Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Language: Hugo Lindgren's New NYT Magazine Rewrites "Lives" Column, Cuts Use Of "Fuck," "Shit" And "Dude."

On the back page of Hugo Lindgren's newly-remodeled NYT Magazine -- you know, the one that unceremoniously axed the "On Language" column after 32 years -- there's a sweet little essay in the "Lives" column from a dude named Justin Horner.

We say "dude" because Horner likes to say "dude." He said "dude" several times in his original version of the essay -- along with several other turns of phrase that made his writing distinct and wonderful and fresh.

That was before Lindgren's pencil-pushers had their way with it.

It's still a charming little yarn about a family of Mexican immigrants who stopped along the side of an Oregon road to help a man change a tire. Nothing much special about it, except the raw truth of the moment conveyed by Horner -- who isn't even a writer. He's a graphic designer. He just happens to have a terrific natural voice.

The NYT notes that the essay was "adapted from a message board posting on" So we went poking around for the original. It wasn't hard to find, because the Reddit community was abuzz with comments about the NYT's editorial process.

We're glad the NYT published the piece; it's sweet and likely to bring a tear to readers' eyes -- and not the first, probably, for regular readers who miss the multitude of staples (Randy Cohen's Ethicist, Deborah Solomon's Q-and-A, Virginia Heffernan's Medium column, Pete Wells' Cooking with Dexter) now gone to make way for columns called "Riff," "Look" and "You Are Here."

We'll leave those new features alone for the time being and let them evolve. A magazine is a living organism that needs time to breathe.

But in going through the two Justin Horner pieces carefully -- his has been referred to as "Today You, Tomorrow Me" on the web, while the NYT's version has been less effectively titled "The Tire Iron and the Tamale" -- we found ourselves disillusioned by the unnamed editor's excessive blue pencil.

The piece isn't ruined; far from it. But it sure ain't better, dude.

Here are some examples.

For instance, here's the graceful, evocative lede to the original piece that the NYT editor lopped off:

Just about every time I see someone I stop. I kind of got out of the habit in the last couple of years, moved to a big city and all that, my girlfriend wasn't too stoked on the practice. Then some shit happened to me that changed me and I am back to offering rides habitually. If you would indulge me, it is [a] long story and has almost nothing to do with hitch hiking other than happening on a road.

Okay, maybe it's not exactly on point. But we liked the way he moseyed into the topic, which he put on a Reddit thread on hitchhiking. Even without that context, there's a sort-of poetry to that line.

Then Horner wrote this:

Anyway, each of these times this shit happened I was DISGUSTED with how people would not bother to help me. I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show. The 4 gas stations I asked for a gas can at told me that they couldn't loan them out "for my safety" but I could buy a really shitty 1-gallon one with no cap for $15. It was enough, each time, to make you say shit like "this country is going to hell in a handbasket."

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound affect on me.

Which the NYT changed to this:

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

Let's see: the editor changed "shit" to "things," "blow" to "cruise," changed the quotes -- presumably after the "fact checkers" couldn't confirm the conversations Horner had with gas-station attendants -- noted that Horner had "actually said" the line that "this country is going to hell in a handbasket," and cut the first of the piece's many reference to "dudes."

Then this became that.

This, in Horner's original prose:

I start taking the wheel off and, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones and I wasn't careful and I snapped the head I needed clean off. Fuck.

That, in NYT-speak:

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

Commas, small word changes, the deletion of an obscenity...small changes, true, but nonetheless altering the author's true voice and rhythms.

The rest of the edits go pretty much along those lines -- a shit here, a fuck there -- until we get to the ending. Here's where the NYT editor took one too many liberties with the language of the writer.


Dude just smiles, shakes his head and, with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English: "Today you.... tomorrow me."

Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best fucking tamale of all time and I just cried. Like a little girl. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.

In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:

"Today you.... tomorrow me."


The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

No argument this time. Horner's ending was better.

We're not against editing. But we're sorry to see the NYT Magazine simultaneously drop its classic column about language, and add elements so editor-driven that Lindgren felt it necessary to add ludicrous editor "bylines" to the ends of features.

What made previous incarnations of the NYT Magazine so special -- we're thinking back through its history, when writers from Leo Tolstoy to J. Anthony Lukas graced its pages -- was its commitment to voice.

We get that the NYT is a "family newspaper" and that family newspapers don't say fuck. But isn't it time for a re-think on that policy? We've been arguing for a while against the NYT's antiquated rules against obscenity -- which only calls attention to their absence, in a world where they've become commonplace in print. It's going to happen sooner or later; why not now?

Meanwhile, we hope that the Lindgren era that began today will eventually bring with it the commitment to language and style that was the essence, and point, of the column he killed. The Horner edit isn't a very auspicious start.


Anonymous said...

Can't take the heat, NYTpicker? Like to keep the reader down, and your women's innards degraded on your dime?

NYT always make room for tired ironies, and racist analogies of food with pussy, and sexist fantasies of exchanging money for sex, etc... But they can't make room for stories that talk about these issues in non-metaphorical ways, or issues that bring the inequalities in lives of girls and women to the forefront, why?

Why are there so many fewer women at the editorial and executive levels at the NYT?

Anonymous said...

The magazine's design looks just like the NYT iPad app. I'll bet that wasn't an accident, but it's weird.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand. Why would they publish an article that had already appeared online? Please explain.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, NYT Picker. It has been way too long, dude.

Ken Cady said...

Yes, welcome back. Why don't you tell your readers why the absence?
Or do you have the same disregard for us that many in the media have?
As for the Magazine, good riddance to Randy Cohen and the ever boring On Language column. I liked the way the Magazine presented Horner's story. Do you really expect the Times to use his very colloquial words? Fuck no!
But yes, I am glad to see you back.

Anonymous said...

ken cody: whoever you are:

don't pick on randy cohen, a serious and delightful human being who was fired by email & denied severance pay by the new editor. Sad to see the ethicist treated so shabbily.

Meghan Kelly said...

Tamale is used in this context as an ethnic slur.

Anonymous said...

Did you reach out to Horner to see if maybe he wanted his NyT debut to be a little bit cleaner thank a typo and expletive ridden blog post? Of course not, you pretend that shoddy journalism is your raison d'ĂȘtre, but it's your credo.

Adam said...

It's a classic strategy, shit and piss on women, girls and minorities to look tough. Liberals do it with rhetoric and by proxy (like this dude they fished out of reddit), while

neocons and the extreme right do it more overtly.

Heck, if it's good for their business bottom line to tolerate bigotry passing off as a cutesy filler stories, why the fuck not!

Of course, leave it to the women reader who've really internalized the crap so hard to be the frontline in its very defense!!! How fucked up is that, not so much, it's the English way.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Call me old fashioned, but I vote for the cleaned up version. Curse words should be saved for extreme moments that require them lest they lose their power. I can't understand how some of my friends get hot and bothered when someone takes a disposable bag from the supermarket, but they toss around four letter words like there's an infinite supply of them.


To Anonymous @10:05 p.m.:

We checked with Randy Cohen re: your account of his departure from the NYT. His answer, via email: "Both those assertions are false."

Anonymous said...

So, how do you feel about the long-form cover feature devoted to a hagiographic account of a terrorist woman?

The Times once again making normative unconscionable and unacceptable behavior in an effort to pervert our culture.

Anonymous said...

It's, ya know, a context thing. A lot of us readers don't mind reading "shit" and "fuck" - and, to be honest, saying these words too - in a certain social and emotional context. But The NY Times Magazine isn't that context. The article itself, although it appears to be spontaneously written by a "dude" who who lives there perennially, is far better and communicates its ethical message far more effectively in the edited version. That's what good editing should do.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, all granted, but changing blow past to cruise past is just vandalism

Anonymous said...

I read this piece, and at the time, I thought, "This is so made up. Someone invented this story, the Times fell for it, and the author said to himself, "I'm going to turn down a NY Times piece? Don't think so, dude."

I still think it's just too pat. I wonder if the peach- and cherry-picking seasons are only a few weeks apart. That's the only detail that could actually be checked, if I recall the piece correctly.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who noticed the family was downsized from 6 to 4 members in the NYT version?

Anonymous said...

I think the point here is that the edited version is much more plodding. It has nothing to do with the presence or absence of curse words. I won't go into detail, but some of the edits seem unnecessary, such as changing the absolute construction to a prepositional phrase.

And what's the point of publishing something already out there--online no less? I can see the point of book excerpts since those are marketing tools that help sell books and newspapers.

In any event, for anyone not familiar with the term absolute construction, it's a grammatically independent phrase made up of a noun and participle, in this case "daughter" and "waving."

Absolute construction:
"his daughter waving to me in the rear view"

Prepositional phrase:
"with his daughter waving to me from the back"

Anonymous said...

Tow truck could be a factual error. New York and New Jersey have roadside emergency vehicles that are not tow trucks. Oregon, the state where this happened, apparently also makes the same distinction. I'm sure the magazine's fact checkers could've confirmed that.

Here's the Oregon page:

Here are the Jersey and New York pages:

New Jersey Turnpike Authority Roadside Assistance

NYSDOT Highway Emergency Local Patrol (H.E.L.P.)

Anonymous said...

The end of that Oregon URL is _Enforcement.shtml.

Anonymous said...


"Drivers must now move over to a non adjacent lane (or slow down) when approaching the rear of a tow truck or roadside assistance vehicle that is providing assistance to a disabled vehicle on the roadway.

"Now, you must move over if possible to another available lane (or slow down if you can't move over or if the move would be unsafe) when approaching the rear of an Emergency vehicle, tow truck or roadside assistance vehicle that has it's amber, red or blue flashers activated.

"The Law (adding tow trucks and roadside assistance vehicles) Becomes Effective: January 1, 2010"

Anonymous said...

"The law specifies the following:

"811.147 Section I. is amended to read:
As used in this section, 'roadside assistance vehicle means a vehicle with warning lights that responds to requests for repair assistance from motorists with disabled vehicles.'

"(1) A person operating a motor vehicle commits the offense of failure to maintain a safe distance from an emergency vehicle, roadside assistance vehicle, tow vehicle or ambulance if the person approaches an emergency vehicle, roadside assistance vehicle, tow vehicle or ambulance that is stopped and is displaying required warning lights and the person:

"(a) On a highway having two or more lanes for traffic in a single direction, fails to:"

Anonymous said...

"(A) Make a lane change to a lane not adjacent to that of the emergency vehicle, roadside
assistance vehicle, tow vehicle or ambulance; or

"(B) Reduce the speed of the motor vehicle to a speed that is at least 5 miles per hour under the posted speed, if making a lane change is unsafe."

Anonymous said...

"(b) On a two directional, two-lane highway, fails to reduce the speed of the motor vehicle, to a speed that is at least five miles per hour under the posted speed limit.

"(2) The offense described in this section, failure to maintain a safe distance from an emergency vehicle, roadside assistance vehicle, tow vehicle, or ambulance, is a Class B traffic violation. [2003 c.42 §2]"

Anonymous said...

Yeah it's weird, unless it's an intentional lowering of standards (some writers/editors are known for doing that,) if Justin Horner won best comment of 2010 at, why not ask him to write a fresher piece, it's not that hard to better something like that. Plus, he could re-use his generic template to construct a tableau. We would still get the picture, and he could work-in "big jugs" or whatever. On the other hand, they're probably thinking don't like, don't read it. Maybe they don't want to be read. That's a little too much speculation. @8:57, that's a lot to handle at once, gonna have to do some homework to comprehend.

PE said...

Anon. who said the new version is plodding and gave the example of "absolute construction" - I'm with ya 100%. I remember reading this piece a while back, and i think his voice and style do as much to communicate as does the content. When you look at the edits side by side, the come off a bit condescending, no? As to whether Horner endorsed the edits himself - yeah maybe, but I think the NYT made a poor judgment call here and maybe should've considered not printing this at all.

NYTPicker - I think you did a real nice job with this write up. I think the issue was worth writing about and your tone was fair.

Anonymous said...

re. tow trucks vs. roadside assistance vehicles: maybe the magazine editor didn't think it odd that numerous tow trucks would be cruising along the oregon freeways.

at least with roadside assistance vehicles (which actively patrol the highways for broken down cars), that plural makes sense.

I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show.

I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right, PE, especially about the condescension.