Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

Most major publications have both an official style guide and an official dictionary they turn to to make decisions. For example, some dictionaries my spell "air conditioning" with a hyphen while others don't. The only way a copy editor can know which one to use in her publication is to check the official dictionary for that publication.

Of course, in my case, the official dictionary for the publication I'm copy editing is on somebody else's desk, all the way across the room. So I often just check dictionary.com first, as I did for a recent article that referred to cute, "wisp thin," fashionable young women as "gamins."

n. a neglected boy left to run about the streets; street urchin --

n. an often homeless boy who roams about the streets; an urchin
-- American Heritage Dictionary

I was in a conundrum. Sure, I could just change the word. But then I'd be up a creek when the editor who had already edited the story -- and left "gamin" in -- wanted to know why I changed a perfectly good word. So I hauled my poor self all the way across the room and opened our official dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary:

1. a neglected child left to roam the streets; street urchin 2. a girl
with a roguish, saucy charm: also gamine

It was official. One out of three dictionaries approved use of "gamin" for a girl, albeit without really emphasizing the skinny part that was central to the story. In the end, I decided that I still didn't like it. It was too distracting, taking the reader (or at least one reader) out of the story. I changed it to "waif."

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