Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hound of the Buskervilles

What went wrong here -- writer reaching for the wrong word, rogue spellchecker going full Sorcerer's Apprentice on the innocent ("basking" is Word's first suggestion), or editor-induced goof? We can't tell, though it's fair to hope that it wasn't something the desk inflicted on the writer. Whatever, the saxophonist in question was "busking," not basking, on the street corner.

"Busk" is a cool verb. The OED traces it to French, Italian and Spanish verbs meaning "filch," "prowl" or simply "seek," but it isn't sure whether the original nautical meaning was to sail as a pirate or just to tack. Nor is it sure whether the sense of practicing your art in the street for tips, first noted in 1851, is related to those meanings or a distinct word of its own. Sheer entertainment value is a good reason for having a dictionary -- one whose last name isn't ".com" -- at hand as you edit. But the main reason is to keep from saying one thing when you mean another.

To give the intertubes their due, they're a good place to check whether the officeholder mentioned before the sax player is the "register" or "registrar" of deeds. The county says he's the former.

I have other complaints with the writing. I wouldn't use "a polyglot of people"; I see where the writer's going with it, but it looks like a stretch to me -- something that falls under Elmore Leonard's "if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it" rule. And "local gendarmes" has an air of archaic columnist-speak about it; next thing, Hildy or Walter or somebody is going to be impersonating a cop over the phone.

Those are esthetic judgments. I don't want to pretend they're based in mystical or unbreakable rules that only the adepts of the Magick Art of Editing have access to. I'd have to persuade the writer on those points; after all, it isn't my name on the column. But I'll have an easier time doing that if I've fixed all the things that demonstrably are wrong before starting in on the toss-ups.

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