Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tyranny of the stylebook

This looks like a bad case of the "false title" rule overruling common sense (and, to be direct about it, ignoring not just the spirit of the law but its letter as well).

You NYT readers have no doubt noticed that the Times is exceedingly snooty about the distinction between "real" titles and what the trade knows as "occupational" titles. The Times's reading goes more or less like this: If you wouldn't address someone by the title you're assigning in print, you need to use "the" to make clear that it's not a Real Title. In real-life terms, since you wouldn't say "good morning, Shortstop Tinker," you can't call him "shortstop Joe Tinker" in text. It has to be "the shortstop Joe Tinker." Period, no exceptions. Check in when you've found a dozen examples from any weekday Times.

The trouble in this 1A example, of course, is that "Imam" is exactly not that kind of title. It'd be perfectly appropriate to say "Good morning, Imam Abdul Rauf" -- that's just a more formal version of what Nick Kristof is doing in the Week in Review section when he calls the guy "Imam Feisal." It's no different from calling your local man o' the cloth "Pastor Joe" or "Pastor Tinker": a register issue, not a grammar issue.

We need to set aside the Times's overstarched cluelessness for a moment, though. First, it's nice to see somebody call the guy "Abdul Rauf" on second reference; that's a fairly obvious point of style that -- you'd like to think -- the AP should have copped to a month or so back.

A name in that style is formed from the noun "abd," which for convenience's sake we'll render here as "servant," and a name or attribute of God. So, "ar-ra'uf" being "the gentle," a name like "Abdul Rauf" (someone else might prefer "Abdelrauf"; same thing*), meaning "servant of the Gentle," would be a single genitive compound wherever it occurs. Don't shiver at the weirdness** of it; if you ever saw "Abdul Jabbar" in a box score, you've already seen the same thing. Why the Times is the only -- best I can tell -- US news outfit with the sand to either ask the dude how he renders his last name or simply do it the obviously correct way until told otherwise is beyond me, but it's nice to see somebody paying attention to the details.***

More to the point is the profile itself. It's the sort of thing that didn't used to be all that unusual but amid the general plunge of journalism toward the nether pits is becoming rare. And it makes stunningly clear that that this guy -- this scary-named Ayrab who somehow fails to leap at every chance to call Hamas a gang of terrorist thugs, who dares to entertain the idea that there might be some relationship between state policy**** and substate violence -- is one Kumbaya-singing cheeseball pussycat. He could hardly tie the shoes of the conniving mastermind of evil you've been reading about these last few weeks in the mainstream press.

If there's a point to take away from all this, it's that journalists in the main risk abdicating their responsibility here. The biggest mistake we -- that's "we," as in a group of notional professionals who generally agree on a set of standards that stuff has to meet to qualify as "journalism" -- could mistake is allowing this remarkably overblown non-issue into the public sphere on the terms set by the paymasters of the hard right. The Times is not the "left" side of this debate. For all the Times's manifest failings, which I'm as happy to catalog as anyone, it's the professional side. The other side is the camp of lying, fearmongering and naked race-baiting. That's the side of Fox News and its friends. They can, and should, be the objects of relentless public ridicule. Journalists are no more obliged to take Fox at face value than they would be to take the Klan at face value. There's really not much difference.

* Gentle Readers who wish to knock themselves out on the topics of sun-letter elision and pausal vs. continued speech (yo! Cowan!) may go ahead. I'm still hoping to get some revisions out tonight.

** I used to work with an especially annoying rimrat who was a preacher in her spare time. She was perpetually amazed at the apparent irony of terrorists named Muhammad. Since she covered sports on the occasional weekend shift, we finally asked her if she was equally weirded out by shortstops named Jesus. I'm not sure the idea really sank in, but it did shut her up for a day or two.
*** Yes, that means that for all its other virtues, Frank Rich's column is wrong in using "Rauf" on second reference. Some editor should have corrected him. Imagine how much real editing could be done if people paid attention to actual grammar -- the Arabic genitive compound being such -- rather than bizarre fabrications from the Siegal era.
**** Because we hear the Pearl Harbor analogy so often these days, it's worth mentioning here. Would anyone out there really like to contend that there was no connection whatsofreakingever between US policy in 1941 and Japan's decision to go with the Pearl Harbor attack? If so, I'd like to suggest that you're a babbling loony.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece (albeit too short) about the relationship of journalistic malfeasance to the current froofraw in this weekend's OTM. I don't think they ever get into the imam's name, however.

I'm of two minds about how relevant the formation of Arab names ought to be to journalists, however. On the one hand, if you care at all about facts you should at least get the name *correct*. It's not like two-word "last" names are completely unknown in English (many thousands of Actual English People have them). On the other hand, many people have odd or at least nonstandard ideas about how their names should be represented which I don't feel journalists writing in English for a mass audience should feel compelled to pay any attention to. (For example, those obnoxious twits who insist that their names must be written in all lower case.)

2:04 AM, August 23, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I have an Arabic-speaking friend who gets the giggles whenever she hears the title of that poem, Abou Ben Adhem - the titular character of which is, after all, the Father of the Son of Adhem.

3:10 PM, August 23, 2010  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - anybody who can write about people whose names are "from someplace" (all those de's and von's) shouldn't get weirded out by genitive "surnames", anyway.

3:12 PM, August 23, 2010  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Or as the mad Arab, Abdullah al-Hazred (known to the ignorant as "Abdul al-Hazred", with two consecutive articles) once wrote in his forbidden book Al-`Azif:

La mayyitan ma qadirun yatabaqqa sarmadi,
Fa idha yaji' al-shudhdhadh fa-l-maut qad yantahi.

(Ask your friend, Ridger; I'm curious to discover the reaction. But watch out for flying shoggoths.)

9:09 AM, August 26, 2010  
Blogger fev said...

I'm looking forward to a remake of "The Maltese Falcon" in which Capt. Jacoby's ship is named the La Alhambra, just so Sam can say "'The La Al is a lousy combination, sweetheart."

10:41 AM, August 26, 2010  

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