Public Editor

May 25, 2014

Of dictionaries, WAACs and letters to the editor

Derek Donovan writes: Some readers’ concerns aren’t necessarily of the utmost importance, but they can be interesting smaller questions worth considering. Here are three recent examples.

It’s time for a roundup of some relatively trivial but common topics I’ve talked about with readers recently.

One of the most common questions I heard last week was “admittedly nothing too important, really,” as one caller put it. But it was a confusing issue nonetheless.

A story on Page A2 May 20 concerned new words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Among them was “Yooper,” to refer to people from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, along with words such as “hashtag,” “turducken” and “fracking.”

“I believe The Associated Press made an error with reference to the new edition of the dictionary,” said one of my callers. “The article says it’s the 11th edition, which is what I have. But these new words aren’t in mine. I think it must have meant the 12th edition.”

That would make logical sense. But Merriam-Webster doesn’t refer to it that way. The one with the newly-added words is still in its 11th edition, which the company advertises as “newly revised and updated.” I wouldn’t say that’s self-explanatory.

When WAACs?

Two readers thought they'd spotted a problem with historical accuracy in the May 21 Food section. But it was really a question of a photo caption that could have perhaps placed one word in a different position.

The lead story that day was about “War Fare: From the Homefront to the Frontlines,” a new online exhibition on the National World War I Museum website at The caption under the main photo read, “A Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) member proudly displays two fresh loaves of bread baked for British troops.”

That’s impossible, said the readers contacting me. The WAAC wasn’t formed until 1942, during World War II. There was no such thing for the young woman in the photo to belong to during World War I.

“If the WWI Museum has this photo labeled in this way, it should be corrected as this group did not exist at that time,” wrote one.

The answer? The U.S. didn’t have a WAAC during the war — but Britain did, under the same name. If the word “British” had simply been moved up to be the second word in the photo caption, the confusion could have been avoided. One could argue it’s implicit as it ran, but it’s inarguable that it would have been better the other way.

‘Faith’ letters?

An emailer last week made a suggestion that he felt would result in improvements to both the Opinion and Faith sections.

“Nearly every day I read on the Opinion page at least one letter extolling the wonders of God and all the things he can or will do to either aid or hinder individuals or America,” he wrote. However, he felt this wasn’t necessarily a good fit in a section devoted to debate over public policy.

He offered an alternative proposal: “Would it be too much to ask that all the religiously-oriented letters be placed on the Saturday (Faith section) along with the advice from Billy Graham and local ministers?”

Through the years I have heard from other readers who have expressed similar discomfort with matters of faith intertwined with politics in the Opinion section, so I think this is an idea with real merit.

On the other hand, for many, politics are unapologetically and inexorably intertwined. For them, these matters do belong among secular political reasoning. Opinion would be their proper home.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to

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