Friday, August 19, 2005

The Green Cheese Incident (bogus stories III)

What's with the green cheese again? Apparently some writers (and some international wire services, truth be told) need to be reminded that when a source says "The moon is made of green cheese," the proper response is not

Moon made of green cheese!

Nor is it

Moon made of green cheese, expert says!

The proper response is "No, the moon is a lifeless, airless rock." At which point, as the line goes in the movie, you can tell the source his/her poetry smells and kick him/her downstairs.*

This remains a problem in journalism because, particularly when there appears to be a good cause in the offing, journalists are far too eager to transmit a green-cheese claim and far too reluctant to look one in the eye and ask for some evidence (or some Triscuits). Here is a case in point, from a 1A tale in today's Missourian, contending that the term "minority" has become obsolete:

Harrison [per an earlier graf, he's a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies] noted that 'minority' refers to more than just numbers.

"The word's origins are that these are populations that once had the status of minors before the law,' Harrison said. "These are populations that, in one way or the other, did not have full legal status or full civil rights."

Hmm. Hard as it is to prove a negative (I mean, we don't know that ammonia beings from the Planet Mxyzptlk aren't hacking the KOMU signal even as we speak), one is inclined to suggest that "the word's origins" are nothing of the sort. The English word "minority" comes from a Latin root, and its first attested meaning is the status short of legal majority. But that's a far cry from establishing that the word's other meanings -- the smaller of two constituent parts, or a group that doesn't share the skin tone, language or religion of the dominant group -- are in any way rooted in "the status of minors before the law." French and Spanish both come from Latin, but that doesn't mean French came from Spanish.

What seems to have happened here: Writer stumbles on possible story. Writer asks expert. Expert proffers self-serving fact invented for the occasion. Writer nods in delight. And newspapers (that'll be the Washington Post, along with the foremost morning daily in Columbia, if it makes you feel better) are happy to run the results, even if they contravene the sort of common sense that might suggest itself at the first opening of a decent dictionary.

For HEADSUP-L's money, the smart money in this unfortunate, misinterpreted, misplayed tale is on Robin Lakoff, a major-league sociolinguist (and no tool of the power structure, either): "Sometimes I think we worry too much about semantic hairsplitting. If I had to fight about something, I might not fight about the term 'minority.'" She's right. Lots of evil is done with the language; we don't have to make things up to find wrongs to be righted.

Myths about language seem to have a particular resonance, though. They're very potent ways of asserting authority (the Eskimos and snow words, the "rule of thumb") or superiority (the batty contention that Arabs have an innately poor sense of time because their verb tenses are so weird). And they often go unchallenged because it's easy to make them sound expert, scientific or "official."

Journalists in particular need to remember that expertise isn't always transferable. A demographer might have a degree from Harvard, but that doesn't make him a word expert, any more than it makes him a brain surgeon. "Communication" is a big, squishy field, but it doesn't spend much time in etymology. Let experts be experts in their fields. When they start domain-hopping, be suspicious. And pass the Triscuits.

* OK, youngsters: Name the movie.


Anonymous Adam said...

What is His Girl Friday? I know this after winning a VHS copy during a copy desk retreat. My list of top ten movies of all time most closely resembled the judge's. OK, my group came up with the best list. I got to keep the prize since I was the only one with a VCR.

6:13 PM, August 20, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

And ADAM wins the prize. If I had an extra copy of "Deadline USA," I'd send it along, but as things stand, you'll have to wait for it on cable again.

Wow, they don't make copy desk retreats like they used to.

9:58 PM, August 20, 2005  

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