Widows, bastards, and slugs


Words aren't always what they appear to be.

Did you know that magazine editors routinely kill widows and orphans? That's right. We do it because we think they're ugly. We like the occasional bastard, however. And we'd never make any progress without slugs.

As you may have suspected, I'm not using these words in their traditional sense. The world of publishing has developed its own vocabulary over the years (centuries, actually), and these words mean something different to us than they do to the average reader or writer who's not steeped in journalism parlance.

In case you're curious, a “widow” on a printed page is a one-word line at the end of a paragraph. An “orphan” is a one-word line at the end of a paragraph that lands at the top of a column. A “bastard measure” occurs when an element on the page features a different column width than other layout components. And a “slug” is the name given to a chunk of copy as it works its way through the editorial process-for example, “ptips” for Practice Tips. (Of course, now that online publishing is just as much a part of our lives as print-if not more-I wonder what words we'll come to use to describe that process.)

I've come to learn that veterinary medicine, like every profession, has its own vocabulary as well. It took me a while to catch on to some of these terms when I first started editing veterinary materials. For example, if a practitioner were to say he “visualized a dog's ovary,” I would formerly have thought the doctor closed his eyes and brought up a mental picture of a canine ovary. Now I know “visualize” means “to make visual,” or viewable by a scope or imaging procedure.

Another term that used to trip me up was the word “painful.” In my experience, a broken leg is painful. Stomach cramps or the loss of a loved one is painful. In veterinary medicine, “painful” is used in this sense, but it's also applied to an animal experiencing pain-as in, “A ramp can help chronically painful dogs enter and exit a vehicle.” Before I would have changed that to read, “dogs with chronic pain,” until our technical editors informed me that the original was an appropriate usage in a clinical context.

And then there's “present”-as in, “A 9-year-old spayed German shepherd presented at ABC Referral Hospital with signs of respiratory distress.” Presented what? A PowerPoint of her respiratory problems? That's still a tough one for me grammatically, and I think our clinical editors would actually change that sentence to read that the dog “was presented at” the referral hospital. But the original wording is fairly standard in this profession.

If there's a point in any of this, it's that communication with people outside your sphere of knowledge can be tricky (for a fun communication exercise, see this article by Bob Levoy). But it's mostly just that I find words and language fascinating and thought I'd share. Now that I'm through, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to killing widows.

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