Monday, July 26, 2010

Douche bag vs Douchebag

According to former copy editor Lori Fradkin, "The word is douche bag. Douche space bag." Fradkin gives this advice in her wickedly entertaining article "What It's Really Like To Be a Copy Editor." It's worth a read for her funny insights into, well, what it's really like to be a copy editor.

I was going to post on Fradkin's article last week, but then I got too busy and it was so darn hot and I didn't get around to it. I'm glad I waited, because yesterday I found a very interesting take on Fradkin's article.

On The Economist's language blog, called Johnson, R.L.G. offers a retort titled "What it's really like to be copy-edited." The author recently had a book of his copyedited and "was eager to see what Ms Fradkin had to say about the other side of this relationship," that is, the copy editor's perspective. (On the use of hyphens and period in this paragraph, see below.)

Though he found Fradkin's article entertaining, R.L.G., without exactly calling her a douche bag, criticizes Fradkin's "attitude" that "this is Wrong, because the Dictionary says so," which, he says, "is all too common among copy editors, and is irritating for reasons that bear some explaining." What's worse, he says, is that her approach to the nuances of language is "not interesting."

R.L.G. explains his reproach with an illuminating passage on a much contested aspect of writing, and copyediting: the use of hyphens. As a copy editor, I can tell you that this is the most time-consuming and least gratifying aspect of my job. Everyone has an opinion on hyphenation, and those opinions rarely coincide.

That's why it's best to follow a house style. R.L.G. says The Economist's style manual entry on hyphenation is nine pages long. That's not atypical. It's also a lot to remember, as well as to keep straight and to apply to all copy at all times. And when you're working on deadline, it's sometimes easiest to rely on a house dictionary, as Fradkin did with douche bag. (Book deadlines tend to be more forgiving than newspaper or magazine deadlines, allowing more room for give and take between author and copy editor.)

It's unfortunate that R.L.G. has found copy editors commonly irritating. Yes, we can be irritating. But isn't that the case with any editor who's asking you to change your pearls of prose and impeccable wrting?

I'm a former reporter and writer, and I remember being irritated on many occasions by pesky copy editors who asked for clarity and parallel construction in my sentences and articles. What I didn't see or acknowledge were the many instances where copy editors corrected my misspellings and poor grammar. (And looking back, I wish I had had more pesky and intelligent copy editors who would have caught some egregious mistakes I made in my writing.)

On another note, R.L.G. mentions, and quickly dismisses, "the tired prescriptivist-descriptivist debate." I've been thinking a lot about that topic and will post on that debate in the future. 

But getting back to house style, in his article R.L.G. uses The Economist's style of excluding the period in Ms--isn't that clearly wrong? Like the New York Times, The Economist uses Mr. and Ms. before surnames. But The Economist idiosyncratically omits the period. It's clearly wrong. But it's also clearly permissible. It's a matter of style, as is using a hyphen in copy-edit, whereas I close up the word: copyedit. Neither is wrong; each is a matter of house style. 

Keep that in mind before you call someone a douche bag, or douchebag, or worse, uninteresting.

"I'm not a douche bag" bag available is available at

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reign vs Rein

Does spelling still matter? To many of my readers, it does. 

My dear friend Pearl, a loyal follower of this blog, recently wrote to ask about the word "reign" in the following sentence:

This new law will reign in Wall Street abuses, end government bailouts, and give everyday Americans the consumer protection they deserve and expect.

Pearl knew that "rein in" was correct here, as in pulling the reins on a horse, not a monarch reigning over people. (Pearl, a real queen herself, knows between royalty and horses!) But a colleague of hers insisted that "reign" was correct. And the colleague had backup, citing Robert Klose's 2007 article in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Reign in those vocal chords.

Problem is that the backup doesn't back up the use of "reign in." Rather, Klose argues that just because one dictionary publisher (Oxford University Press) says it's OK to "have it your way" with spelling, there are standards that fogies like Klose--and me, and Pearl, as well as the majority of dictionaries and style books--still adhere to. 

To Pearl's colleague, I say: Rein in that urge to lower your standards; proper spelling reigns supreme.

"Can't Stop the Reign" T-shirt available from Bellargo Piarge Couture.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Soccer vs Football

Even for non-professional-sports fans like myself, I seem to have come down with something approaching Soccer Fever. (Fortunately, since the World Cup comes around only every four years, there's no need for an immunization.) Last Saturday I actually sat down and watched Germany pummel Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals. 

Then, at a Fourth of July party, a friend was explaining the origin of the word "soccer," what everyone else around the world calls "football." He said it had something to do with the abbreviation of "assoc" and the Anglo tendency to add "er" to words. 

Sure enough, in this week's New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg explains the word's origin:
"Soccer," by the way, is not some Yankee neologism but a word of impeccably British origin. It owes its coinage to a domestic rival, rugby, whose proponents were fighting a losing battle over the football brand around the time that we were preoccupied with a more sanguinary civil war. Rugby's nickname was (and is) rugger, and its players are called ruggers--a bit of upper-class twittery, as in "champers," for champagne, or "preggers," for enceinte. "Soccer" is rugger's equivalent in Oxbridge-speak. The "soc" part is short for "assoc," which is short for "association," as in "association football," the rules of which were codified in 1863 by the all-powerful Football Association, or FA--the FA being to the U.K. what the NFL, the NBA, and MLB are to the U.S. 
And now the quadrennial question: Why don't Americans, like the rest of the world, love soccer? I'll answer that with another question: Why doesn't the rest of the world love American football? 

I suddenly feel my fever breaking, and will now get back to work and previously scheduled reading. 

Soccer/football T-shirt pictured is available at