Hands-off Editing in The New York Times

Print journalism is often thrown together hastily and unintended wordplay is sometimes the result.

In today’s New York Times there is a story headlined Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Were Struggling Before Arizona Crash in which the following passage appears:

A video shot from the vehicle’s dashboard camera showed the safety driver looking down, away from the road. It also appeared that the driver’s hands were not hovering above the steering wheel, which is what drivers are instructed to do so they can quickly retake control of the car. 
Then just two paragraphs later:
Unlike California, where Uber had been testing since spring of 2017, Arizona state officials had taken a hands-off approach to autonomous vehicles and did not require companies to disclose how their cars were performing.
Or is it possible that the reporter is making a deliberate play on words?

Not The Times’ style.


“Tape” Sticks Around

I’ve written before on this blog about how the word “tape” continues to be used in this digital era to mean “recording,” both as a noun and a verb.

I was struck again by this yesterday when on NPR a correspondent kept referring to the video confession the Austin bomber left on his cellphone as a “tape.”

I decided to look for other examples. Here are just a few out of many:
The man suspected in a series of bombings in Austin, Texas is dead, after he confessed on tape and set off an explosive in his car during a police chase.

Austin serial bomber left behind confession tape

The Daily Caller:
Austin Police discovered a confession tape from the bombing suspect where he detailed how he made the bombs, the police chief said Wednesday.

The National:
The man suspected in a series of bombings in Austin, Texas is dead, after he confessed on tape and set off an explosive in his car during a police chase.

Sean Hannity:
BOMBER’S CONFESSION: Austin MADMAN Left Behind 25 MINUTE Confession Tape

New York Post:
Austin bomber left videotaped confession, police say

[In this case “cellphone recording” is used in the subhead to the story, but in its body the writers resort to “tape.” Clearly they didn’t do this to save space since it’s usually in headlines that shorter words are preferred.]
Cops Find ‘Confession’ From Austin Bombing Suspect
25-minute cellphone recording found with Mark Conditt
Police have discovered a 25-minute recording on a cellphone found with bombing suspect Mark Conditt, and Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says he considers it a “confession,” the AP reports. He said at a news conference Wednesday that Conditt talks on the recording in great detail about the differences among the bombs he built. Manley says the tape is "the outcry of a very challenged young man."
I suspect the source of the above and many other stories is a much-quoted passage from an Associated Press story, quoted by Fox News and many other news outlets:
ROUND ROCK, Texas (AP) — Police have discovered a 25-minute recording on a cellphone found with bombing suspect Mark Conditt and Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says he considers it a "confession."

Manley says at a news conference that Conditt talks on the recording in great detail about the differences among the bombs he built.

He says that the tape is “the outcry of a very challenged young man.”
In fact Manley consistently called it a “recording,” not a “tape.”

You can hear him at the press conference, five minutes in. The rest consists mostly of officials congratulating each others’ agencies, none of them mentioning the recording.

But during the question-and-answer period though one male reporter calls it a “video recording.” a female reporter uses the word “tape.”

So it looks like that one reference perhaps triggered the word “tape” in the AP writer’s brain and he or she associated it with the police chief’s presentation. And voilà, it’s all over the newsscape.


More Fulsome

My entry for the word “fulsome” in my book says this:
In modern usage, “fulsome” has two inconsistent meanings. To some people it means “offensive, overdone,” so “fulsome praise” to them would be disgustingly exaggerated praise. 
To other people it means “abundant,” and for them “fulsome praise” is glowingly warm praise.
The first group tends to look down on the second group, and the second group tends to be baffled by the first. Best to just avoid the word altogether.
But now I have to add another note. Representative Trey Gowdy, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, responded to President Trump’s criticisms of Robert Mueller ’s investigation of his campaign's connections with Russia by saying, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible.”

Gowdy not only thinks the word has positive connotations, he thinks it’s a synonym for “thorough.”

It’s easy to see how that first syllable would lead someone to think that it is an apt label for an investigation that will go fully into the facts. Now that it’s all over the news, I suppose we’ll be hearing more of it.


Non Sequitur on Usage

English usage continues to be a very popular theme in newspaper comics. In the old days, it was all about banana-peel slips; now it’s linguistic slips.




This is a very good analysis by Columbia linguist John McWhorter of Trump’s unusual ways of speaking in public.

What Trump’s Speech Says About His Mental Fitness


A Mixed Bag of Bombs

In his State of the Union address last week the president said he wants to build more and better bombs in response to Kim Jung Un continually threatening to drop bombs on us
Sane  people know both sides are engaging in crazy talk. Specifically, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has announced its “Doomsday Clock” now reads at two minutes to midnight.
But belligerent bullies in high office are not the only threat we’ve faced lately. It turns out that the erroneous January 13th Hawaiian missile attack alert was not caused by an employee mistakenly pressing the wrong button, as was initially reported. Instead, he received an alert message which contained the scary wording “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
He was supposed to notice that this was preceded by the word “exercise” repeated three times, but understandably he overlooked that when he read “this is not a drill”—a phrase that had never been included in earlier practice exercises. He pushed the button he thought he was supposed to.
And what about that long delay before the Hawaiian governor retweeted the reassuring message that there was no missile threat? Turns out he was having a hard time figuring out his Twitter password—you know, that thing that’s supposed to provide security?
So we’re faced with two kinds of nuclear war threats: crazy and stupid.
As I’ve noted before, the prospect of nuclear war is almost unbearably difficult to think about, and Americans have engaged in all kinds of maneuvers to avoid seriously confronting it. Sometimes it can only be entertained in satire, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 anti-bomb satire Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Unfortunately the film did not stimulate any widespread agitation against the nuclear threat, partly I think because it made nuclear catastrophe seem inevitable.
We’re dealing with language here, so I thought I’d focus for a bit on the word “bomb” itself. Note that the film title uses the phrase “The Bomb” to mean specifically not only nuclear weapons, but the explosion of nuclear weapons—a usage common in the previous decade.
Famously, Tom Lehrer had used the phrase earlier in his classic satirical song “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
All that said, “bomb” has a host of other meanings. I started musing on this subject when I heard a commentary on Trump’s attempt to impose high tariffs on Canada’s Bombardier aircraft, in defense of Boeing Corporation. I used to fly on Bombardiers fairly often, and always wondered why a civilian aircraft would be named after the air combat officer responsible for actually dropping bombs.
Turns out “Bombardier” was the name of the founder of the aircraft company, a Francophone Quebecois whose most famous invention was the snowmobile—in which you could go bombing along a slippery winter trail. The family name is in fact derived from an old French expression for a good (bon) guy.
So, friendly—not hostile.
Then my mind wandered to the old-fashioned slang expression “blonde bombshell,” used to label a sexy woman, and realized that a movie starring a bombshell could itself be a “bomb” (flop).
Of course 90s slang gave “bomb” a positive sense, usually rendered as “da bomb” as in the enthusiastic expression “you da bomb!”
A bombshell can also be a surprise. Time bombs can threaten nasty future surprises. The phrase “ticking bomb” has the same meaning.
Reckless politicians are often called “bomb throwers.” In their threatening speeches they may indulge in “bombast,” but it turns out this is a word for a kind of cotton-wool stuffing, and signifies a sort of rhetorical padding: “inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject; ‘fustian’; ‘tall talk’” [Oxford English Dictionary].
I thought of a couple of culinary uses with savory connotations: the French globular dessert called a bombe and the “Lancashire Bomb” made by Shorrocks Cheese which comes as a ball of cheese coated in black wax with a protruding “fuse.” It seems designed to resemble the cartoon bombs traditionally associated with crazed terrorists.
Certain illicit drugs have been called “bombs.” Oddly enough, the Cassell Dictionary of Slang notes that “bomb” has been also used to mean both “a dilapidated, run-down old car” and its opposite: “a fast car.”
But these are mere distractions. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with a president who seems enamored of both feminine bombshells and literal bombs, and who engages in rhetorical bomb-throwing of the most dangerous sort.
If only “bombs away!” meant “get away from those damned bombs!”