Rantings of a sub-editor

May 5, 2010

Herald revisited

Filed under: herald,word choice — substuff @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

Last week I got my knickers in a twist about the verb to herald, prompted by the sentence: “Premier Foods is heralding the arrival of summer with a new Mr Kipling cake range based on classic ice cream flavours.”

At the time, I claimed: “herald should be used to describe a sign (quite often a natural sign) that something is going to happen, rather than a response to the knowledge that it is going to happen.”

However, almost as soon as I had published it, I started to have doubts. My initial understanding had been that the action of heralding something was generally natural, accidental or unpurposeful – in the way that a daffodil can herald the start of spring. But what about herald as a noun – the person who announces that something is to happen, or someone is to arrive? That role is certainly not natural, accidental or unpurposeful. And what about all the newspapers that have the word in their titles?

So I have done a little more probing. And I must say, I am rather upset with the dictionary because it doesn’t quite say what I want it to say (ie. that I was right).

Here are the two main definitions from the OED:

herald (noun)
1. An official employed to make a ruler’s proclamations and carry ceremonial messages between heads of state
2. A person or thing that precedes and announces the approach of another (similar to harbinger)

herald (verb)
Proclaim the approach of; usher

And these are all very well and good. However, the closest definition of the meaning I ascribe to herald is found instead under foreshadow.

Serve as a type or presage of, prefigure; suggest or indicate (something to come)

But even this isn’t quite right. I’m thinking not so much of a presage, which is too close in meaning to omen, but a sign – perhaps a mystical one, perhaps just naturally occurring, but definitely not deliberate.

Is anyone with me here? Or am I totally barking up the wrong dictionary? If your responses unanimously tell me I have hallucinated this additional meaning, I promise to herald my admission of defeat by consuming at least three of the very Mr Kipling cakes that started this whole thing off. Every cloud…

(I’m not eating a Creme Egg for anyone though.)

In other news, I would like to announce that the addition of breasts to the blog has prompted a new hits-per-day record – even though the post wasn’t about sub-editing at all and only took a minute to put up. Sigh.



  1. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying watching someone agonise over words in this way – my journalism students would look on in blank incomprehension at the idea that nuances of meaning (whether purposeful or not) mattered at all.

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 5, 2010 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

  2. Nice to know someone else gets excited over words the way I do – this morning I wrote about how the word ‘aplenty’ annoys me in headlines (http://billbennett.co.nz/avoid-aplenty-headlines/)

    As for herald, if a experienced sub-editor is confused about the meaning of the word and has to track it down in the dictionary to understand its real meaning, what is the man on the Clapham Omnibus going to make of it?

    That would be reason enough to draw a red line through herald – or whatever the modern equivalent of that would be. However, I dislike it because it is such a PR-ey kind of word. I mean, who in everyday life “heralds the arrival of a cake”?

    Comment by Bill Bennett — May 6, 2010 @ 1:19 am | Reply

  3. Well when I think of the word ‘herald’ I immediately have a mental picture of unwashed medieval man in a metal skirt blowing a long thin horn pointing up in the air. What the hell does that say about me???

    Comment by Stefmez — May 6, 2010 @ 8:56 pm | Reply

  4. Hmm… it sounds as if everyone else is as confused as I am. Ah, those cakes will just have to wait…

    Comment by substuff — May 9, 2010 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

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