Rantings of a sub-editor

May 13, 2010

Freemixing with chapesses

Filed under: guest writers,Kit Davies — substuff @ 12:15 pm
Tags: , , ,

Assembled chaps and chapesses.

Since 1989, a number of publications have made the mistake of employing me as chief sub. And there have been moments where it has been vaguely enjoyable.

Now, in my long slow final decline, my current deputy, The Excellent Miss Relf, who is cleverer than me, incidentally (really), has asked me to try and put a few words together as to what I think about stuff. [Not true, the cleverer bit. I don’t even have one degree in Italian, let alone a doctorate in the psychology of comedy in Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato – Cathy]

So here is a little sermon. I will be provocative in the hope that this might generate more comment than my Facebook status updates (usually zero reaction).

It is true, is it not, that humans have within them an innate sense of the divine (Vince the freelancer excluded).

In a largely irreligious age in Britain (see Vince for details), this takes various forms. One of the most striking manifestations of this among sub-editors is the passionate conviction that dictionaries drop from heaven.

I have on many occasions noticed them (and reporters to boot) coming across all personally insulted if you suggest that dictionaries do not define usage. The truth of the matter is that it is the other way around. A dictionary is a publication like any other. It is not a work of perfection
from some perfect realm.  Plato has a lot to answer for.

Subs, though, even the most irreligious (Vince lives in Shoreham), have an excessive respect for dictionaries. And other such books.

Now I am not saying for one minute that we do not need agreed standards that we adhere to. That’s a big part of a sub-editor’s job. But our job is also to assist clarity, and to assist clarity we must remember at all times that language constantly changes, and that the meaning of words is defined by their common usage. And that if we bang away at imposing dictionary definition and utterly “correct” grammatical usage on copy, we SOMETIMES risk clouding clarity and spoiling freshness of expression.

Common usage, including vernacular, slang and idiom, runs perhaps some ten years ahead of dictionary codification. When common usage changes meanings, the dictionary will then follow. Hence the articles in the press when new words are included. Dictionaries are out of date at the time of publication and become increasingly so. So I think the plain man’s (Vince has a garden shed and two kids) understanding of what a word means is what it will be taken to mean. Therefore what words are taken to mean should take precedence over a dictionary. (Spelling is a different matter, on which I will not dwell here).

Words constantly change meanings. The most famous and obvious example of this (and there are many) is that if someone wrote “he had felt a little queer that evening but managed to tuck into his faggots” in 1900, this would have been taken to mean someone keeping up an appetite despite feeling unwell. Point made.

Words also get old. They get dated. I get constant pleasure, when hesitantly exchanging pleasantries with new staff, from asking where they dwell. This always gets a chuckle. Or a hostile stare. Whatever.

We are in a similar realm with new words. Should subs strike them out if they are not in the dictionary? Should we attempt to make the use of new words illegal? If they are not in the dictionary are they not such?

Language is, thankfully, cleverer than that. Out in Saudi Arabia they have religious police to stop freemixing. Now this word “does not exist” in the dictionary on Cathy’s desk. But the word does exist and you know what it means. At least you will in context. Therefore I propose that if we know what a word means, it should be accepted and used. And what about chapess? Frequently heard, but not in the dictionary. It will probably get in one day.

So would you as a sub strike out “freemixing with chapesses”? If you do, or you change it to “the intermingling of the sexes”, I think you have taken some of the fun out of the language. And that is the reverse of what subs should be doing.

I would even include house style in this belief of mine. Magazines are meant to be read. They should be readable. They are not being read by house style enthusiasts who are mentally checking off adherence to it.  So if there is ever a risk that imposing house style will damage the freshness or liveliness of a phrase, then do not apply house style.

The very great Winston Churchill was last seen involved with Daleks. He objected (you know this) to the grammatical rule that one should not end a sentence with a prepositition with his classic though possibly apocryphal remark: “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”

You hear subs today moaning about hanging conjunctions and prepositions [I think he means me – Cathy]. And then there is the jolly old split infinitive, likely to cause actual REAL rage among sub-editors. But “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is great. There are those who want it changed. It upsets them. They also believe dictionaries drop from heaven.

PS I really really want to kill people who try and remove widows and orphans five minutes before deadline.


[A few days passed, and then I received a PPS – Cathy]


PPS I am a hypocrite.

Yesterday I noticed with INDIGNATION the appearance of myriad as a noun.

Now, gentle reader (you still there?), I was a big fan of Arthur C Clarke as a boy (cast all smutty guffaws aside please) and as part of my homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey the film, devoured the book. (Are you still there?)

Now at the end of same, Arthur C. went on about myriads and myriads of stars (as Dave plunges through the star gate thingy).

Now in those days (late 1960s), myriad, it was banged into me, was an adjective only. He should have written myriad stars.

In copy yesterday I noticed ‘a myriad of’ referring to a plural of something totally uninteresting. Relf-style, I came over all rapid strike force and changed it to ‘myriad’.

I then turned to the dictionary, only to find that because usage has changed, so has the dictionary. Myriad is now accepted as a noun. So you can now say myriads of and a myriad of. As well as using it as an adjective.

But did I sagely nod at the wisdom of above post? No I did not. I went out and performed vandalism on some shrubbery. And arranged for lots of evangelical preachers to call on Vince. On Sunday afternoon.

Kit Davies is Cathy Relf’s fellow sub at The Grocer. He has been chief sub of The Grocer for 13 years and has seven children. He is to be a grandfather very shortly and would be grateful for any donations of Werthers Original.



  1. Hehehe, I love this. He wrote more than double my suggested maximum word count, but I don’t care – I’m not losing a single word! Best boss ever you are, Kit. 🙂

    Ps. I’m not going to stop garlanding my dictionary with flowers every morning, though.

    Comment by substuff — May 13, 2010 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  2. Myriad has only been accepted into the dictionary as a noun because of myriad misuses of the word. And as we are clearly now not meant to take dictionaries as gospel, I reject this insanity.

    And many of my acquaintance would still understand your queer reference to faggots in the context of its 1900 meaning…

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — May 13, 2010 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  3. inspired and inspirational stuff, Kit. not sure what to make of the fact i first read the subject as ‘freebasing with chapatis’ though. maybe a topic for your next post

    Comment by charlie wright — May 15, 2010 @ 4:47 pm | Reply

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