Know when to let go

May 16, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Editors are properly suspicions of neologisms, vogue terms, jargon, and slang. Holding back and waiting to see whether they have more of a life span than a mayfly is a perfectly reasonable editorial judgment. But when the battle is lost, there is little point in a rear-guard action. 

We see from Ammon Shea's Bad English and Jan Freeman's analysis of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right, among others, how pointless, and ultimately ludicrous, fossilized prohibitions can be. To illustrate further, I offer some examples from my own time in the paragraph game.

GAY: When I started out as a newspaper copy editor, there was considerable resistance still over using gay for homosexual. Giving in to what was not yet called the homosexual agenda would, it was said, spoil a perfectly fine word for merry or light-hearted and eclipse the gaiety of nations. 

But language goes where it will, and by the time I got to The Sun in 1986, the Associated Press Stylebook authorized gay  as an adjective for homosexual but not as a noun. Even that distinction has since been abandoned.

HOST: As recently as twenty years ago at The Sun, we were writing play host to because host as a verb was thought to be vulgar. But as the word moved beyond the original sense of providing food, drink, and space to guests, and came to include the broader sense of sponsorship, as in "hosting the Olympics," the objection faded away and play host to came to seem arch and artificial.

PARENTING: When John Carroll was editor of The Sun, he had a particular aversion to parent as a verb, which he thought faddish. But what we have come to see is that that sense of the word represents a notable cultural change in the manner of being a parent. The older term, child rearing, which appears to have largely fallen into disuse, represented the old style, the set-the-rules and go-into-the-yard-and-cut-me-a-switch parent. Parenting points to the solicitous and involved (often over-involved) parent, the helicopter parent being the inevitable development.  

The Homosexual Lobby of heterosexual paranoid fantasy may have advocated for gay, but the word would not have taken on the current sense if it had not been generally adopted by the populace. Hosting and parenting may indeed have been voguish, but their newer senses are generally understood. 

Those are the principles against which you can set your objections as an editor. When words come to have clearly defined senses that are generally understood and accepted by the people for whom you are publishing, your previous objections lose their force. 


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