At the risk of burying the lead, we’re going to spell it lede
A bit of housekeeping, though it’s a big bit.
Alert readers of this blog may have noticed that the word for the beginning part of an article is spelled two different ways here and in other material for B/R writers. Here, it’s “lead.” Everywhere else—and in some posts on the blog—it’s “lede.”
I’ve spelled it lede for most of my career, thinking that was the old-timey, ink-stained wretchish, newspaper way of spelling it, and being an old-timey ink-stained wretch who grew up in newspapers, I go for that sort of thing.
But this post by old-timey etc. etc. guy turned online journalism publisher Howard Owens taught me that “lede” is not the old-school way of spelling the word, it’s nostalgia:
The fact is, none of the dozens of old journalism books that I have examined—none of them—spell it “lede.” I can’t find the definitive first reference to “lede” but it doesn’t start appearing in journalism books until the 1980s …
It wasn’t until linotype was disappearing from newsrooms across the nation (late 1970s and into the 1980s), that we start seeing the spelling “lede.”
The safest conclusion, then, is that “lede” is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era.
Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Linotype machine if you’re wondering what Owens is talking about there. And here’s a William Safire “On Language” column from 1990 in the New York Times in which he discusses “lede” as “an insiders’ variant, steadily growing in frequency of use.”
The thing is, I hate nostalgia. So I decided to stop using the faux-olde spelling “lede” and have gone with “lead” for the last two years.
My distaste for a rosy view of an imagined past blinded me to the idea that “lede” is a useful spelling. There’s no risk of confusion or ambiguity with synonyms, as there is with “lead.” And while this is a minor thing, I think there’s some value in journalism having a shared language. We write about heds and grafs and ledes when we’re talking to each other. It’s a signal that we’re over here talking shop.
So lede it is. I’m going to go back and change all the spellings of “lead” that I can find on this blog to “lede,” with an explanatory note where possible. And I’ll try to be quick about it. I’ll get the led out.
Hey, just a suggestion.