The Compulsive Copyeditor

June 3, 2011

A Voice in the Wilderness

Filed under: grammar,language degenerating — amba12 @ 5:37 pm

This is the lament of an endangered species.  A plaintive, nasal piping, like the voice of the duck from the the wolf’s tummy in Peter and the Wolf.

I started to read a book.  It was a book I had received for the fact checking of a review in Natural History.  It looks like a fascinating book:  The Order of Days:  The Maya World and the Truth about 2012, by Mayanist scholar David Stuart.  It is NOT a book about predictions of the world’s end on December 21, 2012; the author takes a couple of pages to dismiss that as “complete nonsense.”  Instead it is, in our reviewer Laurence A. Marschall’s words, an exploration of “the sense of time itself as conceived by one of the great civilizations of the ancient world.”

I was hooked.  I started at the beginning.  Within a couple of pages, I was in pain.

Here’s what was hurting me.  Either you’ll get it or you won’t.  If you get it, you’re a dinosaur like me.  If you wonder, “Dude, what’s the problem?”, you’re in tune with the times.

The glottal stop involves an abrupt interruption or obstruction of airflow during speech, and while not a part of standard English phonology, many English speakers do often make use of it.

Ajaw is the word for “king” in classic Mayan, but the similar day name I prefer to spell it as Ahaw, largely because the Yukatek Mayan language of the sixteenth century, where the day names we use come from, did not have a j.

As someone who has studied the Maya for nearly all of his life . . . I have to lay down the line and assert that any such statements about the Maya predicting the world’s demise or, alternatively, some “transformation of consciousness” in 2012 is, to put it as simply and directly as possible, wrong.

This is within four pages, so I can be pretty sure there’s a lot more ahead.  By the time I get through a few chapters I’ll feel like a bull bristling with bandilleras (bloodless as they may be).

(Pardon me while I mix my metaphors.  This in itself may cause pain, and a good copy editor would not let me get away with it.  But I’m trying to sketch a quick and dirty portrait of a painful sensation, and a composite may get it best.)

People read to get at the content, now.  Writing is supposed to be as transparent as a pane of glass.  But how many HDTV or iPad aficionados would shell out big bucks for their gadgets only to tolerate fingerprints, noseprints, dog slobber, or bird shit on the screen?  Language is a technology of reproduction to which standards of fidelity and precision once applied.  How ironic that while we’re going all hi-def in our visual media, our written transmission of images and ideas has gone lo-fi with a vengeance.  We seem to regard words as a blunt instrument, a beat-up softball bat for lobbing blurry blobs of thought in the world’s approximate direction.

Every time such a blow is merrily struck I flinch as if the writer were driving in a nail with the blade of a fine axe.  It makes it difficult for some few of us to read a book.  All it would take to blunt the pain and sharpen the image is . . . a copy editor.  But it is not worth paying one, because so few customers are lost for want of one.  Most likely, even most of the acquisitions specialists who still bear the vestigial title of “editor” don’t know the difference.

To argue that such fine-tuning would have a salutary effect even on minds that are completely unaware of it is to be a voice in the wilderness.

UPDATE: Turns out I had added a typo of my own.  Fixed.

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1 Comment »

  1. I agree! The world needs copy editing now more than ever. Language should not be treated as a second-class technology. Too often “the medium is [or becomes] the message” and we are blinded by the pretty colors and shiny chrome.

    Comment by Alan — December 28, 2011 @ 5:50 pm | Reply


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