or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I have some fond memories of a first-year English textbook used back when I was in university, mostly because it had a chapter on bad poetry, which triggered in me a lifelong love of the art form. (I have an old, disintegrating paperback copy of The Stuffed Owl which I can't bring myself to replace, and a stumbled-across copy of The Joy of Bad Verse which is a treasure--if you ever find it, buy it!)

However, one unfond memory of that book is that it insisted on spelling the word "rhythm" as "rithm". I was shocked at this, but the instructor, who presumably had the teacher's edition with supplemental material, said people generally found it easier to spell.

Well, it didn't take. Deliberate spelling reform rarely does. You'd think journalists of all people would know that, but they're among the biggest culprits. (The Toronto Globe and Mail insisted on spelling "cigarette" as the horrible, jarring "cigaret" for the longest time, and the Boston Tribune tried for forty years to impose simplified, which is to say uglified, spelling on its readership.)

A recent piece in Slate.com by a journalism professor concerning plagiary contains the following sentence:

I still have to provide extensive line edits, suggestions to improve the lede and solidify the nut graf, and structural tips.

As someone who was at least nominally in the journalism field for a while, I've run across the terms "nut graf" and "lede" before, and may I just say that years later they're every bit as hideous as the first time I saw them? The fact that they're the jargon of the profession, in-house words that the general public doesn't usually see, doesn't make them any more palatable, either. (Another grotesque little journalists' word not mentioned in the article--thank god--is "brite", which is what journalists call a short, upbeat little filler story.)

This page contains an explanation of what a "lede" is and where the spelling came from; I find it unconvincing at best. We don't need to distinguish long-"e" "lead" from short-"e" "lead" by altering the spellings; we can determine that from the context. (Short-"e" "lead", or "leading", has a meaning in the newspaper field; it's the space between lines.) And saying that "lede" was an acceptable spelling of long-"e" "lead" is completely irrelevant, because it's long obsolete; the spelling was codified centuries ago. An identical argument could be made that we should spell long-"e" "read" as "rede", which is similarly obsolete but which also shares an etymological kinship with its short-"e", correctly spelled cousin.

"Graf" is even more inexcusable. What's wrong with just omitting the first half of the word and calling a paragraph a "graph"? We hack words up all the time in English; "phone" is a shortened form of "telephone" in exactly the same way.

Making up ugly, unnecessary words is not a good way of proving you know how to write.


Blogger Frank said...

I was kinda shocked when I saw "lede" actually spelled out for the first time. Then I just assumed the etymology wasn't what I thought it was (i.e. "This story leads.") It's kinda nice to know it's just reporters being stupid.

Thursday, October 06, 2005 1:20:00 AM  

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