Remember when the Coca-Cola Co. introduced a reformulated Coke in 1985, and an irate public forced the company to shelve the idea? Industry observers pointed out its mistake: not asking customers if they even wanted a “new” Coke.
Unwittingly, I caused a new Coke flap right here at the Jewish paper, and have been facing my own irate public.
My crime? Changing J.’s preferred spelling of “Chanukah” to “Hanukkah” without public comment.
There hasn’t been this much blowback over a style change since … well, ever.
Everyone was on board when “matzo” became “matzah.” No one balked when “Chassid” was scrapped for “Hassid” or “pareve” for “parve.” But Chanukah is in a whole other category, I’ve come to learn.
As J.’s copy editor, I’m responsible for quality control. That means all of the editorial content, or “copy,” needs to be as readable, engaging, clean and accurate as possible. That effort happens at all levels, but the buck stops with me. (Note to self: “Buck stops with me” is a cliché. Strike it.)
Although the paper’s excellent writers and editors do their part to ensure error-free copy, I’m the one with the fine-tooth comb, working to make sure no egregious mistakes make their way into publication. And as far as I’m concerned, any mistake that gets into print is egregious. But it happens.
One thing that makes my job as gatekeeper easier is following a style guide. This resource takes the guesswork out of usage rules, such as spelling, punctuation and journalistic style. Most newspapers rely on the Associated Press Stylebook, which has been updated regularly since 1953. It’s one of my bibles.
The other is J.’s in-house style guide, which contains all of the stuff that only the Jewish press cares about. It’s like a Jewish sourdough starter — every copy editor who has come through has amended it and added to it, keeping the culture alive.
Not sure how to spell bulghur or baklava? They’re in the guide. Don’t know kibitz from kibbutz? Rest assured that I do. Also, Israel is an “it,” not a “she.” ADL leader Abraham Foxman is not “Abe,” except to his close friends. “Goy” is pejorative, “macher” is slang. And don’t get me started on protocol for the word “occupied.”
Sound easy? I invite you to try it sometime. Not only am I on the front lines, but I take it personally when something goes wrong. A wire story J. ran earlier this year mentioned a town called Valley Stream, but it came out Valley Steam, eliciting an online comment chiding the staff “to PROOF each article.” Ouch.
To avoid such public scoldings, I try to enforce rules with firmness, assurance and, above all, consistency. Not unlike a parent. And while I’m prepared to explain my reasoning should anyone ask, usually that doesn’t happen — most people don’t want to bother with such minutiae and are happy just to be given the answers.
Which reminds me: If you’re one of those people who likes to argue the finer points of style, don’t tell me how many “hits” you got on Google. I don’t make professional decisions based on what millions of dumdums say, and neither should you.
But back to Hanukkah. As soon as the changed spelling became known in the J. offices, the buzz started. I’d overhear grumbling and be stricken with self-doubt. I was waylaid in the restroom and harangued over the stall by a colleague who (clearly) didn’t like the change. What had I done? And why were people so ready to take up arms over the matter? We even posted a poll on J.’s Facebook page, and I was chagrined when most of the responders (all of them foaming extremists, naturally) favored “ch.”
My decision was not based on a personal whim. The trend is “Hanukkah,” AP and many Jewish publications spell it with an “h,” and it’s an Americanized holiday. But the shift touched a nerve. People have meaningful associations with the holiday, and they want things to stay the same. Chanukah already puts up with enough abuse by Christmas; it doesn’t need new enemies.
All of this came as quite a shock. I didn’t mean to start trouble. I’m just an earnest, hardworking copy editor, trying to make things better. I had no idea I was spoiling a 2,000-year-old tradition while sandbagging people’s memories of a cherished holiday.
Oh, I almost forgot! Happy Hanukkah.