The way we use words does make a difference, as proved by two events in the past week.
The first was the death of a gentleman who may best conjure up the phrase “ink-stained wretch.” His name was Vincent Musetto and he was the New York Post copy editor who wrote the headline: Headless Body in Topless Bar.
With his passing Musetto undoubtedly became more famous than he was when he lived. His obituary, and the story of how he came up with the famous line, was the most-read story on the Times’ website for several hours.
Musetto joined The Post as a copy editor in the early 1970s and did various jobs mostly anonymously, as copy editors do, until he wrote that headline, which is probably remembered because of its daring and humor regarding a ghoulish subject. The Times wrote admiringly of “its verbless audacity, arresting parallel adjectives and forceful trochaic slams.” Of course, if the murder had occurred someplace other than in a topless bar, Musetto would have had nothing.
Also last week, a great outpouring of schadenfreude occurred when a small newspaper in Oregon referred to a baseball pitcher who throws with both his left and right arms as amphibious.
In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter, right? We all knew they meant ambidextrous. If someone made that mistake to your face, you might snicker a little and repeat it when you got home, but that would be it. Since our world includes the Internet and social media, however, it went gleefully viral.
Maybe I’m a touch oversensitive because I used to edit a newspaper and made a few mistakes myself. But I was pleased to see that the editor of the Eastern Oregonian practices what I preach: When you make a mistake, admit it and apologize. You can read his humorous column here.
As for the copy editor who wrote the blunder, it may turn out to be his or her most famous work. We’ll find out when the obituary is published.
Paul Steinmetz is the director of Community Relations and Public Affairs for Western Connecticut State University and the principal of Writing Associates, providing publicity and writing services for businesses, institutions and individuals.