From the Editor

Drescher: Words that creep into the news

jdrescher@newsobserver.comSeptember 20, 2013 

After Gov. Pat McCrory said his economic plan was too complex for journalists to understand, we felt like Sheriff Andy Taylor when the SBI agent didn’t think Taylor could understand big-time police methods.

“Might McCrory, like the agent in Mayberry long ago, have overestimated hisself a bit?” I wrote recently.

That prompted a wave of emails from readers. “Your choice of the non-standard form fits into a discussion that I am currently having with my students about the deliberate use of a non-standard form within a completely standard text for rhetorical purposes,” wrote an English professor from UNC-Chapel Hill. “However, I usually illustrate my point with blatant examples like the set phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Your usage here is much more subtle.”

Too subtle, perhaps. One reader emailed curtly: “Overestimated himself a bit, not hisself.” Another wrote, “Using ‘hisself’ gives McCrory evidence for his critical statement of journalists’ intelligence and/or education.”

I used “hisself” because that’s how Sheriff Taylor, a very wise man, talked in Mayberry. That was a way for me to imply that McCrory, in questioning others’ intelligence, perhaps had grown too big for his breeches.

In his comedy routines in the 1950s, Andy Griffith spoke very country, as he did in his classic, “What It Was, Was Football.” As Sheriff Taylor, he toned down the country speech. But in the 1962 show I mentioned, he talked like a rural person of that era might have.

Cool your jetties

Having been scolded by readers, there’s not much chance of my using “hisself” again. I wish that were the case for some other words you read in this newspaper.

Certain words or phrases get trendy and creep in reporters’ stories and then fade away – if we’re lucky. A few years ago, loyal fans of athletic teams became “fan bases”; I’m not sure how fan bases are different than fans. “Famously” is trendy now, as in, “Nixon famously said he was not a crook.” “Legend” and “legendary” have exploded; most every winning old-time coach or accomplished, graying musician is a legend.

Sometimes lingo from insiders takes root and spreads, words such as “omnibus,” “umbrella group” and “pilot project.” I’d rather not see them in our stories but keeping them out is like trying to kill kudzu with a small can of weed killer.

Two odd words appeared recently in a story about coastal erosion: “Jetties” and “groins.” We explained: “Terminal groins differ from jetties in that they are typically placed at the end of barrier islands and are low-slung barriers made of rock or steel that are perpendicular to shore. Proponents argue they ... don’t cause the same sort of down-beach erosion as jetties, which are large structures typically used to stabilize inlet channels.”

As best I can tell, these words have appeared in The N&O for about 20 years. I’m not sure why. It seems like readers would better understand “sea walls” or “barriers of rock or steel.” I do admit: “Jetties” is a cool word.

Person on a bike

That’s not the case for the latest word to emerge from our government friends. Public employees must feel limited by current language usage and seem determined to introduce new words.

Take this recent headline on a statement from the Town of Cary: “No Charges Filed in Pedacyclist Crash Near Cary High School.”

We asked Cary Police what a pedacyclist is. Answer: It’s a person on a bicycle.

Some people would call the person a bicyclist.

The good news: “Pedacyclist” has not appeared in The N&O. We’ll see if we can keep it that way.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com

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