In my exasperation over the ongoing degradation of the English language, I thought I’d pass on an e-mail conversation I had with New York Times style guru Allan M. Siegal in November 2002, when I could no longer stand seeing the Times slumming in language worthy of a Southie dockworker.
Here's the exchange, starting with what I sent to the Times on Nov. 19:
My question concerns the words "terrorist," "terrorism" and "terror," which The New York Times seems to consider interchangeable; if there is a rule governing their use, I've been unable to discern it.
So we get the "war on terror," for instance, although occasionally it is the "war on terrorism." And there is a flurry of "terror attacks," amid which sometimes there will be a "terrorist attack." Et cetera.
I oppose the use of "terror" when the word should be "terrorist" or "terrorism." It seems to be just another example of the sloppiness that is blurring distinctions between words these days, to the point I fear that soon all English will have left is jargon, slang and mush. "Terror" and "terrorism" are different things, and when people write that "they've experienced terror," I don't want to have to wonder if it's from an Al Qaeda bomb or a fear of spiders. When I read of a "war on terror," I merely wonder what emotion we're declaring jihad on next: horniness, perhaps, or ennui?
As much as the Times' blurring of "like" and "such as" bothers me -- if I remember correctly, the entry in the most recent style manual doesn't even bother to explain the reasoning behind it -- at least it's done consistently. The unending blurring of the "terror"-root words doesn't even offer that faint comfort, and the Times is helping spread the problem.
So, at long last, my question is this (actually, I've more than one question): Is there a Times style for the use of "terror" as a synonym for "terrorism" and "terrorist"? What is it? Is it subject to review?
If there is a rule, I fervently hope it can be changed. Every time I see (what I consider to be) improper use of "terror," I wince -- like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard.
Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the Times who has overseen style and usage there since 1977, wrote back the next day:
Dear Mr. Levy,
Our reference dictionary, Webster's New World, fourth edition, accepts "terror" without reservation as a synonym for terrorism or terrorist. Here's the definition, pasted from a CD-ROM version:
n. ME terrour < MFr terreur < L terror < terrere, to frighten < IE *ters-, to tremble (> Gr trein, to tremble, flee) < base *ter-, to wriggle
1 intense fear
2 a) a person or thing causing intense fear b) the quality of causing such fear; terribleness
3 a program of terrorism or a party, group, etc. resorting to terrorism
4 [Informal] a very annoying or unmanageable person, esp. a child; nuisance; pest
Another dictionary I esteem, the American Heritage fourth edition, says this:
n. 1. Intense, overpowering fear. See Synonyms at fear. 2. One that instills intense fear: a rabid dog that became the terror of the neighborhood. 3. The ability to instill intense fear: the terror of jackboots pounding down the street. 4. Violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes. 5. Informal. An annoying or intolerable pest: that little terror of a child.
[Middle English terrour, from Old French terreur, from Latin terror, from terrre, to frighten.]
Apart from the acceptability of the usage in those two dictionaries, I think it is made unavoidable by its ubiquitousness in public discourse these days. And of course it is shorter than "terrorism/terrorist" -- an important consideration for headlines.
As for the use of "like" as a substitute for "such as," I had the same inculcation as you in grade school and beyond, but I have learned late in life that English teachers, while insistent, are often not "correct," to use a term I distrust. When we were rewriting the stylebook, a colleague who is a painstaking writer challenged me on the distinction; he considered "such as" stilted. When I researched the question, I found that no current edition of a respected American dictionary observed it, and several important usage authorities disparaged it. So we eliminated it. And the question is indeed discussed in the stylebook, as follows:
such as. In introducing an example (multinational companies such as Coca-Cola), the phrase is stilted, and should usually be replaced by like. The phrase is slightly less stiff when a noun falls between the words (such companies as PepsiCo), but like remains more fluid. (Some writers believe that like, in this sense, can be used only to compare a group to an example outside the group: in other words, that Coca-Cola, in the illustration above, should not be introduced by like because it is one of the multinational companies. Usage authorities dispute that rule.) [Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company.]
I don't labor under the illusion that everyone will agree with our style choices (indeed the stylebook acknowledges in a few places that some will disagree), but you can count on our having researched them. And we are always willing to explain them.
Allan M. Siegal
Gee, he really had me on the ropes. But I rallied to reply the next day:
Dear Mr. Siegal,
I appreciate your reply very much, but am disappointed by it. I always considered words to be valuable because they can be used to discriminate between different concepts, but it seems that -- according to the dictionaries and experts you cite -- is getting to be old hat. My problem with "terror" and "like" are the same: When a word means too many things, it means less.
To address "like" first (and, yes, I understand your time is valuable and apologize for wasting it on such issues), I have to draw your attention to the commercially available hard-bound New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, from the same year as yours, which says simply (page 190):
"Like is the preferred expression (rather than SUCH AS) in this kind of phrase: painters like Rubens."
It's a funny example, because it reveals what's wrong with the rule. Of course painters *like* Rubens. Plumbers like him, too, and so do many other kinds of people, because he was so darn good. Anyway, who were the painters *like* Rubens? I guess that would be Pieter Breugel the Elder and Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who were also Flemish, lived at roughly the same time and, at least in the case of Van Dyck, painted religious works in the baroque style.
I don't deny that the tide has long since turned against specificity, but it honestly mystifies me why so many people are so eager to let go of such valuable and simple concepts: "like" means "similar to" (along with a bunch of other things) a person, place or thing; "such as" includes the person, place or thing being discussed. To me, at least in written English, it seems as valuable a distinction as "one" and "none."
As to the complaint that "such as" is stilted -- well, that's a strange confession of defeat coming from a newspaper known to hire some of the finest writing and editing talent in the world. It's also, I'm sorry, a little funny coming from a newspaper that's *also* known to produce some of the longest leads in the world and to refer to, for instance, the late grunge legend "Mr. Cobain."
If anyone could overcome the stiltedness, or embrace it, I would think it would the Times.
But, to be clear, I do not expect this to change your thinking. And the "war on 'terror' " I'm conducting is an obvious loser, as well, since it's the lexicographers providing ammunition for the other side. Except that dictionaries, as you know, are not in the business of standing firm against popular usage; they only list how people apply a word. That's how we wind up with two opposite meanings of "sanction," for example, and I note that the Times style manual I bought forbids one of those uses (page 296 in the hard-bound edition). That is, not to put too fine a point on it, it forbids a use listed in dictionaries.
I'm not asking for one of those Chicago Tribune-like experiments (phonetic spellings that created "frate" instead of "freight," et cetera), just the possibility that the Times would consider setting a standard, or holding a line, on these topics as it does on others. At the moment, "terror" usage just seems arbitrary, and I feel that raises questions. I'll leave you with the first three paragraphs from the Gore story that ran on page A22 on Thursday (with emphasis mine):
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 20 -- Al Gore said today that the United States had failed to destroy Osama bin Laden and dismantle the network of Al Qaeda because President Bush spent the fall campaign "beating the drums of war against Saddam Hussein" instead of prosecuting the WAR ON TERROR.
As a result, Mr. Gore said, Americans are as much at risk of a terrorist attack now as they were before Sept. 11.
Mr. Gore said that while the administration had stumbled abroad in dealing with Al Qaeda, it had undertaken the "most systematic invasion of privacy of every American citizen that has ever been taken in this country" with the expanded use of wiretapping and secret court proceedings in the WAR ON TERRORISM.
Two uses in three paragraphs!
P.S. When is "dis" going to start being used as a verb in newspaper copy, and especially newspaper headlines? It's in common usage, it's in the dictionary and it's so short! I keep suggesting it at my employer, the Boston Herald, but for some reason no one seems to take the suggestion seriously ...
P.P.S. ... even though my fellow copy editors use "terror" as arbitrarily as anyone.
And I woke up to a reply from him saying simply,
Dear Mr. Levy,
We're not going to embrace stiltedness on my watch.
Allan M. Siegal
Anyone still reading at this point will detect that Siegal decided to glibly answer one of several points, and he chose, I think, one of the only points he could answer glibly. This is along the lines of a 5-year-old being found at 3 a.m. on a cliff under a tree during a raging lightning storm wielding a footlong, razor-sharp knife about to slice the throat of his 2-year-old sister as a sacrifice to Cthulu. In answer as to why he’s doing so, he replies, “I couldn’t sleep.”