April 08, 2007

Hed, dek, lede, graf, tk: live with it

What do you call an apology for future behavior? Whatever the expression is, this post is an example. But it's also an educational experience, I hope, for those of you who don't know the meta-journalistic terms of art in the title.

I've never worked as a journalist, but in the unremembered mysterious way that we learn most words, I somehow learned these terms and their idiosyncratic spellings. "Hed" is head, as in headline. "Dek" is deck, which is a sort of sub-headline, a phrase or two between the headline and the body of the article that explains what the story is about. "Lede" is lead, as in leading paragraph, the way a piece starts. "Graf" is graph, as in paragraph, often used in combinations like nut graf, which comes just after the lede, and summarizes the story's content. "Tk" should be "tc", I guess, because it's short for "to come", i.e. not yet written.

That's what I think these terms mean, at least -- they aren't in most dictionaries under the non-standard spellings. In some cases (e.g. deck), dictionaries are missing the journalistic sense under any spelling at all. For example, I can't find the journalistic meaning of deck in the OED [but see below...], the AHD, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, or Encarta. Until I just checked, though, I didn't know about this lack of representation in dictionaries, because I never had any reason to check on this sense of deck/dek, any more than I normally look up any other word that I think I know and expect that others will know as well.

The legend is that the strange spellings of these words were developed in order to help distinguish meta-journalistic comments in copy (e.g. "dek tk") from the stuff that's meant to be printed. I have no idea whether that's true. But several of these terms are useful, however spelled. In particular, dek/deck and lede/lead don't really have any good alternatives; and graf and hed are conveniently reduced forms of paragraph and headline; and tk is a lot more succinct than "to be supplied at some point in the future", or whatever.

But there's a problem. Or rather, there are two problems, one old and one new.

Whenever I've used one of these terms in a Language Log post, using the idiosyncratic spelling, I've gotten email politely pointing out the spelling error, or asking me less politely what the heck I think I'm talking about. That's the old problem. It hasn't come up very much recently, because I've learned from experience and generally stopped using terms like hed, dek, lede, graf and tk, even in meta-journalistic commentary where these terms would be culturally appropriate.

But in my April 6 post "All X and no Y", I slipped up. The lede was:

"All mouth and no trousers" was the headline on a story in the 3/31-4/6 edition of the Economist. This is apparently a UK expression that I've somehow managed to miss. The deck ("Are foreign firms as keen on Asia as they claim to be?") and the rest of the story make it clear that the meaning is same as "all hat and no cattle", "all sizzle and no steak", "all bark and no bite", etc.

So I used "headline" in place of "hed", and no one complained about that. I considered using "sub-headline" or "sub-head", but after a brief struggle with my conscience, I decided to refer to the dek as "the deck", spelled in the normal rather than the journalistic way.

Well, no one has written in (yet) to complain that about the lack of ships, playing cards or outdoor furniture in the neighborhood of that deck. But Jim Lewis politely corrected my spelling. In the journalistic sense, he explained, it should be "dek".

OK, everybody, fair warning. No more pangs of conscience. From now on, as the fancy strikes me, I'm going to use hed, dek, lede, graf, tk and similar bits of journalistic jargon, spelled as seems appropriate to the occasion. Letters of complaint will be answered with a link to this post, my apology (or self-justification) in advance.

[OK, that's what I get for trying to whip out three posts over breakfast -- Jim Lewis writes:

Allow me, with all due respect and politesse, and at the risk of nitpickery, to adjust your course again. You wrote: "I can't find the journalistic meaning of deck in the OED". I use Version 1.10 of the electronic edition of the OED2, which lists, under 'Deck n1':

6. a. A pile of things laid flat upon each other.

1625 F. Markham Bk. Hon. ii. vi. §5 Any whose Pedigree lyes so deepe in the decke, that few or none will labour to find it.
1631 Celestina xix. 185 Subtill words, whereof such as shee are never to seeke, but have them still ready in the deck.
1634 Sanderson Serm. II. 287 So long as these things should hang upon the file, or lie in the deck, he might perhaps be safe.
1673 Marvell Reh. Transp. II. 394 A certain Declaration..which you have kept in deck until this season.

b. Part of a newspaper, periodical, etc., headline containing more than one line of type, esp. the part printed beneath the main headline. Also attrib.

1935 H. Straumann Newspaper Headlines i. 28 These are first decks (and streamers) only.
Ibid. iii. 87 The first three lines or 'decks' as they would be called in present-day journalism.
1965 L. H. Whitten Progeny of Adder (1966) 127 The eight-column headline told him of Pantelein's body being found. But it was the 'deck' headline that held him: county coroner cites 'vampirism'.

No entry for 'dek', though.

It's a cold and gloomy day out here in West Texas. Good day for dictionary-skimming.

It's a bit chill and gloomy here in Philly as well, but I spent the morning at the King Tut exhibit with a couple of 11-year-olds and assorted parents. No deks in sight, though there was a spectacular figurine of Ptah, whom the wikipedia describes as "the deification of the primordial mound", and whose staff is topped by a stack of hieroglyphs.]

[On the other hand, Jan Freeman (who ought to know) writes:

I have to disagree with Jim Lewis on dek vs. deck, and with you on adopting abbreviations.

At the Globe, where I was an editor for 20 years, we didn't actually use "dek" but "subhed" or sometimes "drophed/drop." So "dek" looks as funny to me as it would to any nonjournalist. (This is often a problem with workplace slang; local usage can differ dramatically.)

But even if I knew "dek," I would not use it in my own writing: There I say headline (or head, sometimes), subhead, capital letters or uppercase (not "all caps" or "up"), lowercase (not "down"), italics (not itals/italix), paragraph. I don't see why the journalistic spellings would be more appropriate just because the source is journalism; almost every subject has its in-group vocabulary, but reporters and commentators are supposed to paraphrase or translate it, not adopt it.

But while we're having this discussion, let's not forget the mysterious CQ. Some say it means "copy as quoted" -- an implausible locution, to my ear -- and it means "I have checked the spelling of this name/word and vouch for its accuracy." (Of course, an editor soon learns that some writers' CQs, like other sorts of promises, are not to be trusted.) I checked this a few years ago but the evidence was inconclusive:

(From "The Word," March 4, 2001)

The search for the meaning of cq - that mysterious abbreviation that means, to copy editors, "this is correct" - may not be over, but readers have come up with some good leads. "My first copy chief taught me the origin of this initialism," writes Jon Skillings, an editor at CNET.com. "Cq stands for cadit quaestio, Latin for 'the question drops' - or, more loosely, don't even think about bothering me with a question about the way this word is spelled."

Lorna Garey, an editor at Network Computing, also learned cadit quaestio in her early days of copy editing. Though the term has to be bent rather sharply to make it mean "this is correct," it does appear often in legal and philosophical texts, meaning "there's no more argument," more or less.

And cq is indeed an abbreviation for cadit quaestio (among other things). But I haven't found proof that this cq is the same as the editors' cq, so if you're partial to a different theory, there's still hope for your candidate.

I'm open to cadit quaestio, but I also liked the suggestion, put forth by Christopher Kenneally and Barbara McLean, that cq could be a phonetic version of sic - which means exactly the same thing. (Why not use sic? Because it's meant to be printed, to show that the writer knows he's reproducing a mistake. Editors need a code word obviously not meant for publication, like the TK abbreviation for "to come"). (End of Word quote.)

Best CQ story, from a former Globe copy editor: The green writer who, it was revealed some months into her career, thought that CQ was an instruction to the copy desk meaning "Please check"!

I wouldn't be surprised if some LL reader knew more about CQ than I could find out six years ago; perhaps you could pose the question, if it interests you.



Posted by Mark Liberman at April 8, 2007 07:26 AM