Letter from the Editor: Readers question our word choices

Thanks, readers, for all the comments and questions that cross my desk. Reporters and other editors at The Oregonian/OregonLive also respond to dozens each week. Here is a sampling from my inbox recently, mostly focused on word usage:

Comment: I just read yesterday’s (Sunday) Oregonian and was shocked and offended by one of your front-page headlines, “Kind of a mental case as a team.” How could your editors allow this type of derogatory and ignorant categorization to be printed even if quoted? Mental illness is exactly that — an illness that many people suffer from in many different forms. Think about it, would you allow the use of “spastic” to describe someone’s performance? Likely not, I think.

Response: This is a wonderful example of how cultural norms, and acceptable language, change over time. While The Oregonian/OregonLive doesn’t ban such usage, we do guide writers to avoid labels and comments that reinforce the idea of stigma around mental illness. (To be clear, the front page was quoting someone else’s use of the term, but the point remains valid.)

As my correspondent notes, just as society has rejected demeaning terms related to physical health (“cripple,” for instance), the guidance now is to not use offensive terms like “basket case,” “schizo,” “nut job,” “psycho,” and similar terms. We should have avoided the use of “mental case.”

Comment: I was … surprised and bemused to see an endorsement for “Ombudsperson.” I had never heard this term before but realized it must be a PC/gender neutral rendering of “Ombudsman.” My own disdain for changing words to gender neutral aside, can you explain the logic of this term? It literally means nothing. “Ombudsman” is not an English word, but Swedish in origin. “Ombudsperson” is quite literally gibberish.

Response: The measure on the Multnomah County ballot established an office called “ombudsperson.” That’s why we used the term. However, The Associated Press, which sets word usage for many newspapers, has generally moved toward gender-neutral terms such as “chairperson.” Back in the day, we were taught to say “chairman” or “chairwoman.” Now, gender neutral terms are preferred (such as “actor” regardless of gender).

Comment: In my first journalism job, my editor told me to get one thing clear when calling a hospital to learn about a victim’s condition. There are only four different levels that provide any true picture: Good, Fair, Serious, Critical. “Stable” doesn’t tell us anything. A person can be “stable” in good condition or “stable” in critical condition.

I still see this mistake often, even in The Oregonian and The Associated Press … (N)ewspapers need to stop using “stable” and start making conditions clear.

Response: This reader is a former copy editor in our newsroom, and I suspect we may have had the same editor teach us this fine point. As I was told, “stable” tells readers nothing. Dead people are stable, after all. Nevertheless, news releases may offer only that information and spokespersons (see above) may be slow to respond when asked for more specific information. When I started in the newsroom, journalists could call a hospital directly and find out someone’s general condition. Now, HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, puts restrictions on public release of information by health care providers without consent.

Comment: Your article uses the term “cakewalk” to describe an easy win/path to victory. I know that it has become a common term to use in this context, but I don’t think that this term should be used in any quality newspaper. Please look up the origin of the term and consider directing your staff to not use it anymore.

Response: I learned something new from this exchange. My vague understanding of the term was that it described an old-timey carnival or picnic game where women would bake cakes, music would play, numbers would be drawn, and contestants got to take home the corresponding cake. Sort of like a highly caloric version of musical chairs.

It turns out the term likely emerged from Southern plantations with enslaved and recently emancipated people performing a highly stylized dance, mocking the mannerisms of white slaveholders, according to some accounts.

Comment: Some of us are language fussbudgets. For me, there are certain language mistakes I hear today that hit me in the eye when I hear them. The first one is the use of “less” rather than “fewer.” Fewer and fewer people use “fewer” and instead use “less” incorrectly, as in this headline. Doesn’t it make your skin crawl?

Another one is the use of the noun “impact” as a verb instead of using “affect.” Things are not affected by other things these days but are impacted, no matter how minor or major.

Response: I love “hit me in the eye when I hear them.” I received many complaints about the headline that used “less” rather than “fewer.” The AP Stylebook says this: In general, use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity. In headlines, space is at a premium and that might have dictated the choice in this instance.

Parade note: You won’t find Parade in print editions of The Sunday Oregonian. If you subscribe directly from us, you can receive Parade in the eNewspaper at no added cost by going to enewsPO.oregonlive.com. Once you have activated your account or signed in, look for it under Supplements (a technical glitch delayed its arrival last Sunday). Need help? Call customer service at 503-221-8240 or email hdelivery@oregonian.com.

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