Now, now. That was a joke. I was just seeing whether you were paying attention. War, pox and wordsmithery do not belong together, because that would be … mixing metaphors!
In any case, those mixed metaphors are everywhere. Well-known writers such Thomas Friedman practically bathe in them. (Does he not have editors?) So it was good to see that the New York Times Book Review finally took him to task for it today, choosing this example from his new book:
“The demise of the Soviet Union and its iron curtain was like the elimination of a huge physical and political roadblock on the global economic playing field.”
Oh, right, I was going to make us at The Economist look bad. Sorry.
Alright, here is a story that pains me to this day. It was supposed to be my first act of heroism for The Economist. It happened almost ten years ago, on a Thursday morning (London time). Thursday mornings are when we “close” the issue of the week. We sit in a room in a building we call the “tower” in St James’s Street (London’s drag of private clubs for toffs) and proof-read. No big changes are supposed to be made, because the pages are about to be sent off to the printing presses. Only if huge news happens, do we “open” up the book again and quickly insert something new.
I was still relatively new at The Economist and was not, on that morning, planning to call attention to my existence. But then a news item crossed the wires. A large Dutch insurance company had just announced that it would buy Transamerica, the large American finance firm that gave its name to San Francisco’s landmark skyscraper. As it happened, I had just met and interviewed the boss of that Dutch firm, and had really fun, colorful details about him in my notebook. I thought I might be able to hack out a piece quickly and … bask in glory.
I mentioned it to two editors, and they said ‘alright, write something really fast, and we’ll see if we can keep the paper open to use it.’ My adrenaline spiked, and I set to it. To my relief, the words came out in a torrent. And it was good. And the editor said it was good. And they took the piece into the still-open book.
There were only minutes or seconds to spare now. Two editors had to sit in front of the screen to give the piece a quick edit (because that’s what editors do). I stood behind them, watching the clock tick and biting my nails. They loved it and I was proud. And then…..
To my horror, he (who shall remain unnamed) fiddled here and there, and suddenly the last sentence–the very last and thus most prominent sentence!–read:
Surely Mr Storm hasn’t been seduced by the greatest merger wave in history?
Say what? Seduced? By a wave? You mean, not swept up by it, or deluged by it? I was horrified. But I was new and they were senior and this was my big moment and there were seconds left and I was not about to make this my final stand. I said nothing. They pushed ‘send’, and it went to the presses. I was that week’s hero.
But I walked through the streets of London in a state of shame comprehensible only to the loony fringe among pedants. Everyone–no, really, every Briton in this city, everyone in the Tube, and certainly my landlord–would within hours receive a copy of The Economist, and they would all turn straight away to the most important article, which was mine, and they would immediately spot this atrocity of a sentence! I was ruined!
And in truth, I have never gotten over it.
For those of you who want to read the silly thing in question, which is a decent sample of my style as of a decade ago, here it is.