Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Scotch Scotus

Dear Editors: Remember the reader: If you make news accessible and informative, readers might buy the paper. If you fill it with unintelligible gobbledygook, they probably won’t.

The gobbledygook factor hit two headlines in the paper this morning. A copy editor uses Scotus as if it’s a common, well-known word. It isn't. Neither news story uses, defines or explains Scotus – which English majors take to mean their favorite Medieval philosopher and historian, John Duns Scotus.

In today’s context, SCOTUS, whether up or down (caps or not) is news jargon. It stands for Supreme Court of the United States and probably originated in a busy reporter’s handwritten notes. A similar acronym, POTUS, is shorthand for president of the United States and was occasionally used in the televsion series "The West Wing." Acronyms are rendered all-caps, unless like radar, laser, scuba and a few others, they have grown so useful that they’ve morphed into real words.

There’s a lot of jargon in journalism. Choice chunks of it are spreading across the Internet, of which SCOTUS and POTUS are prime examples. But remember, dear editors, people inside newsrooms call the first paragraph of a story a lede and they speak of grafs, heds, pix and biz. There’re a lot more, but no editor would think of putting insider lingo into a headline or story (except at the Sun where Southwest Florida Water Management District, correctly shortened to SFWMD, is regularly rendered -- even on first reference -- as the made-up and snide Swiftmud).

Putting your industry’s jargon into your headline says “Look at me! I growed up to be a editer!” Grown-up editors put readers first, not themselves.

Worse, if the reader reaches for a dictionary in search of the word, she won't find scotus in this sense anywhere. It hasn't reached Merriam-Webster, Webster's New World, the OED or a half dozen others OWW has searched.


  1. You are not only wise, you have a wonderful sense of humor! It is why I look forward to you each day!
    And you are so right about good reporting compelling us to buy the paper -- I never buy it for the news... once in a while i will buy the Sunday paper for the coupons! Sad but true!

  2. When I worked at the Sun, I regularly got rid of Swiftmud. And Softmud. As well as a host of other acronyms. For my trouble, I was chastised by a reporter. When I took the issue to a higher editor, he laughed.

    I love your blog, OWW. I would definitely work for you!

  3. The Sun doesn't edit. It has no editors in the true sense of the word. It doesn't value editors and what they do. It's cheaper that way.