Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Renowned for saving face

Interesting article in this morning's New York Times about a guy who uses scissors and paper to cut portraits of people in the subway (read it here), except the article tells us in two separate places that back home in Shanghai, Ming Liang Lu was "renown."

No he wasn't.

Judging by his skills on display in the Times, I have no doubt that Ming Liang Lu was celebrated, lauded, affirmed, reputed, and even famous in Shanghai, but he wasn't renown. Renown is a nown--er, noun (springing from the Middle English renoun and ultimately from Latin nominare, to name). What Ming Liang Lu was back in Shanghai was renowned. The -ed makes all the difference.

For a recovering journalist, there are few experiences more rewarding than catching the New York Times in an error. I don't get the same frisson from finding errors in my local newspaper, which is a good thing because I would quickly get frissoned out. Error is the order of the day in my local paper, and not just obvious grammatical or spelling errors but serious errors of judgment. Whoever wrote the headline  referring to the "Wife of exotic animals' owner" simply had no conception of how people read. (Wait, she married the animals? How many?)

But experience has led me to expect that kind of headline in my local paper, along with a hearty daily helping of mangled sentences, misspelled words, and general infelicities. If my local paper printed an article referring to a person as "renown," I would turn the page with a ho-hum. And there's no point in bringing the error to the attention of the appropriate editor because my local paper is too busy making new mistakes to worry about going back to correct the old ones.

Not so the New York Times. I have no doubt that renown will be replaced eventually and someone will get chewed out (but not by exotic animals or their wives or owners). A commitment to correcting errors makes them somehow more forgivable, particularly when they are so rare. Besides, the occasional error in the Times is offset by more felicitous uses of language.

Take, for instance, the point in the article about Ming Liang Lu when the artist explains that he's not in it for the money: " 'Not about money,' he said. 'About face.'"

That's just perfect. "About face" evokes the man's distinctive voice while glancing obliquely at other meanings: the artist as drill sergeant barking orders to his models or turning his life around in mid-march. The portraits he doesn't sell get taped to a display board propped on the wall, a place for saving face.

Now let's see the Times save face and preserve its renown by adding that -ed.

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