statement on the action:

"One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves.  The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.  Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools." Yadda, yadda, yadda. 

I vote to acquit the ten members of the school board who banned the book from charges of anti-Semitism. I believe that they were reflecting the values of their community, especially when one member was offended by the use of the word damn and another was aghast at a cartoon drawing of a nekkid figure. 

One frequently sees, after all, obsession with minor community mores over actual education. The high school in Fleming County, Kentucky, from which I graduated in 1969, had an obsession with the length of boys' hair, to the extent that at one point the principal was under pressure to line up the male students in the hallway each day for haircut inspection. One sees it as well in dress codes that dictate how much of a girl's body may be permissibly exposed to the light. 

McMinn County, Tennessee, (whose county seat, in a cruel irony, is Athens) is not far from Dayton, where a century ago John T. Scopes was tried and convicted of the crime of teaching Darwinian evolution. I have not the heart to inquire whether McMinn's biology classes are allowed to contravene Genesis. 

The McMinn board members have been held up to widespread ridicule and condemnation in social media, and doubtless they feel ill-used. This is the only advice I can offer them: If you don't want the world to think of you as a bunch of rubes, try not to act like a bunch of rubes. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

It's over

 A recent online discussion of English usage turned into a tussle concerning the use of over in the sense of more than, a molehill on which some are prepared to die. 

For those of you not in the know, it has been a widespread belief among U.S. journalists that over can only be properly used to indicate a spatial relationship, that to use it to mean more than in the sense of quantities is illogical, illegitimate, and illiterate.

There was a great cry of anguished souls at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society when the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that the over/more than distinction had been dropped. (Since Paula Froke became one of the editors of the stylebook she has busied herself lightening the ship by heaving broken furniture over the side.)

I attended that conference and spoke with three lexicographers, two from Merriam-Webster and one from the American Heritage Dictionary, who were floored to learn of a distinction of usage of which they were completely unaware. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and the other standard dictionaries list more than as one meaning of over

This meaningless distinction was apparently an invention of nineteenth-century journalists given to unexplained diktats. The instruction not to use over for more than appears in William Cullen Bryant's "Index Expurgatorius" of 1877, the "Don't List" compiled by James Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald, and in Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. From there it passed into the lore of newspaper editors and then the conventions of journalism schools. 

Here's what Theodore Bernstein of The New York Times wrote about this supposed rule in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971): Bierce "gave no reason for the objection and it is difficult to see how there could be any. Since the days of late Middle English the meaning in excess of has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write 'above $150.' " 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes that "over in the sense of more than has been used in English since the 14th century." Bryan Garner says in Garner's Modern English Usage that "the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet." And Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage indulges in a moment of British hauteur to note "a strong tradition in American newspapers and in some American usage guides of absolute, unconditional, almost maniacal hostility to the use of over with a following numeral to mean 'in excess of, more than.' " He advises "editors and writers of other varieties of English to be aware that the anxiety continues (and to judge by some editorial forums, can almost induce nausea or hyperventilation)." 

If you have routinely changed over (quantity) to more than, as I slavishly did for much of my forty years as a working editor, it it NOT YOUR FAULT that you were badly instructed. It is your fault, however, if you continue to do so after being informed that it is a waste of time and invisible to any reader who is not a journalist. 

Go and sin no more.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In the beginning

I growled today at spotting "new initiatives" in an article. (Growling in the morning while reading the news exerts the lungs and increases blood flow to the brain, both beneficial effects, especially when combined with strong coffee.) 

An initiative is a first step, a beginning. Its sibs from the Latin initiare include initial and initiate, both of which indicate beginnings. If you are taking a first step in a series of actions, you are by definition doing something new, and thus new initiative is redundant. 

Granted, if you are contrasting a new measure with some previous effort, it would be entirely proper to use new initiative, but only to contrast with the earlier one. 

I have grudgingly abandoned a losing campaign against the irritating pleonasm safe haven, but damme if I will accede to new initiative

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A far, far better thing

 The next time the Associated Press Stylebook looks to clean the cobwebs in the attic, the editors might want to take another look at farther/further

The current entry, of long standing, restricts farther to physical distance, further to "extension of time or degree." This is one manifestation of editors' inevitable impulse to tidy up the language with minute distinctions invisible to most readers, or "dog whistle editing." 

Further and farther have been interchangeable for most of the history of English, as the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, the Oxford English DictionaryMerriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other authorities have acknowledged. 

And thus have the people spoken. If you look up further in the current Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, you will see one of its core meanings listed as farther. 

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note for farther, affirming the physical distance/abstract relations distinction. Significantly, the 74 percent of the Usage Panel's endorsement in 1987 had declined to 64 percent in 2009. Since the dictionary discontinued the Usage Panel in 2018, we are unable to see how much further erosion may have taken place. But Garner's Modern English Usage of 2016, while identifying the farther/further distinction as "punctilious usage," concedes in his Language-Change Index that further for physical distance is Ubiquitous but."

For the record, I dutifully enforced farther/further over four decades as a copy editor, though having done so does not leave me with a glow of professional pride. Time could have been spent on more significant matters. 

So AP Stylebook, how about chucking this one into the dustbin?