August 23, 2005

Tar heel, Brahmin; edited, unedited; whatever...

In today's WSJ, Philip Howard has a review (subscribers only) of the new edition of "Webster's New World College Dictionary". Howard is a writer at the London Times, and he takes the opportunity to meditate on differences between British and American varieties of English, sprinkling his review with gracious little transatlantic compliments that are so forced as to seem almost like insults:

"It may be painful for a Little Englander to admit, but Webster leads Oxford in priority, in the same way that the U.S. leads the U.K. in technology, fashion, and the thousand other variables that make up modern living."

Another dribble of soft soap:

"We can conclude (e.g., from rhymes) that the pronunciation of Shakespeare was closest to that of a Boston Brahmin."

But the BBC told us not long ago that original-accent Shakespearean English is "completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina".

However, I don't think we should trouble ourselves examining Howard's scholarship too deeply. He ends his review with some remarks on the virtues of printed books over on-line text, and the benefits of editing, which he demonstrates by telling a funny story about the bad things that happen when something is published without being edited. Oops, make that a funny story about the bad things that happen when something is subjected to editing....

I trust books from a reputable house to have been edited: I don't trust anything on the Internet. At the London Times we have a correspondent called Brian Cosker, the economics head of a group of English schools, who writes to us from Baldock in Hertfordshire. A copy editor in a hurry ran his letter through Spellcheck and Mr. Cosker appeared in print as "Drain Coaster from Padlock." What Mr. Cosker thought of that, you can be sure, will never make it into Webster's. 

This one of those stories that sounds good over a pint, but seems increasingly implausible if you think about it seriously. I tried searching the Times archive, which is unaware of any articles authored by "Drain Coaster" since the start of the archive in 1985. I rather doubt that an editor would have run "Spellcheck" over submitted copy at the Times, in a hurry or otherwise, before 1985. So either Mr. Howard is embroidering, or the on-line version has been corrected.

In any case, his logic is odd. He trusts books from reputable houses, because they are edited; but he doesn't trust "anything on the internet", because a Times editor once turned Brian Coster from Baldock into Drain Coaster from Padlock. Should we conclude that the Times is not "a reputable house"? Surely not -- rather, it seems that Mr. Howard is angling for the prestigious Michael Gorman Prize for Pleistocene Punditry, and lost the thread of his argument while trying to maximize the number of pokes at computers and the internet he could fit into the few dozen words available to him.

Philip Howard's normal beat seems to be the Modern Manners column, which makes sense, since logic and historical accuracy are less relevant to advice about etiquette than they are in other areas of modern journalism.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 23, 2005 08:48 PM