Friday, January 06, 2012

If that's the kind of party it's going to be ...

By now, you've probably seen the "herniated dick" story. If so, you've probably also seen the paper's explanation*:

The box was edited by an experienced copy editor, the reporter's first line of defense, and moved along in the production process as written.

The next stop was a final read by a second editor, another experienced employee who recognized that "herniated disc" doesn't conform to the newspaper's style for that type of injury, and that it should be "herniated disk." That editor tried to type in the correction, but ended up with an unfortunate typo.

Credit to the paper for openness -- and for posting an image of the error itself, which you see above. (That takes, um, bodily parts.) To which I'd like to add a few points:

1) Two-kinds-of-people-wise, there are two kinds of editors: those who will admit how badly they've screwed up somebody else's copy at some point or another, and those who won't. Want one of mine? Slotting an obit on a not-much-busier-than-usual night at the same paper some years ago, I turned a "fireman" (in the put-her-into-Spencer-on-time sense) into a "firefighter." So I'm almost as sympathetic for the unnamed editor as for the reporter -- almost, because the reporter had to deal with layers of people who have no idea how much damage can happen to your prose after you leave the building.**
2) This isn't a casualty of the War on Editing. Errors of this sort have always been with us. They come about not because we're in a hurry, but because we look at the wrong stuff when we're in a hurry. And that leads to ...
3) What does the "newspaper's style" actually call for here? I don't know if the Observer has a mandate, but here's the relevant AP entry:

disc, disk Use the disc spelling  for phonograph records and related terms (disc jockey), optical and laser-based devices (a Blu-ray Disc) and for disc brake. Use disk for computer-related references and medical references, such as a slipped disk.

Let's see if we have this straight here. If I want to celebrate Earl Scruggs's birthday by playing "Foggy Mountain Banjo" at truly cat-intimidating volumes, I'd put the FMB disc*** into the stereo. But if it goes into the laptop, it's a disk? That's not just a distinction without a difference, it's a distinction without a clue.

One of the genuinely important things that stylebooks do is keep a catalog of preferences. English is promiscuous about spelling. Adviser and advisor, disk and disc, worshipped and worshiped are all legitimate in the eyes of the Lord amen, but if you want your publication to sound the same from story to story and page to page, pick one and tell your staff to use it:

disc, disk You can do whatever you want on your own time, but when you're in uniform and on the clock, the spelling for a flat circular thing is disk. If the occasional disc slips by because you're fixing a libel, don't worry. The world isn't going to end.

AP's disc/disk distinction is the stupidest sort of secret clan handshake imaginable. It doesn't help writers be better writers or readers be smarter readers. It's only there to separate the elect -- essentially, those who claim to find meaning in sheep livers or the flight of birds -- from those who have real work to do. That would be all right if the elect were content to bumble their way off stage between acts, but they aren't. Here, they apparently spooked a good editor into an epic-level mistake, and that's sad.

The War on Editing is serious business. We're not in a position to turn away lots of allies, but if the AP is going to demand adherence to facetious rules as the price of its joining in, then we will continue without the AP until such times as it comes to its senses.

* Here's the correction:
Because of a typographical error, an item in Wednesday's Sports section incorrectly described an injury to NBA player Baron Davis, a guard for the NewYork Knicks. Davis has been troubled by a herniated disk in his back.
I have a story or so from that side of the fence too.
*** Sorry, I no longer have FMB on 8-track. Got rid of all the 8-tracks when we bought the first house.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My bet would be that the AP at some point got its knickers in a twist over the fact that "compact disc" was Sony and Phillips' preferred spelling, and that reinforced an earlier, simpler rule that said something like "records are 'discs', other round flat things are 'disks'". And of course for BrE publications you would have had the opposite rule ('hard drives are "disks", other round flat things are 'discs'"). I'd like to see actual evidence of English as she is writ, but it would take some work to find a purely written AmE corpus that didn't come pre-contaminated by the AP's prejudgment.

2:49 AM, January 07, 2012  
Anonymous Picky said...

Actually this stuff comes about, at least in BrE, from a sensible attempt to be ... sensible. If your usual spelling is icon, but computers come along with things that are definitely not spelled icon; if your usual spelling is programme, but computers come along with things that are definitely not spelled programme; if your usual spelling is fount, but computers come along with things that are definitely not spelled fount – the sensible thing is to admit the new spelling in its specialised use. Gradually confusion spreads. Eventually one spelling will give way.

5:27 AM, January 07, 2012  
Anonymous Picky said...

In fact confusion spreads so fast I put the ikon/icon thing the wrong way round.

5:43 AM, January 07, 2012  

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