Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Steel guitar rag

"If you see a mistake, please call us," one of our regular news references says at the end of its corrections column. Let's save 'em the phone call and discuss a couple instructive hed errors from today's paper here.

David Ervine, Irish Protestant leader
DUBLIN, Ireland -- David Ervine, a one-time Protestant militant who became one of Northern Ireland's most articulate and forward-thinking politicians, died Monday after suffering a heart attack, according to colleagues and a Belfast hospital.
You can just about set your watch by this one here in Collegetown, and the saving grace is that big papers seem incapable of getting it right either. The "Northern Ireland" mentioned in the lede? It's part of the UK, not part of "Ireland" (at least politically; they do share an island). The distinction is sort of, you know, why Northern Ireland has been in the news such a great deal in recent decades. You can call Mr. Ervine an "Ulster Protestant," but not an "Irish Protestant."

Normally that's a once-a-semester rant about editors who can't be bothered to read (while we're at it: never, never write a hed off a dateline), but the next hed suggests that it's actually part of a different kind of misunderstanding:

Pete Kleinow, Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist
SAN FRANCISCO -- "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, a steel guitar prodigy who rose to fame as one of the original members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, died Saturday. ... During a musical career that spanned six decades, Kleinow helped define the country-rock genre in the late 1960s and 1970s by taking the instrument he had picked up as a teenager in South Bend, Ind., to California.

See the issue? Sneaky Pete's not a guitarist, he's a steel guitarist. What's the difference? "Steel guitar," like "Northern Ireland," is a compound noun. A guitar is a kind of instrument, and a graphite guitar (why, there's one at right; $1,499 at Elderly) is a kind of guitar, but a "steel guitar" (the table saw with pedals at lower right) isn't. It's another kind of stringed instrument. Similarly, Ireland is a political unit, but "Northern Ireland" isn't a subset of Ireland. It's another (though different) member of the category of political units that Ireland belongs to.

"Graphite guitar," on the other hand, is a noun phrase, like "journalism school" (a kind of school) or "Guinness brewery" (a kind of brewery). The head noun (guitar, school, brewery) is what the phrase is about. Modifying nouns just specify or limit the head noun.

See how it works? Tony Snow is a White House spokesman, but he's not a House spokesman. "White" isn't the kind of House he's spokesman of; "White House" is the metonymic political thing he's spokesman for. When in doubt, head for the dictionary -- which should always be by your side when you edit, and whose last name is never ".com".

We'll be watching for those corrections.


Blogger Strayhorn said...

The obits for Kleinow were remarkably sparse for someone whose life was truly, well, remarkable. The attention paid to the FBB always outweighs their actual output but Gram Parsons had the good business sense to die young - always a good career move, as John Lennon observed.

Not one obit mentioned the year he played for Commander Cody after The Virginia Creeper was fired from the band for being too creepy (for Commander Cody?). Cody's band took the folk/rock/country fusion to its logical
conclusion in their live shows - frenetic fun that lacked the overwhelming seriousness of the FBB. Yeah, music is an Art, but it's supposed to be enjoyable.

Chris Hillman was in town last weekend. Now I wish I had made time to see him.

11:27 AM, January 11, 2007  
Anonymous Denise Covert said...

I understand the point you're trying to make in the second example, about compound nouns vs. noun phrases, but steel guitar is the wrong example to use.

A steel guitar is a guitar, period. It's played the exact same way as a guitar, only horizontally instead of vertically. (In fact, you can play a regular guitar with a slide, too, and some people do on occasion.) It's like saying Hendrix's left-hand guitar isn't a guitar. Or Stevie Ray Vaughn, who often played steel guitar, isn't a guitarist.

You're right, it's a compound noun, and "steel guitar" means something specific, rather than just a guitar made out of steel. But to call someone who plays it a guitarist is 100% accurate -- no correx forthcoming on this.

You still rock, though, whether or not you play guitar at all. ;-)

10:41 AM, January 12, 2007  

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