Financial Times subbing fun

There’s more to sub-editing than shuffling commas around and checking spelling (vital, obviously, though these things are). And it’s something that it seems the subs at the otherwise admirable Financial Times seem to have forgotten yesterday.

Bear with me – digression first.

I find these days there’s a tendency for people to use proverbs, idioms and metaphors without really knowing what they mean. It’s partly the result of the rich heritage of expression that we in the English-speaking world have inherited from authors such as Shakespeare and from the Bible.

One example is “hoist by his own petard” (an older proverb given longevity in Hamlet). A petard is a bomb, and being hoist by one means you are blown up by your own explosive. Metaphorically, it means your cunning scheme has blown up in your face.

More people (including cleverish subs) are familiar with the phrase than know what it actually means. Which is why you get sentences saying things like “he was hoist by his own petard and then left dangling in the wind”. (I paraphrase, but that was a real example from the Guardian years ago.) The confusion is that a petard is something like an old-style pike, on which you are hoisted up like a sack of potatoes.

So far, so obscure. Now we’re getting to the FT.

Yesterday’s Financial Times carried an interesting example of this in a story about how old manufacturing cities in the North, the West Midlands and Scotland are suffering the highest rise in unemployment in the current recession. 

In it, Andrew Taylor, the paper’s employment correspondent, interviews Naomi Clayton at the Work Foundation. She says:

 “In the eye of the storm as job losses mount are the UK’s core cities and areas associated with traditional manufacturing – places which in many cases had yet to recover fully from previous recessions . . . ”

Well. That’s interesting. Because the phrase “the eye of the storm” is a reference to the behaviour of tropical cyclones. A cyclone is like a fairground roundabout – the closer you are to the edge, the faster and more violently it travels. Go to the middle and it’s pretty calm and safe.

So Naomi Clayton is actually saying that the UK’s core cities are relatively protected from the effects of the recession. It’s not what she means. Oh no. But it’s what she says. (She probably meant that those cities were in the teeth of the storm, or somesuch.)

Why does this matter? Because words mean things, and if you get them wrong, it can have serious effects. A potential libel action for one (as one sub of my acquaintance discovered when he mistook the word “scam” [a fraud] for “wheeze” [a jolly jape]. You don’t want to get them mixed up in a headline, let me tell you.) 

The Financial Times example is actually tricky for the subs’ desk to handle, as it is in a quote. The fault lies with employment correspondent Andrew Taylor, who either didn’t notice or didn’t understand that she was saying the wrong thing. 

Of course, it’s a bit awkward to correct someone’s speech when you’re in mid-interview. But in a different case, if a slip of the tongue or ignorant expression turned out libellous or significantly distorted the meaning of the copy, it’s well worth double-checking to make sure they are saying what they think they are.

The moral? Don’t use expressions unless you are absolutely sure what they mean. Journalism can stand being stripped of its flowery metaphors better than it can stand being inaccurate.

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