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Casket or Coffin? The New York Times and Style

posted: 12.11.14 by Andrea Lunsford

In mid-November I was skimming headlines when this one caught my eye: “Please, Don’t ‘Decry’ the ‘Divorcee.’ Or Give Us Your ‘CV.” The Times Guide to Modern Usage.”  Intrigued, I clicked and read on.  In this brief piece, Susan Lehman, former deputy editor of the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, provides a “sampling of terms that should be used with care.” Lehman opens the column by saying:

We investigate subjects here.  We do not “probe” them. And no, none of the bodies here are buried in “caskets”; The New York Times Manual of Style prefers the term “coffin.”

Definitely not caskets, according to the New York Times.

She then goes on to list twenty-three words or phrases that are objectionable to the Times, from “access” used as a verb to “undertaker” which “may be used interchangeably with funeral director” and is much preferred to “mortician,” which should not be used.

I’ll admit to finding the list a bit strange, not to say peremptory: for example, “anchor is the preferred term for the chief reporter on a news broadcast.” Fine so far. But then the Guide goes on to say that “Anchorman and anchorwoman are acceptable, especially in direct quotations. Do not use anchorperson.” My jaw dropped at the “especially in direct quotation! OF COURSE those terms are acceptable in direct quotations: otherwise, the quotation would not be direct. As to “anchorperson,” it is surely grating to my ear, but I wouldn’t go so far as to ban it!

I’d love to know why the Times prefers “coffin” over “casket” or why it thinks the term “decry” “is stilted and archaic-sounding.” And while I agree with the Guide that “fondle” is an inappropriate term to use in descriptions of “rape, assault or unwelcome advances,” their acceptable substitutes (“grab” and “touch”) don’t seem especially appropriate either.

Reading this piece made me think about the need for teachers of writing to help students examine their choice of words and think carefully about appropriateness, but doing so without appropriating or taking over the student’s language. I was recently tutoring an older student who was writing about his experience in prison and about the changes he had undergone as a result of that experience. Throughout his draft, he used vivid descriptive language, some of which might be deemed inappropriate by some people. But to edit out that language seemed to me to diminish the power of the point he was making, not to mention interfere with or change the voice he was using to make that point.

So I’m glad that the Times Manual of Style and Usage is able to make such pronouncements about what is and is not appropriate with apparent ease. In the writing classroom and in tutorials, however, decisions aren’t always clear-cut, nor do they yield to hard and fast pronouncements from above.

[Photo: Coffins, Gondar by Rod Waddington on Flickr. Shown here cropped.]

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Categories: Andrea Lunsford, Grammar & Style
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