Monday, July 14, 2008

Copy Editing: In This Pizness Is Much Prosecco

A break from analogies for a while.

The AP recently reported on words added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (which is what my newspaper uses as its standard reference). It noted that many are culinary terms, such as "prosecco," a sparkling wine, and "dirty bomb," which is not sparkling at all. I would have thought dirty bomb was already there. And then there's this word about a word:

"And then there's 'mondegreen.' In a category of its own, it describes words mistaken for other words. A mondegreen most often comes from misunderstood phrases or lyrics. It comes from an old Scottish ballad in which the lyric 'laid him on the green' has been confused over time with 'Lady Mondegreen.' Among the best-known modern examples: 'There's a bathroom on the right' in place of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'There's a bad moon on the rise' and 'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy' in place of 'kiss the sky' in the 1967 Jimi Hendrix classic 'Purple Haze.'"

Don't know about you, but I have never heard the word "mondegreen" used, although M-W says it was first spotted in print in 1954. (You wonder what song it was for. "Hey, Bob, did you hear what that wacky Dean Martin did? He sang a song to his pet eel. 'That's a Moray.' When are he and Jerry coming out with a new movie?") I wonder if one needs to distinguish between purposeful mondegreens (such as the one I just did) and accidental mondegreens. I remember pulling off the freeway between Hartford and New Haven so I could figure out why Michael Jackson was singing, "But the chair is not my son." I thought John Fogerty was singing "a bad moon on the right," but "bathroom" seems like fifth-grade silliness. (At least the story spelled Creedence right.) And what of antimondegreens, the most famous being "I speak of the pompetous of love" -- where you hear it right but it doesn't mean anything? Of course, that goes back to "Hud-sut rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit."

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is a descriptive dictionary and not prescriptive; the Wiki entry on this is useful but tends to concentrate on taboo words and slang, while the question is broader and comes down to the Hopefully Conundrum: If the majority of the American population uses "hopefully" not as an adverb ("He said in a hopeful manner") but as the English equivalent of the Arabic "Inshallah" -- "If this works out, it will be good, but it's out of my control" as opposed to the "I really, really want this to happen" expressed by "I hope" -- then does "hopefully" now mean the way it is generally used, though a prescriptive dictionary will say it should not be used that way? After all, Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. But I know there are still thousands of red pens out there poised to change that "like" to "the way."

I don't know about copy editors outside the newspaper business, but I know we do face challenges from, on the one side, writers who want to tell their story the way they want to tell it, or who do not want to appear clueless to their sources -- this particularly afflicts those writing about pop culture, in terms of word usage, and those covering education, in terms of throwing around jargon -- and from the other, readers who often identify themselves as retired English teachers and who expect the newspaper to uphold the standards they taught. In the middle are the great masses of readers who are just trying to make sense of an article in the few seconds they give it. So if one is editing a story and it mentions "the famous mondegreen by Jimi Hendrix," does one put mondegreen in quotes as a word unfamiliar to most readers, or leave it out of quotes because it's now in Merriam-Webster's? And does one add a dashed-off phrase -- "a word describing a misunderstood phrase in a lyric" -- and risk the writer's complaining that you made her look clueless, and the five readers who post on It'sNotEasyBeingMondegreen calling her and your paper 19th-century hacks?

Newspapers face this problem in particular because, whatever else they may or may not be, now or in the future, newspapers are not hip. Never have been, never will be. The fact that the AP felt the need to say "the 1967 Jimi Hendrix classic" about a song that begins with perhaps the four most recognizable notes since Beethoven's Ninth says it all. But I will say more on that point anyway in a subsequent post.

(The title of this post, by the way? A one-word substitution in the opening line of a James Bond short story.)

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