Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I have no words

Today I am copyediting on-site at a magazine, and like any good copyeditor, I have the Eleventh Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary close at hand. This particular dictionary (known to word geeks as Webs. 11) is the standard reference everywhere I've worked, and the copy chief here recently bought a few new volumes so we wouldn't have to share (or, worse, rely on the outdated Tenth Edition; I mean, you might as well consult Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever). And so, when I came across a reference to an actress's "pilates" regimen in a layout I was reading, I turned to Webster's for the verdict -- should "pilates" be capped? My copy of Webs. 11 (which turns out to be from the first printing, in 2003) says this:
Pilates: trademark -- used for an exercise regimen typically performed with the use of specialized apparatus.
So, before I signed off on the page, I noted that the "P" should be capped "per Webs." and brought it to the copy chief's attention.

"Oh," she said, "I looked it up. Webster's says lowercase." I was skeptical: "Really? Because I looked it up..." She flipped open her copy to the appropriate page and showed me the entry. It was indeed lowercase. Color me perplexed. "I swear I looked it up..." I went back to my desk and consulted my copy again. There it was, on page 939, in the very same spot -- and capped. We were both using the Eleventh Edition, but where mine labeled the word a "trademark," hers noted that it derived from a proper name (that of Joseph Pilates), but did not even note that the word is "often capped." The capital 'P' was clearly contraindicated.

Maybe you need to be a copyeditor to fully appreciate the consternation this discovery caused. The whole reason Webs. 11th is on my desk is to prevent this kind of confusion. Webster's solves disputes. "Per Webs." cannot be argued with. But what hope is there for the noble copyeditor if two copies of the same edition of Webster's can't even agree with each other? Are there no true standards on which we can rely? Is our professional code nothing but lies?

I assumed that changes, additions or deletions to the dictionary would require a new edition, or at least a note to indicate what had changed. But the volumes we compared were alike in every way except their copyright date -- at least, so we believed, until today. In fact -- who knew? -- "Merriam-Webster updates its best-selling Collegiate® Dictionary every year with a number of new words, senses, and variants." And I guess the only way to stay on top of it is to buy a new copy every single year. Make that several new copies, if you have a staff.

In this case, it turns out there was a court decision that declared the word "pilates" is not a trademark. But that was in 2000, before the Eleventh Edition ever came out, so it's curious that Webster's took several more years to make the change. And they still haven't updated their online dictionary. (But they also misuse the phrase "begs the question" in their press materials, so what do you expect.)

When I did sign off on that page, I wrote my initials and the date, as usual. Today, though, I've been moved to add the year, even though it isn't necessary -- these proofs aren't meant for posterity, and even if they were, the page is clearly from the October 2007 issue. There's no need to specify which September 11 I mean. It just seems strange, and frivolous, to write "9/11" when I mean nothing more than today's date. How can I use "9/11" to refer to this unexceptional, rainy day, a day when I spent a good 20 minutes fretting over the discovery that the office dictionaries don't agree on terms like "pilates"? I don't know whether knowing I've spent Tuesday, September 11 in a Manhattan office building doing ordinary things makes me feel grateful, or sad, or guilty, or relieved. Maybe all of the above.


Marla said...

Gasp! I've been capping "pilates" for three years now! What's right? What's wrong? We'll never know!

Mollie, we've been living a lie.

Mollie said...

Can a thing and its opposite both be true simultaneously? That's what this really comes down to. I didn't think so, but now... I'm not so sure. And now I will live in constant doubt, even when I look things up -- sure, that's what my dictionary says, but what does yours say? I feel so betrayed. Merriam-Webster, I trusted you!

But Marla, the way I see it, as long as you're following the all-knowing, infallible "house style guide," you're in the clear. My supervisor at this other magazine was trying to decide whether she should order all new dictionaries, or what, and I was like, "Maybe you could... add pilates to the style guide?" God, I hope she does. I cannot live in a world without authority!

Jenny Davidson said...

Great post--as a former copy-editor I will always have the soul of a copy-editor, I am scandalized by the misleading dictionary-makers in this case & have now mentally adjusted to future lower-casing of pilates...

Ed Park said...


Mollie said...

Ed, I bet there's a Caribbean resort/spa offering a class with that very title as we speak. (I'd be very disappointed to learn otherwise.) And now they can do it without violating any trademarks!