Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The problem with words

After years of reading, a fine K-12 and undergraduate education, and a childhood in which anything but standard, grammatical speech was forbidden (ain't isn't a word!), I found myself in the real world as a cub reporter. I knew I had a lot to learn - the grown-up realm of government, law enforcement, politics and all the rest - but I never thought that words, which were the basic tools of my trade, would be a problem. Oh, boy.

First came simple spelling. For instance, I always had pronounced disdain as thought it had a "t," so that's how I tried to spell it. That and many other small embarrassments - accommodate will accommodate all the c's and m's you stuff into it, dammit; you spell Calvary differently than cavalry, for God's sake - constituted an uncomfortably common part of my early career. However, after a few years, not to mention some tattered dictionaries, I pretty much mastered spelling. But, in daily small-town journalism, woes never cease. I'll never forget my mortification when a copy editor changed my nit-picking into knit-picking.

But I also quickly learned that readers reacted strongly when a word baffled them. What kind of elitist crap were we trying to pull? That's why journalists try to be careful. There's no sense in doing a Bill Buckley with one's vocabulary. Which led to the copy-editing blunder of which I am most ashamed.

A reporter had written a story which used the word segue (moving from one thing to another without pause). I'd never heard of the term, and assumed it was some foreign word inappropriate for our paper. The reporter looked at me as though I were the dolt that I was.

But even simple, uncontroversial words can cause grief. Once I used the term pay matrix referring to teachers' salaries. I got an irate call. I patiently proceeded to explain a grid with length of service down one side and degree of education across the top. Why, asked the disgusted caller, didn't you just call it a pay scale? Another caller, an elderly man almost in tears, was upset that I had used the word prescient in an editorial. How the hell, he wanted to know, was he supposed to know what it meant?

What got me thinking about all this today was remembering the day not too many years ago when my editor called me into his office to complain about a call he'd just taken from somebody blasting him for my use of the word kids. Obviously the product of some didactic schoolmarm, he yelled that a kid is nothing but a young goat. I rather think I kept my cool, explaining that using the term kids for children is hundreds of years old and is never misunderstood, while eyeing him with disdain as the dolt that he was.

But the point here, of course, is that words are always going to be a problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment