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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