An American Editor

February 3, 2010

On Words: Pose

Although most of my posts have focused on publishers and ebooks, this is an editor’s blog and one of the things editors do is deal with words. Consequently, I am introducing a new topic, called On Words, to the mix. On Words will address words and phrases that catch my editorial eye and discuss their etymology. Hopefully this will broaden my understanding of words and phrases used in English. Today’s post about pose inaugurates On Words.

Reading the newspaper has become a bit depressing. I get tired of the strident right and left wings of the Republican and Democrat parties posing for their radicalized followers and hearing nothing from the centrists. The recent demand for a Republican litmus test reinforces my continuing disdain for the extremists of both parties. I believe that most Americans are centrists and simply want what is best for America as a whole, not what is best for the far right or the far left.

Then came the Mitch McConnell smiles about having thwarted Barack Obama’s vision for America by holding the Republican party together in a chorus of no and now adding Scott Brown as  filibusterer number 41.

That led me to think: Are these politicians — Republican and Democrat alike — who should be looking out for the welfare of all America, really just posing when they say they are focused on what is best for America as opposed to what is best for their reelection. Are they just posers?

Pose is is derived from the French poser, to deposit, and from the Late Latin pausare, to rest, and the Latin pausa, to pause. In American usage, it originally meant the distance the cargo of a canoe was carried before the cargo was deposited for a rest. As was explained in The Spirit of the Times (January 30, 1858), “In crossing a long portage, they do not go through the whole distance with one load, but divide it into ‘poses,’ or rests; and carry in succession each load to the first ‘pose,’ and then carry them to the second one, and so on, so that they can rest in walking back for the loads.” In 1941, the McDermott Glossary stated that the average distance of a pose was one-third mile. (Perhaps we should infer that politicians are a burden to be dropped every so often :).)

But somewhere along the path of linguistic history, pose took on other meanings and usages. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) gives the word its modern definition: “To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.” But of most interest is the third definition: “To represent oneself falsely; pretend to be other than what one is.” Similarly, a poser is defined as “one who poses.”

Because pose and poser accurately describe politicians of all stripes in 2010, in 10 years I expect to open my dictionary and see these definitions:

  • pose (v.) 1. The campaign promises made by a person seeking political office that will be ignored once elected. 2. To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.
  • poser (n.) 1. A politician. 2. One who poses.

Still I would like to know how and when the transition was made from a portage measure to the description of a politician (i.e., one who represents him- or herself falsely). Any ideas?

January 25, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1)

One way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their resource library. The professional editor knows that to do a quality job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library (would you trust your doctor’s drug guide to Wikipedia?). Professional editing does equate with a quality book.

Professional editors are familiar with and use style guides, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style; Scientific Style and Format; AMA Manual of Style; and Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. There are more — lots more. It seems that every professional and academic discipline has its own style. They also own and use language usage guides, which are discussed in Part 2 of this article.

Style guides are important because a good author is a storyteller but not necessarily a good writer. Good writing includes logical organization and making sure that there is a flow and consistency to a story. It does no good, for example, to begin a chapter in the year 1861 and suddenly, three paragraphs later, the year is 1965, unless the between paragraphs transition the reader from 1861 to 1965. 

Think of the chaos there would be if a book’s references were formatted willy-nilly, or capitalization shifted all over the place, or spelling changed page by page, or compound adjectives (the hyphenated kind) were sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. How would meaning be transferred from author to reader?

English was a language with no rules until a few hundred years ago. Then authors began to realize that they could no longer read and understand writings from 100 years earlier, and wondered whether their work will be readable 100 years later. Thus began the quest to standardize English. English is still an unruly language, thus the need for style guides — style guides bring order to chaos. Style guides help ensure consistency so that authors can write and know that how their book uses language will convey the author’s meaning — today and tomorrow — because everyone is on the same page.

True, the average reader doesn’t sit with the Chicago Manual of Style next to them. Most readers don’t know it exists. It is the publisher and the editor who need to know and need to apply the rules — as arbitrary as they may be — to the author’s manuscript. Why? So that a diverse population with diverse linguistic skills can join together and understand the author’s work. The style guides provide a common meeting ground and act as arbiters of language, broadening the ability of the audience to read and understand the author’s words. More importantly, by bringing order to chaos the rules heighten quality — something publishers need to do in the age of ebooks.

The professional editor is a master of the relevant style guides and knows the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, and other language conventions. Professional editors continuously invest in the tools of their profession and tend to read widely. Professional editors know that their primary responsibilities are to ensure consistency, accuracy, and universality, by which I mean that the author’s work meets and embraces language conventions that ensure the widest possible audience can read and understand the author’s work: The professional editor is a communication enhancer who firms up the link between the author and the reader.

Alas, publishers and authors often look for the least expensive way to produce a book, which means that professional editors with skills, experience, and knowledge are often not hired. Why? Because the professional editor’s work is not readily discernible. A professional editor’s work is like polishing silver — adding shine and luster, not replacing the silver. 

A smart author will insist on the publisher hiring a professional editor; a smart publisher will insist on hiring a professional editor and pay a professional price, recognizing that poor editorial work tarnishes the author’s — and publisher’s — silver. A professional editor’s sure hand can make the difference between an also-ran and a bestseller.

Both authors and publishers should recognize that there is more to being a professional editor than simply calling oneself an editor.

Tomorrow the discussion continues with a look at language usage resources and why they are important parts of an editor’s library.

January 5, 2010

On Books: Words, Language, and Understanding

I know that many of the world’s controversies can find their root in the original book, the Bible. But what makes the Bible the definitive source of God’s words?

I don’t ask this irreverently; rather, I wonder how we, thousands of years after the Bible was first written, know what is the true word of God and what isn’t. What brings this to mind was my recent reading of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler (available in print but not in ebook). Just reading the prologue to this book, which discusses the exchange between Cortes and Montezuma during Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, was sufficient to raise questions. Further reading of the text merely emphasizes the wonderment of languages.

Language is much more than strokes on a tablet. There are subtleties in phrasing, in meaning, in choice of gender (and what about those languages that do not have gender forms?), in tense, in numbers, and so on that translation from one language to another is rarely precise. In America, where we supposedly speak the same version of English, there are regionalisms that can alter meaning. China has hundreds of dialects.

So how do we get from the original Bible to today’s Bible with uniform meaning in all languages and dialects. The St. James version was created by committee, members of which argued over translation and meaning and choosing the correct word in English. And languages change over time; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of Hemingway or King, and certainly not the English (or its derivative) that was spoken at the time that Aramaic was dominant in the Middle East.

If the original Bible was truly God’s word, I must assume that it was dictated, letter by letter, word by word, comma by comma, but not taken in some form of shorthand. Otherwise it would not be God’s word but the scribe’s interpretation of God’s word. The concepts are captured but not the words. When God said 7 days, did God really say 7 days or was that the scribe’s interpretation?

This questioning doesn’t detract from the importance of the Bible as a guiding document in human lives and history. Rather, it illustrates the problems of language and words and grammar and understanding, and emphasizes the importance of a good editor who has a grasp of these problems.

Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a book that should be read by every lover of language for the insight it gives on the development of languages and why some succeed, such as English, and some do not, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, and for the insight it gives into how difficult it is for modern man to discern ancient truths.

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