Archive | February, 2023


28 Feb

It appears even Glenda is having a bit of trouble with her subeditors this week:

But it’s hard to decide which is more unlikely: that a mere member of the copy desk would criticise the work of one of Fleet Street’s brightest stars, or that a subeditor – who, as a group, shall we say, tend to be a little older than their colleagues – wouldn’t understand a reference to a 1970s film (really, any 1970s film).

Columnists are not, as a rule, inclined to have production functionaries overrule their jeux d’esprits; they are more lightly edited than any other writer, because the quality of their prose is what’s earned them the job, for gawd’s sake???! There is a presumptive hands-off rule for several star writers at the Tribune (not one that I agree with – it is this blog’s position that everyone should be edited, sensitively, and that silly mistakes just spoil a joke), and in any case it would be for the columnist, not the subeditor, to decide what references were culturally salient.

Given the international decline in copy desks, one might be tempted to say that there are no millennial subeditors anyway. That would not be true at the Tribune, which still proudly invests in subs and as a result has a desk that ranges in age by almost 50 years – ideal, in theory, for catching almost any generation-specific error that might elude a colleague. It’s just that the younger ones have the good sense, by and large, to work on the website, in social media and in video – channels that may still offer them employment into the future – and leave a group of increasingly grizzled Gen X-ers to grow old with the paper.

However, that didn’t stop this headline appearing on the website:

A cultural reference to The Life of Brian? Hard to believe a boomer didn’t write that: you’d need to be in your 60s (NOTE: or not – see comments) to have seen that the first time round at the cinema. Maybe Glenda is right: maybe 1970s films are a universal frame of reference that speak to all generations, in which case I’m in prime position to capitalise.

Or has this reference just sailed over the heads of most of our younger online audience, because it’s just too “old”? I don’t if know I feel lucky, or whether I’ve got a bad feeling about this.


Slightly Fawlty

14 Feb

Woe betide the editor who moves the crossword: this is an axiom you will hear repeated in the corridors of power at every British newspaper. Decades ago, the Tribune reprinted the entire leaked text of a speech by Khrushchev denouncing Stalinism; as well as being one of the most highbrow scoops in history, it also took up literally half the paper, displacing ads and other stories left and right. We asked the Tribune’s current editor whether he would consider doing the same today. He responded: “Can you imagine what the readers would say? ‘Where’s the quick crossword?'”

It is also a tense moment if there’s ever a mistake in a crossword clue, and I cringe in sympathy every time one appears in the corrections column. Puzzlers are a vocal and demanding clientele. But when this one appeared last week, I honestly couldn’t work out what was wrong:

Did you get the answer? I did, or I thought I did: the same for both clues. But do you see the reason for the correction? I could only assume it must have been a “tone” thing. Some objection to invoking Mrs Fawlty because of the resonance of Basil’s “yes, dear” disparagements? An unpalatable resonance of 70s sexism as entertainment? But no, it’s more simple and practical than that. It’s because, even though they derive from the same word, Sybil, as in Fawlty or Thorndike, is spelled Sybil, and sibyl, as in female Roman oracle, is spelled sibyl. The problem isn’t political correctness: it’s because spelling 18 across as the name makes it impossible to get 14 down (“Disgusting” (4 letters); answer: “icky”).

Sibyl, then, joins the (I like to think short) list of words I’m not quite sure how to spell. Bill Bryson tells the story that he got his job on the Times subs’ desk in London by correctly betting his interviewer that he was the only one in the building who could confidently spell “Cincinnati”. At one time, I couldn’t spell it either, but I’m there now, after diligent memorisation (one n, two n’s, one t). I can hope to do better in future this time too, if not actually prophesy it.

Also, googling round the subject seems to suggest that puzzle errors are not as rare as one might suppose. In 2006, the high-profile crossword editor of the New York Times, Will Shortz, published a list of all the mistakes that had appeared on his watch to that point (he started in 1993 and is still in the job today). Some of them are simple factual errors, but some of them are just the kind of semi-concealed mistakes that any sub-editor would be proud to spot. These two are my favourites:

Full list here. (I also enjoyed the tubular/cylindrical nit-pick, but that clue about the Uzi would be impossibly vague even if it were correct.)