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Word Usage Becomes a National Headline

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 12:09 AM

An object lesson about our responsibility to use words clearly and honestly.

By William Dunkerley

At Christmastime a national media scandal erupted over, of all things, word usage! It brings to the fore the responsibilities we editors have to our audiences as we use words to inform readers. This is true in whatever field we cover with our content.

What was the scandal? It was actually about the word "Christmastime" itself. Here's the short of it: NBC News ran the headline, "Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops at Christmastime." But when minutes after midnight on Christmas Day Trump left for a troop visit to the Middle East, a media scandal broke out.

Defining "Christmastime"

Trump supporters asserted that the day after Christmas is still "Christmastime." Others disagreed. However, the Washington Post's media critic, Erik Wemple, called them to task. He commented:

"The [NBC] story appears to rest on a lawyerly definition of 'Christmastime.' Some succor for this approach comes from Merriam-Webster, which defines the word as 'the time of year when people get ready for and celebrate Christmas: Christmas day and the days and weeks before it.'"

But Wemple missed what's perhaps a larger point. When we checked our print copy of Webster's, we found that it defines Christmastime simply as "the Christmas season." The definition cited by Wemple appears only on merriam-webster.com. And there it is shown as just a secondary usage under the heading "More Definitions for Christmastime."

Papering Over the Mistake

Even stranger is the way in which NBC changed its headline after its goof was revealed. Now it says, "Trump becomes first president since 2002 not to visit troops on or before Christmas." What a lame recovery from a bad mistake. Trump did actually visit at 11:17 a.m. EST on December 26. Sarcastically, I thought NBC could make its headline even more precise by adding that Trump did not visit "on or before the day after Christmas at 11:16 a.m. EST." The point is that NBC is making a distinction without a real difference.

There is really no precise definition of the period called Christmastime. Some observe the twelve days of Christmas from December 25 to January 5. Greek Orthodox Americans celebrate Christmas on January 7.

It's not unusual for a given period to be considered differently by different audiences. Take the word "modern." Modern history is generally considered to be from 1500 to around 1800 AD. The modern art period is said to be from the 1860s to the 1970s. Modern music reportedly began at the start of the 20th century. Then there's modern science, modern medicine, and more -- all with their own concepts of the word "modern."

Purveying Words Responsibly

So now we have two leading purveyors of words, NBC News and Merriam-Webster, both playing with words. The news organization's editors appear either to be deceptive or not so competent. The online dictionary seems just plain wrong. Both are doing a significant disservice to their audiences. They offer us all an example of what not to do.

Many of us rely upon Webster's, and it is shocking to see its online version falling into disrepute. A dictionary is supposed to be reflective of usage and not a prescriptive vehicle. That was made clear by its own editor-in-chief, Frederick Mish, a noted scholar, writing in the September 1989 issue of Editors Only. Mish explained, "Most modern lexicographers see the dictionary as, above all, a record of the vocabulary of our language, and especially the vocabulary current when the dictionary is published."

Unfortunately, Mish passed away in 2010, and his successors who maintain the online offering do not seem to embody Mish's level of wisdom and professionalism.

Certainly NBC News should receive credit for exercising the traditional watchdog duty in covering government. And there is much for mainstream news to cover, given the unusual communications style of our current president.

Elsewhere in this Editors Only issue, Peter Jacobi expounds on respect for words. He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard: "If you look after them, you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. They deserve respect." But the editors at NBC News disrespected words. They took the low road when they jumped the gun on the Trump/Christmastime story. And they sank lower when they tried to paper over their mistake.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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