Saturday, March 26, 2011

Shower it on the Admiralty!

Could the thrills keep coming any faster? The ink's barely dry on the AP's decision to strike the hyphen from "email," and LOL here's the OED adding "OMG" to its online edition!

Short answer: Wrong. The appearance of a word in a dictionary is not a sign that the word is "now OK for print." The OED has had a wonderfully detailed entry under "fuck" for quite some time now, yet somehow I don't recall seeing that word -- verb, noun or interjection -- in the 1A skybox. Reaching the dictionary is generally a sign that a word has been "OK for print" for quite some time -- if, that is, you were inclined to print it in the first place. Per the OED entry, not only are there print cites for "OMG" from the '90s and the zeds, there's this in a letter from 1917:

I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!

Your Editor was in Phoenix last week to talk about the effects of editing with the ACES gang* and thus was present at the creation** when the AP Stylebook editors announced that as of the following morning, "email" and "smartphone" would be the order of the day. That hyphen wasn't my war; it's hard to imagine being less whelmed by anything short of last year's ruling on "website." But the ensuing discussion made for an interesting look at the cultural value of being "in the stylebook" or "in the dictionary," as well as the web of guesses, assertions and interpretations that go into the fact claims you see in a style guide.

This one didn't come up in the discussion; it's from the "Ask the Editor" feature last November, but it sums up some of the ways people talk about "style":

Q. Your stylebook shows: "San'a It's NOT an apostrophe (') in the Yemen capital's name. It's a reverse apostrophe ('), or a single opening quotation mark." But I often see AP datelines using a standard apostrophe in that city's name. Has the style changed? – from Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tue, Nov 09, 2010
A. Good point. We're in the process of amending the stylebook entry to Sanaa, in which the double-a retains the Arabic pronunciation of San`a, our former spelling.

It's kind of a shame to see the end of "San'a," which for my money was the silliest of the persistent double-secret handshakes in the AP Stylebook, but -- no, it's not a "good point," and it's not a good answer. It might be interesting to ask why the AP insisted for more than 30 years on marking that consonant only in "San'a," rather than all the other words in which it makes no difference in American pronunciation ('Iraq, 'Arabic, 'Arafat) or the ones in which it might (Sa'udi, Qa'ida). But whatever pronunciation*** you were retaining, you can't retain it by dropping a consonant and changing the sound of a vowel. That's how you change pronunciation.

I should note here that the stylebook editors are genuinely nice guys and bore themselves with great good humor in front of a room full of style nerds. If they're taking suggestions (and remember, the advice you get here is easily worth twice what you pay for it), I'd prefer a bigger dose of "it seemed like a good idea at the time." That doesn't comport well with the rule-giving prescriptive thunder of the stylebook, but it has the advantage of being friendly and credible.

More on this vexing topic later, because the Big Stylebook Paper actually went out for a deadline last week and the editing study needs to be in full skolarly form by the end of this week, and there's that small matter of beer and basketball for which time has to be found as well. 

* And it was very cool to see old pals from the print days while meeting in person a bunch of folks I'd only known online. Prosit!
** Lo, I am become Death, destroyer of hyphens. Want to see the replay?
*** You can't begin a syllable with a vowel, so if you know that rule and you know that 'ayn is a consonant, it does make a difference: the syllables are san-'a, not sa-na. That also helps if you know the rule about where the stress goes in combinations of long vs. short syllables, so if you remember all those and know that "San'a'" also has a terminal hamza that AP doesn't mark, you could take a reasonable whack at pronouncing "San'a" -- if you started early enough to have a good 'ayn, which I didn't. Now get off my lawn.

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Anonymous Andy Bechtel said...

Regarding the appearance of the AP editors at the ACES conference, I am working on a "style smackdown" for the 2012 meeting.

So far, the Yahoo editors are in. Chicago is mulling the idea. No word from AP, despite entreaties on Twitter.

I hope to see you there.

9:32 AM, March 27, 2011  

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