Archive | September, 2014

Defcon substantial

25 Sep

What is it we’re on that the moment – “severe”? Yes, that’s right: it was raised from “substantial” a month ago. Or do I mean lowered?

The UK Threat Level system, introduced eight years ago, is the national indicator for alertness to terrorism threats in the United Kingdom. The possibility of attack is measured on a five-point scale, in ascending order of danger, as follows: low, moderate, substantial, severe, critical. It’s a list full of strong words; in fact, you might argue, rather too full.

With the well-known US defence readiness condition (Defcon) system, which uses numbers, there is no rhetoric in the status beyond the simple raising or lowering of the level, once you have recalled which way the scale runs (five is low, one is high). Colour-coded systems have a little more emotional content to them – red alert! code blue! etc – but remain essentially inarticulate. For example, one of the status levels in the old “Bikini” alerts, the forerunner of the UK’s current system, was the terrifying-sounding “Code Black Special”. It sounded like the designation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike; in fact, it was just the midpoint of a standard threat scale that started at white at finished at red.

But once you employ words instead of colours, you employ rhetoric: you reveal how you want your audience to feel. And your audience, as readers, can begin to evaluate the way you write.

Exactly how much worse than “substantial” is “severe”? In this context, aren’t they almost synonymous? “Critical”, the highest level, is slightly easier to prioritise, as it is well understood as the most acute status in medical bulletins. But in the American Hospital Association’s five-point scale, the next two conditions below “critical” are “serious” and then “fair” at the midpoint. The gradations are much wider and better defined. Less formalised UK hospital bulletins sometimes drop straight from “critical” to “stable”, at other times via “critical but stable”.

But in neither case could you confuse the midpoint word with the highest word. The trouble with the UK terror threat scale is that it contains three terms that each, at a pinch, could pass for the highest one. The result is that you get dispiriting announcements to the effect that “the threat level has been lowered to severe“. Lowered to severe. The words are so close in meaning as to create a kind of unrelieved despondency whichever one is used, even when the threat of attack is relenting.

This is not to underplay the seriousness of the situation: heaven knows, no one who has lived or worked in London for the last 20 years needs to be reminded of how real terrorism is. But the danger  is that, by making such fine distinctions between such strong words, you lose the chance of galvanising the public at a time of crisis. Instead, you simply generate an exhausting, permanent vigilance that can vary only in the small range set by the scale.

Terrorism alertness systems are an important signal from government of awareness and action; properly used, they can call an entire nation to alert, and perhaps even reassure them afterwards.  But they need to be better written than this.

Big problem

11 Sep

This email from the Tribune’s deputy production editor goes in pretty strongly:

Just a reminder about the definition of enormity (sinful, wicked, morally wrong … not v big).

Now that’s a position that would be contested in many quarters. I hear the word used to mean “v big” far more often than I do to mean “morally wrong”. And the dictionaries tend to disagree too. Collins, our house dictionary, sticks largely on the traditional meaning and allows the idea of size only informally:

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But Merriam-Webster includes the third meaning on an equal footing with the others, holding that it is, officially, ambiguous:

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So, is the deputy production editor a stick-in-the-mud? Well, maybe not when you read the opening sentence of the article he was concerned about:

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Scottish independence is the most hotly contested issue on our website at the moment. Thousands of comments flood in for every article; fierce and sometimes hostile debate spills over even into pieces that only touch on the issue briefly. A misreading of “enormity” as a pejorative in the first sentence might have caused anger, creating extra work for those moderating the comments on the article, as well as an uncomfortable postbag for the writer, and possibly the editor, the following day.

However, as the deputy production editor says:

Thankfully the … piece on the front of today’s paper was clear-headed and even-handed enough for eagle-eyed readers to realise it was just a simple misuse of the word rather than an intentionally trenchant intro…

It’s possible that all readers either took the word at its more informal meaning, or, if they didn’t, kept reading until they understood that that was what was meant. But if the latter, we may have been fortunate: as Slate has found, most site visitors only read half of any story they click on, and a disappointingly high number don’t scroll down a story at all.  The tone that’s set in headline, standfirst and opening sentence is often the tone that readers take away with them.

As has been suggested here before, if you are helping an author into the cauldron of a debate like this, you have to watch their back. Yes, of course, language changes; it changes especially quickly when, as here, established professional writers start to embrace emerging meanings of words in their published work.

But precedent like this doesn’t eliminate the standing definition of the word at a stroke; language change takes years. If a reader took “enormity”, the 17th word of the article, in its traditional sense and objected to what he thought was being said, you couldn’t rely on authority to convince him he was wrong. You could point him to the bulk of the content of the piece and invite him to reconsider his interpretation; but all that mollifying substance comes after, not before, the most potentially inflammatory word in the piece, and may have already coloured everything he went on to read.

As editors, we can’t let that happen. Sometimes, we can sit back and observe the language changing, but not this time. We need to intervene on the writer’s behalf and ensure that a word that unstable doesn’t get near a subject that inflammatory.  It’s not true to say that “enormity” doesn’t mean “v big”; but, at the moment, it means other things too.