August 05, 2007

February 30

The most informative erratum of the year ("so far", as Homer would add) comes from the New York Times' online "Corrections: For the Record" page of July 30:

An article on Thursday about the arraignment of three men in the shooting of two New York police officers, one of whom died, misstated the schedule set by a judge for a trial in the case. The trial is expected to begin by February, not by “Feb. 30.” The error occurred when an editor saw the symbol “— 30 —” typed at the bottom of the reporter’s article and combined it with the last word, “February.” It is actually a notation that journalists have used through the years to denote the end of an article. Although many no longer use it or even know what it means, some journalists continue to debate its origin. A popular theory is that it was a sign-off code developed by telegraph operators. Another tale is that reporters began signing their articles with “30” to demand a living wage of $30 per week. Most dictionaries still include the symbol in the definition of thirty, noting that it means “conclusion” or “end of a news story.”

[For the context of the error, see Michael Brick, " Prosecution Presents array of Evidence in Killing of Police Officer", 7/262007.]

This sense of thirty was news to me, demonstrating yet again my ignorance of the newspaper business. Here are the OED's citations:

1895 Funk's Standard Dict., Thirty..among printers and telegraphers, the last sheet, word, or line of copy or of a despatch; the last; the end. 1929 Amer. Speech IV. 290 ‘30’ or ‘Thirty’ indicates the end of a shift or of the day's work, and has come to mean, also, death. 1938 Sun (Baltimore) 20 Jan. 2/8 Newsmen..mourned today at the bier of Edward J. Neil,..who was killed by shrapnel while covering the civil Spain. Prominent..was a shield of white carnations with a red~flowered figure ‘30’{em}the traditional ‘good night’ in the lore of the fourth estate. 1941 J. SMILEY Hash House Lingo 58 30, end of anything. 1945 J. O'HARA in New Yorker 27 Jan. 22/3 ‘I say thank you and thirty.’ This last, the word ‘thirty’, is the traditional signing-off signal of the newspaper business. 1973 R. LUDLUM Matlock Paper xxix. 251 The number 30 at the bottom of any news copy meant the story was finished. 1978 G. VIDAL Kalki IV. i. 88 ‘When we know those two things, it's fat thirty time.’ Bruce had obviously been impressed by journalism school.

[via Nancy Friedman at Away with Words]

[Marilyn Martin writes:

During the '30s and '40s there was a nightly radio news broadcast called The Richfield Reporter [sponsored by Richfield Gasoline]. At the conclusion of each fifteen-minute [sic] broadcast, the reporter would always sign off with

"That's 30 for tonight."

And John Cowan, commenting at Nancy Friedman's site, suggests another etymology:

The story I heard (but I don't vouch for it), was that the original form of "- 30 -" was "- XXX - ", and that this was later read, or misread, as a Roman numeral. It indicates, when a story is written in takes, that the story is complete: this is the last take, no more to come.


[Update #2 -- Dick Margulis writes:

When typewritten copy was sent to the composing room, in the days of the Linotype, a late-breaking story might be distributed among two or more typesetters. Every sheet but the last had -more- at the bottom, indicating explicitly that it was _not_ the last sheet, and paragraphs were never broken at the end of a page, thus ensuring that lines would not need to be reset. Even today, printed news releases (formatted as double-spaced typed pages) often conform to the same convention, although the "-30-" is usually replaced with "###" to indicate the end of the article.

I'd never seen the "XXX" hypothesis before, but it certainly makes intuitive sense.

Mark Eli Kalderon has compiled a collection of additional etymological speculations here, some of them spectacularly fanciful. In the absence of evidence, this sort of thing becomes a sort of large-scale game of Balderdash. Of course, there are theories in which all rational thought is an internal version of this style of post-doc story-telling... ]

[Update #3 -- Don Porges points out that "The journalistic meaning of '-30-' used to be well-known enough" that there was a 1959 movie by that name. Starring Jack Webb, yet.]

[And -- drum roll... -- the envelope, please!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 5, 2007 09:22 AM