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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: When choosing words, it's always about the reader

By Maggie Walter
June 22, 2012 | 3:38 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When news of an escaped steer circulated across the city, reporters and editors were quick to round up the information and let readers know what was happening.

It was a typical newsroom scene when breaking news occurs.

What wasn't typical was the search for the correct name of the meat-processing plant at MU.

It's officially the MU Meat Lab and Abattoir, according to its Facebook page. That's the place for both functions in meat processing — killing the animals and then packaging and selling the meat. That name seems to have the process reversed, but so it goes.

For just the sales site, the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources' website lists it as Mizzou Meat Market, also known as the Don Naumann Muscle Foods Processing Laboratory.

The Missourian opted to refer to the MU Abattoir as the MU slaughterhouse. Not using the official name in first reference is a bit off the norm for the newsroom. Our accuracy-checking policy pretty much says: Get your information exactly right. But, this time, it was the word "abattoir" that weighed heavily in the decision.

There are some pretty bright editors here, but the French word didn't resonate with folks. "What's that fancy French word for slaughterhouse?" Brian Kratzer, our photo editor, asked.

Brian, who is a pretty smart fellow, might not have known that word, but his question was salient. If he didn't know it, and others weren't familiar with it, then should we use it? Since abattoir is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as slaughterhouse, it became an easy decision. After all, one of our credos here is: It's always about the reader. And we wanted our readers to understand what was going on as soon as possible into the story. I'm sure many readers would be familiar with abattoir, but others might stumble to tease out the meaning.

What do you think?

Others might find more enjoyment in deciding if a pinch more marjoram will make a casserole taste better, but for word lovers, making such decisions about word usage is just plain fun, too. 

Jeffrey Kacirk, author of "The Word Museum — The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten," apparently is a member of the word-lovers group. His book is a truly edifying lexicon filled with words we used to use.

As Kacirk writes in his introduction, "The English language, as the largest and most dynamic collection of words and phrases ever assembled, continues to expand, absorbing hundreds of words annually into its official and unofficial rolls, but not without a simultaneous yet imperceptible sacrifice of terms along the way."

The title of the book alone drew me in, and I thank Ann Edwards, a member of one of my book clubs, for lending it to me. But the lost words also proved intriguing. I think we should bring some of them back. For example:

This love of words and exactness in meaning is apparently shared by participants in the Show Me the Errors contest. In May, there were 19 participants who submitted 70 corrections. Jim Terry, our most faithful participant, pointed out 43 errors.

The winner of the contest drawing was Matt Monos, who let us know we had an incorrect first name for Scott Henderson, a teacher at Columbia Independent School and sponsor of the school's National Honor Society. Monos is a member of the honor society.

Monos will be receiving a copy of "The Great Typo Hunt" and a Missourian T-shirt.

To submit a correction, just click on the Show Me the Errors box at the bottom of each article and let us know about the error. We appreciate every entry.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She is still trying to decide what to think about Steve Jobs. After reading Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson, many questions remain about Jobs' contributions to modern culture and his incredible personality. For now, she's sticking with this description offered by Jim Thorne at a recent book club gathering: "He was a brilliant bastard."