Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Will killing all copyeditors make arrant sense or nonsense?


In a silly fit of pique about editors' nit-picking, I once titled a column "Let's Kill All the Copyeditors." The compressed last word in the title was corrected to "Let's Kill All the Copy Editors." When I remonstrated with a green eye shade afterward, his answer was "That's our style." Such a riposte is as unanswerable as the sign in Loeb's Delicatessen across the street from my Washington office: "There's no reason for it -- it's just our policy."

In response to my provocative headline, a scholarly copy editor (if that comes out as two words, you'll know who's boss on this page) pointed out that my "Let's Kill All the Copyeditors" was an allusion to Shakespeare's "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" in Henry VI, Part II.

My colleague said that the Bard, by placing his gleefully savage suggestion in the mouth of a character named Dick the Butcher -- a villain plotting treachery -- was indirectly praising the loyalty of lawyers, not condemning them. That was a point well taken. I slumped corrected.

These thoughts are triggered by the copy desk's (two words) objection to the spelling of a word in last week's column, which dealt with irregardless as a jocular redundancy and therefore, in my judgment, "arrant nonsense."

Last year, I chose that very phrase as an example of "wedded words," like unmitigated gall, congenital liar and blithering idiot.

As a language columnist, I have a license to use almost any taboo word or misspelling as an object of study, but not as part of my own prose. The objection was not to its being a word-wedding, cliche or fixed phrase, but because the desk held that arrant should be spelled errant. You could look it up, it (the desk) said, in the Dodger and Yankee manager Casey Stengel's classic phrase.

I looked it up, in Webster's New World, and in Merriam-Webster's, and in American Heritage, and cannot fault the desk: There it was in all three of the best sellers: "arrant, adjective, variant of errant."

That was the lexicographers' way of saying that although some spelling deviants insisted on arrant with a beginning a, most sensible people agreed with the establishment and spelled errant with an e. The Times' copy desk was going by the book.

As they say in the Pentagon, I nonconcur. (That's how colonels can disagree with generals without having the eagles stripped off their shoulders.) We are not dealing here with one word with one meaning spelled two different ways, one preferred and one variant; in my view, we are dealing with a word whose meaning has split, and the resulting spelling "variation" signifies the difference between the two.

Start with the Latin root, iterare, "to travel," which spawned "itinerant" and "itinerary," a knight-errant was one who wandered around, clanking in his armor, occasionally helping distressed damsels. Spelled with an e, errant's meaning remains "aimless, drifting, straying."

Other errants, however, were highwaymen who preyed on travelers; as the word became synonymous with "thief" -- in Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote of an "arrant knave" -- that spelling with a signified the meaning of "notorious, extreme, consummate, double-dyed," all more intense than "complete."

What had been one word with two senses was changed into two distinct words, each with its own meaning signified by its unique spelling..

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