Monday, March 26, 2007

Words and meanings

The takeaway line for all those lectures on Chapter 13 and its list of Insensitive Words is really the takeaway line for all of copy editing: A list isn't much help unless the brain is up and running. You can teach your word-processing program to flag instances of "articulate" all day long (teaching it to distinguish verbs from adjectives is another issue), but that's not going to help you understand why calling somebody "articulate" is likely to have unintended consequences. And if you can't think beyond the list to its meaning, you have the sort of job that, sooner or later, will be done by a computer chip.

It's not that "articulate" describes a bad feature -- unlike "glib," which is a deprecatory way of suggesting a similar characteristic, or "inarticulate," or "stupid" or "morally feline" or anything like that. It's that -- particularly in the context of in-group speaking about out-group -- nobody hears its good meaning. All the nice things are lost in the implication that "articulate" is the factor that distinguishes X from other members of his/her ethnic/linguistic/religious group.

So it's on the watch list for a good reason. Unfortunately, the reason goes ignored here:

Nick Maddox represented the best of high school football in the late 1990s. Bright, polite and athletic, the running back for A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis was a star.

"Athletic" is just dumb (usually, if you're recruited for a revenue sport by a bunch of Division I schools, you're presumed to be at least a little bit athletic.) The trouble is with the other two adjectives. The only thing that separates them from "articulate" is that they aren't on a list of frowned-upon words. What are we saying when we single this guy out as "bright" and "polite"? More to the point, what are we distinguishing him from?

Nothing wrong with raising questions about red-flag words. But don't hesitate to question red-flag meanings either, even if a specific word hasn't reached the infamous list. Meaning is how we'll keep our jobs, no matter how fast the computers get.


Anonymous Robbie said...

Hmm... I see the point, but are the two references necessarily the same: "Articulate" in reference to a black politician (in the wonderful world of Biden-speak, but I'll resist my temptation to political cheap shots) implies that other black politicians, or black people in general, are not articulate. Race shouldn't be a factor in articulateness, ergo it's offensive.

But is it likewise offensive, in what seems something like a column, to generalize football players as not being bright and polite? (As a lifelong Ohio State fan, I'll still be the first to admit that the Buckeyes aren't all exactly genuises...) Or is that even what the lede does? I'm not sure it's saying that most football players aren't bright and polite, so much as that this is the goal...

10:10 PM, March 26, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Sorry, perhaps I should have clarified that. The football player in question is black -- which, to me, puts "bright and polite" in the same category as "articulate."

I didn't know that when I opened the story, and honestly, if I hadn't seen the adjs, I wouldn't have gone looking for his mug shot.

10:44 PM, March 26, 2007  

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