Monday, November 28, 2022

Stoops to conquer

 The late John Plunkett, for many years an assistant managing editor at The Baltimore Sun and overseer of its copy desk, insisted that in describing Baltimoreans sitting in front of their rowhouses,* one must write that they are sitting on their steps. Stoops, he insisted, was a foreign term imported into Baltimore by reporters hired from out of town, probably from New York, who didn't know the territory. 

Indeed, stoop comes to us from the Dutch stoep, "flight of steps, doorstep, threshold," and etymologists** suggest that it entered English from the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of New York, spreading into American English from there. 

If Mr. Plunkett was correct that the word was carried here by auslanders, the invasive species has taken root. Efforts, always feeble, to extirpate it from the pages of The Sun were abandoned years ago, and it appears without shame in other local publications. The popularity of the Stoop Storytelling series of podcasts and public events indicates a thoroughgoing acceptance.   

Stoop culture prevails. 

* Merriam-WebsterWebster's New World, the Concise Oxford and American Heritage are all under the impression that row house (terrace house in Britain) is two words, but in Baltimore it's rowhouse

** Including H.L. Mencken in The American Language, who also marks the Dutch contributions of bosscruller, coleslaw, dope, spook, snoop, and Santa Claus

Monday, November 7, 2022

Testing, testing ...

 One day about thirty years ago I arrived at the copy desk, and my boss, Andy Faith, took me aside and murmured, "The editing test has been compromised." Someone had got hold of the general knowledge test we administered to applicants for the desk and had circulated copies at a job fair. 

Andy invited me to revise the test, and I went to the task with a will, creating what came to be known in some circles as The Sun's brutal applicant test. 

The compromised test was a handful of pages of general-knowledge questions. It had once been required of applicants for reporting jobs, but it had apparently been determined that general knowledge was not necessary for reporting but essential for copy editing. (When I took over the test, I had access to its archive, where I discovered John Carroll's score when he applied to be a reporter in the 1960s. I told John, who had returned to the paper as the editor, that if he were to apply for a position on the copy desk, he would be a prime candidate.) 

The new test that I devised had ten categories of general knowledge--arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports--with ten questions in each. Some example questions:

In a symphony orchestra, who is the concert master?

What is the difference between Chapter 7 bankruptcy and Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

What is a pocket veto?

The English portion required deciding whether mantel or mantle was the proper word in a given sentence. 

What term is used for the breaking off of an iceberg from a glacier?

Which president of the United States served for only one month?

Which amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the individual from being forced to testify against himself or herself? 

Name the author of the American novel Invisible Man

How many pints are in a gallon?

What is Ash Wednesday?

What is a zygote?

Name one of the four events in women's gymnastics. 

The reason for this battery of short tests is that newspaper copy editors must have broad general knowledge to be effective. The cumulative scores of the general knowledge section were more reliable at the lower range than at the upper. I hired and subsequently fired the person who attained the highest score ever registered on the general knowledge section, who turned out to be a know-it-all who could not get along with fellow copy editors. We found through grim experience to pass on applicants with a cumulative score lower than fifty percent, because they just did not have enough furniture upstairs to do the job. 

But wait, there's more. 

I put together three items for an editing section. The first was a series of short passages, some taken from the work of Sun reporters that had made it as far as the copy desk, presenting issues of grammar, factual accuracy, and tone. An example: "No matter what your interest, from fun and free family activities to competitive pet and pie eating contests, you're sure to find something distinctive at Mount Airy's annual Spring Fling festival this weekend."

The second item was a wire service story in which an assigning editor had combined elements from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times to create a dog's breakfast. Information was duplicated, word for word. The structure was so jumbled that the sentence explaining what the opening paragraph was about appeared in the twelfth paragraph. The story included a sentence saying that President Bill Clinton, explaining his course of action, "described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity." 

The third and final item was a short feature story describing the draining of a pond in a public park and what it revealed. It was entirely innocuous, and there were in it, at most, a couple of things I would have considered changing. I put it there to see who would go to town on it. Those who found something to comment on in every paragraph and who effectively rewrote the story did not impress me. I didn't want people on the desk who would waste their time on inconsequential changes while alienating the reporting staff. 

There was no time limit on the test. Most applicants completed it in two hours, though some took as long as four. Some wept. But better to have a brief unpleasant experience than to find oneself in a job and ill-equipped to perform it. 

All this can be told because the applicant test is a dead letter. It has not been administered to anyone in years, because The Sun stopped hiring copy editors long before it abandoned copy editing altogether. But while it was in use, it helped us recruit people who gave The Baltimore Sun a national reputation as a newspaper that took editing seriously. People we hired, trained, and mentored are working today as editors at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications.