The Economist’s coequal humo(u)r

From time to time, I like to regale you with tiny anecdotes from our daily routine at The Economist, especially when they display our quirky side.

For instance, an editor might remark, as she anglicizes an acronym I use, that a word “either has to look odd to us [Brits] or odd to them [Yanks], and we opt for them.”

Well, this week I woke up on Monday to get a message from our editor-in-chief that he would quite like a three-page (3,000-word) Briefing on California’s water wars, since the piece that was meant for that slot was not ready to run this week. Due to the inhumanely inconvenient times zone I am in (ie, California, when my bosses are in London), this meant I had to deliver the piece the following day (Tuesday) for London to be able to wake up to it on Wednesday and publish it on Thursday, ie today. This is the piece.

So I wrote the piece in quite a hurry and sent it. Then, on Wednesday, I worked with the fact-checker and map guy, Phil Kenny. He came up with a great map, the clearest depiction of California’s water infrastructure I have yet seen:

CA Water map

The editors are then supposed to send me the “subbed” (jargon for edited) “copy” (jargon for text) and, this being The Economist, forgot to do so. So I went to a yoga class. By the time I came back, it was late at night in London.

In our process, a correspondent sends his article to a section editor, who subs the piece and then sends it on to the editor-in-chief or a deputy, who then sends it through to a “night editor“.

I had heard that our night editor last night was Johnny Grimmond, the author of our style guide. Johnny guards our quaint British usage as Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, watches over Hades. You can call him, as you can call me, a pedant, and we would be proud of it.

I immediately knew that Johnny would pounce on one particular phrase of linguistic interest. The water legislation currently being negotiated in California contains a very important phrase that is also ugly and stupid in a characteristically American way. Which is to say that, in the same way that Americans gave the Anglophone world the word proactive (why not active?), the legislators in Sacramento now want to impose on the state’s environmentalists, farmers and urban water users

co-equal goals.

While doing my interviews for this story, I had kept a straight face every time the phrase came up, because I am keen not to appear, you know, loony or snippy. In my article I refrained from any overt pedantry. But I knew that Johnny, in the safety of his London office in the wee hours, would not. His cursor, I was sure, would find the pompous American redundancy faster than you can swat a greasy Hamburger with a cricket bat.

And so I asked a colleague with access to the system to send me the copy. My eyes skipped over the paragraphs until they alit on the one in question. I started grinning even before I read the new sentence:

The details of the legislation negotiated so far are complex, but its main feature is a phrase, “coequal goals”—though how coequal goals differ from equal ones is not clear.


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11 thoughts on “The Economist’s coequal humo(u)r

  1. ……faster than you can swat a greasy Hamburger with a cricket bat……..

    An arresting phrase to be sure, but containing a mixed metaphor of sorts.

    Had you included it in one of your Economist draft pieces, and run it by your London editor, he would first have blanched; and then have replaced either “Hamburger” with “Cornish pasty”, or “cricket bat” with “baseball bat”.

    • Actually, it was deliberate–although, evidently, it did not work.

      I wanted a very British and upperclass cricket bat (= Johnny Grimmond) swatting a very American and cliched hamburger (= “co-equal”).

      Admittedly, I used cliches in the metaphor, so yes, I should have my knuckels rapped.

    • Sadly US and UK are no longer co-equal stewards of English.
      I fear quaint British usage, despite the three headed guard dog, is doomed.

      PS – Thanks for using the co-equal form humo(u)r which looks odd to us and them.

      PPS – Re cliches – have you seen this
      Boston Globe: in praise of clichés http://bit.ly/1ve1u0

    • A valiant attempt by James Parker to be counter-intuitive and praise the cliche.

      the best part: The origins of the word:

      “For 19th-century typesetters, a cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate – no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up.”

  2. I forgot to add that I applaud you for writing your longish piece about California’s water wars in what seems was only a day. May I assume you’d done the research earlier?

    Even if so, that you produced your piece so fast is remarkable.

    • I had done some interviews and research earlier, thinking I’d write this two weeks from now (when I expect the legislation.) I had also already written another piece for the same issue.

      So I spent Monday going to the interviews I had already scheduled. That included one meeting in person with Jeff Kightlinger, who is quoted, and one phone interview with Jonas Minton, who is also quoted, and a few other interviews for other stories. Then I drafted an outline.
      On Tuesday I decided to go to a conference that I had long been looking forward to, mainly to see LA police chief William Bratton. But I left after lunch to write. Then I wrote all Tuesday afternoon and again for an hour after I tried and failed to put the kids to bed.
      This is not so unusual, but was exhausting.

  3. All men are created equal – some more equal than others. This must apply to other entities. Perhaps this is what a legislator says when he means reeeally equal.

    I’m going to read the article to see how a master writes 3000 words on something complicated, in one sitting.

  4. Wow, writing a 3,000 word article in such short order is a great feat. Makes me feel a bit queasy thinking about it. Well done you. I once read The Economist Style Guide for fun. And it was! Plus, very droll.

    • I find that it’s not the writing but the research that is hard and takes time. That’s why I can afford to write a blog besides my day job: The blog, unlike the job, does not require research. Just occasionally transcribing your mental noise onto a screen.

    • I also found myself reading the Economist Style Guide. Most likely after Andreas linked to it. :)

      I always find it interesting to hear about tiny anecdotes from the Economist as it is quite different from my day job(software engineer)

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