The Copyeditor as Word Detective: Using Lookalikes and Soundalikes to Crack Word Puzzles
Updated: Aug 1
During the course of their work, academic copyeditors often meet strange words. An online search with keywords drawn from the context of the writing usually solves the puzzle. However, another type of word puzzle can sometimes be intractable: a common word used in an inexplicable way. An online search will not help if the usage is incorrect, and in such cases, what does the copyeditor do? He can always pass the buck to the author, but the author may not know better. I give three examples from my practice of this type of word puzzle.
The first example is from an English as a Second Language (ESL) physics paper where the author used the baffling term "the generosity of the model" a few times. Now, I've met stranger specimens, so without batting an eyelid I went online, but after some time, I had to admit defeat. I had drawn a blank. After submitting the edited paper to the client (an editing company), I mentioned this word puzzle to my copyediting reviewer at the company. The next day he reported that he had come up with a reasonable hypothesis: the author had meant "the generality of the model." The reviewer deduced the word generality from the typographic and phonetic similarities between generosity and generality. The clincher was the occurrence of the word universal in the same sentence. We were not completely certain if the author had indeed intended generality, but it looked very likely, and the word was suggested as a replacement to the author in a comment.
My second example is from a finance paper, where the author used the following: "... collations are the key to success" (I have changed the original sentence for obvious reasons). I searched online and turned up nothing. I then asked the author to check this word. He felt the word was business jargon; he did not want to change it, as it was part of a direct quote from an interview. Another friend I consulted (he had an MBA) also felt the word had to be business jargon. My instinct told me the word was incorrectly used in the sentence, but I was on the point of giving up this battle: why continue to flog a dead horse when its owner didn't want a postmortem? (yes, it's a terrible mixed metaphor, but I like it). The light dawned suddenly and unexpectedly at the dining table. The word had to be coalitions! The clincher was the occurrence of the word partnerships in the next sentence.
My third example is a sentence from a book on medicine: "Other causes of trauma reported by hospitals include gorging by a cow." It took me some time to un-see the gory (hint, hint, hint!) image of a ravenous cow pinning the victim to the ground with her rear legs and feasting on his fleshy thighs (or worse). Obviously, gorging was a mistake. But what could the word be? The solution came to me in a flash. I was pleased with myself. Of course, the author meant gouging. I made the correction and moved on.
However, when the author returned the document, I was brought back to earth. The intended word was not gouging but goring. I was crestfallen. Yes, I had caught the error, but I had also made the cardinal error of being satisfied with the first solution that occurred to me. I should have kept looking.
The moral of the above episodes? I can do no better than quote from my copyediting reviewer's email: "Sometimes a baffling word can be sneakily approached by forgetting semantics and casting around for typographical lookalikes or phonetic soundalikes instead!"
Next time I'll be ready (famous last words!).
PS: Henry's pals have been making themselves at home in my room. I sometimes think I have a parliament of owls in here. They read over my shoulder and sometimes make good copyediting suggestions. Lisa thought the following quote would be a good tailpiece.