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DEAR READERS: Trumpeting the power of words entertains copy editors

Saturday, April 13, 2013 | 7:23 p.m. CDT; updated 1:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

COLUMBIA — Peter Sokolowski has my other dream job. He's an editor at large with the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  

With the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Arch looming in the background, Sokolowski was the keynote speaker at the 17th annual American Copy Editors Society national conference. It was April 4 to 6 in St. Louis.

Sokolowski was an ideal choice to give the keynote address at this festive gathering of grammar and word nerds, a title that most attendees would proudly claim. Ten students and five professors from the Missouri School of Journalism roamed in and out of sessions with topics as varied as the massive Plagiarism and Fabrication Summit, Ask the AP Stylebook Editors, Research on Editing, Attribution and Aggregation and Corrections: Policies and Practices for Fixing Errors.

Sokolowski started at Merriam-Webster in 1994 as the first French-language editor and now blogs at Merriam-Webster's Unabridged website, Merriam-Webster.com, and is the voice of Merriam-Webster Word of the Day podcast. (The word of the day for Saturday was contentious, an adjective with two definitions. No. 1 is: likely to cause disagreement or argument. No. 2 is: exhibiting an often perverse and wearisome tendency to quarrels and disputes.)

In addition to his work with all these words, Sokolowski also travels the country acting as an ambassador of sorts for the dictionary company. This was his first appearance at the copy editors' meeting.

Raymond Howze, one of the MU students attending the conference, wrote a summary of Sokolowski's speech. He wrote:

"Copy editors use the dictionary every day in the business. Words’ meanings always change and no copy editor wants to let a spelling error slip through the cracks. So the dictionary’s importance to copy editors is valued to say the least.

"But what perhaps is most interesting, is the dictionary relies just as much on copy editors as copy editors do the dictionary, Sokolowski said. Words won’t be entered in the dictionary until it passes the 'gold standard,' which are examples in 'carefully edited prose.'"

The Internet has enhanced the dictionary's staff work in many ways, Sokolowski said, not least of which is to let them know how many times a word is looked up — either for spelling or definition — online.

For example, "malarkey," the word used by Joe Biden during the 2012 vice presidential debate to dismiss Paul Ryan's assertions about how to solve the U.S. financial woes, went viral in the fall. "Love” stirs many people to turn to the dictionary, but, not surprisingly, it's most popular in February, Sokolowski said.

Beyond the words, though, Sokolowski proved his dexterity when he snatched his trumpet from back stage and tootled a couple of jazzy tunes.

Later, at the conference wrap-up gathering, we shared stories of trumpet-playing accomplishments. He was lucky enough to run into other "legendary" trumpet players — "guys I've admired for a long time," he said, in the hotel who invited him to their performance later that night.

We shared our mutual admiration for Doc Severinsen, the band leader and trumpeter extraordinaire for "The Tonight Show." My favorite of Severinsen's vast repertoire is "Malaguena" by Ernesto Lecuona. The Spanish ballad seemed to me to be one of the most difficult pieces of music written for trumpet. Determined to conquer it, I practiced and practiced and practiced, until one day I played it through without looking at the music and without error. The next day, I played it again. And, then I quit. In fact, I seldom played the trumpet again after that accomplishment.

In a perfectly time show of solidarity, Sokolowski and I sadly shook our heads in unison.

And, I'm still shaking my head — in the positive way — that Sokolowski might return to the conference next year. Nothing contentious about that.


There were eight participants in the Show Me the Errors contest in March. They submitted nine corrections. The winner is Matt Schacht. He will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

If you would like to join in and be eligible to win the prizes for April, simple read the articles  at ColumbiaMissourian.com, and, if you find an error, click on the form at the end of the story and tell us about it.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She's hoping to attend the Doc Severinsen and His Big Band concert at Jesse Auditorium on April 21. Maybe, it will be enough inspiration to persuade her to play the trumpet again.


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