You don’t have to be a copy-editor or proofreader to be obsessive about words. Nor vice versa, it goes without saying. But if you’ve no interest at all in dictionaries, strange word usages or all the other little oddments of language, then freelance proofreading and editing will probably leave you as cold as Murmansk at Christmas.
I was a lazy schoolboy. Now everyone’s a student from about Year 1 up. But I was a schoolboy till I was eighteen, then I became a lazy student.
But I did like French, English, and bits of History, and stayed awake for those. And a weird memory from a French lesson back before the Crimean War has just popped into the sclerotic old brain. We had a textbook called Whitmarsh. For all I know it may now be still going in its umpteenth edition making its publisher happy. I was about thirteen, I suppose, and knew little about anything much.
A Malay Runs Amok
I kid you not. This was the title of a passage for translation from English into French in our Whitmarsh. From that moment on I knew I would have to work with words! Well, OK, no I didn’t. But I remember thinking (or, more likely, I think I remember thinking): Why a Malay? What exactly is a Malay? What does amok mean? Why did he run whatever it meant? I now know that some people thought then that Malays had a tendency to run amok and that we realise now that running amok is not the preserve of any race, nationality, religion, sect or particular ethnicity. And that Malays were not at all prone to it. The real interest for an editor is why the word run precedes amok. Why can’t we say go amok? Or can we? If the author has written A Devonian dashes amok do we intervene? Tough question: tough job!
Dog Goes Berserk
What a great word: berserk. But copy-editors everywhere, whether freelance or on the staff, beware! You can’t run berserk. You have to go berserk.
By the way, the word comes from bear sark, meaning bear coat. Odin was protected by crazy warriors known as the berserks. Their coats were a fashion statement and no doubt smelled foul enough to put the enemy to flight. Put, not send or any other verb: please note!