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May 22 / King Kaufman

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.

Until now.

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.

  • Steve Buttry

    Sorry, King, i’ll keep spelling it “lead.” I share lots of language with other journos, but I kept encountering young journalists who didn’t spell it “lede” and didn’t understand why we would spell it that way. After explaining it a time or two, I realized how antiquated it sounded (and that was before I read Howard Owens’ research questioning the origin). As I explained in this post on writing leads, I’ve decided to update my terminology in this respect. http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/strong-from-the-start-advice-for-writing-leads/

    • King_Kaufman

      No need to apologize, Steve. Spell it how you want. I’m not a spokesman for the forces of “lede.” It just works best for the purposes of this blog as I see it.

  • Glic

    I always use “lede” and consider it correct. Grew up in a newspaper family and went to Missouri’s J-School.

  • Momus

    I believe the potential confusion of the proper pronunciation of “Lead” in front of “Zeppelin” is what prompted the band to shorten it to “Led.”

  • tyschalter

    I’m glad to see this change. I decided to go with “lead” after your last post on the topic, and found it was just too confusing. Even if “lede” is a relatively recent invention, it was mothered out of necessity.

  • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

    I think you’re justification for “lead” over “lede” is perfectly acceptable, as language does evolve, though some who have read my post might cringe :)

    • Mitch Powell

      you’re?

  • http://www.lalapaints.com/ Lauren Kaplan Rutley

    In JOUR textbooks it is spelled “lede.”

  • Guest

    lede