Monday, July 20, 2009

Lost in translation

Here's an entertaining case of how headlines go wrong, courtesy of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

Wondering how it was that "earmark" came to be "Hillary's favorite word"? Perhaps you should be. There's no mention of Hillary Clinton in the hed:

Report: 'Earmark' now a word in the English dictionary*
or the deck:
Merriam-Webster Inc. announced in early July that the word "earmark" -- used to describe pork-barrel spending projects both loved and loathed by lawmakers -- is now a part of the dictionary, according to a report.
(By the way? Don't use the deck to repeat the hed. Waste of space.)

And, funny, there's no mention of her in the four-graf story, either. But the second graf indicates that the story originated at the WashTimes, so let's have a look there.

In the print edition, the Times calls "earmark" a "congressional favorite," but on the Web site (odd, given that there don't appear to be any real space constraints), that's shortened to "Hill favorite." And at the Murdoch tabloids, "Hill" is a standard hed term for "Hillary," so ... ta-da!

Summary? Some perky editor at Fox saw a chance to a throw a stray dart at a Clinton and, heeding the biblical admonition, let not the right hand know what the right hand was doing. May it never be said that slanted and stupid are mutually exclusive.

The Times itself is a little too excited about this move by "Merriam-Webster Inc., guardian of the English language," perhaps because it sees a politically favorable Trend:

It's the latest sign that the practice of directing money back home for pet projects is becoming a potent political issue, and the editors at Merriam-Webster said they credited Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, for pushing the word into the lexicon.

Eh, maybe -- though given that "pork" and "pork barrel" for local-appropriation spending have been around since the Civil War, it's a bit hard to see a major social wave building. Maybe it's those special 4-D glasses worn during the 1A budget meetings.

There is a matter of some linguistic interest in this tale, though, and that's the thorough integration of singular "they":

In a 2006 report, the Congressional Research Service - beset by all the vagaries of legislative language - struggled to say what constitutes an earmark. They said it varies from bill to bill.

But don't bother looking for a picture to illustrate earmarks such as the now-scrapped "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Mr. Pitoniak said they try to play it safe politically and wouldn't want to single out any project.

Style policy or style slippage? Anybody from New York Avenue care to check in?

* Think we ought to remind Fox that there is no "the English dictionary"?

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Blogger Jan Freeman said...

Um..."earmark" is right here in my M-W 11 (2003), though only the verb form has the sense "designate (as funds) for a specific use." (The noun has "distinguishing mark," as in "earmarks of poverty," but not yet the political use.)This is not exactly a dramatic lexical leap.

11:39 AM, July 20, 2009  
Blogger Faldone said...

Umm... I think that other guardian of the English language, Robert Hartwell Fiske, would shudder to think that he had been lumped together with Merriam-Webster.

1:59 PM, July 22, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

And vice versa, Faldone. And vice versa. Fiske's ignorance of anything to do with the English language is appalling.

3:48 PM, July 22, 2009  
Blogger Faldone said...

Amen to that.

3:58 PM, July 22, 2009  
Blogger Thomas said...

I had never heard of Fiske, so I followed the link to check him out. So: What John Cowan said.

Reminds me of a discussion on the Facebook "Dear AP Stylebook: Could You Please Spell 'Web site' Like a Normal Person?" page. Three people are adamant that "backyard" can only be an adjective, not a noun, when closed up. Really? That's what you spend your time getting worked up about?

6:02 PM, July 28, 2009  

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