Nuance, perception and word choice

Copy editors need to be keenly aware that what a word means can go well beyond the definition.

While Merriam-Webster may seem to disagree on the face of it (after all, its definition of “definition” is “an explanation of the meaning of a word, phrase, etc.”), I suspect the M-W editors know that some words have perceptions beyond their book definition.

A good copy editor understands both a word’s dictionary definition and its greater meaning out in the world. Sometimes words with an innocuous book definition are choices that may offend or paint a misleading picture.

Two recent incidents got me thinking about that. In one, I was talking to a student copy editor about the word “victim.” My point was that “victim” might not be the right word choice for the story because we could not be sure that person actually was the victim of a crime. So I asked him “what do you think when you hear the word victim?”

“I think of someone who is weak,” he answered.

You’ll not find that idea anywhere in the dictionary, but victim is a word that bothers many people. There are reasons to be careful about using it beyond black and white ones.

Some words are contentious. Some words have nuances that are different for different populations.

Some words paint an immediate picture to all who hear them — a picture that isn’t always proven factual.

At a Feb. 3 discussion at the University of Missouri on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, speaker Adian White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, talked about the rush to publish. He said journalists need to take their time, reflect, and not react without thinking about the information they have.

That includes word choice, he pointed out, mentioning the word “terrorism.” (The Merriam-Webster definition is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” But world events have added a lot of nuance to what people think about the word.)

Is using certain words before the facts are known as wrong as reporting inaccurate information? People who report and edit crime stories should know you don’t use the word “murder” lightly. What other words fit into the same category?

Part of the copy editor’s role is to look at the word choice of writers and assess if it is appropriate, whether it will offend and if it will be understood in the same way by all groups.

When the word train is hurtling downhill unimpeded, copy editors need to be the brakes that stop the run-away vehicle.

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