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March 22nd, 2006

A collective name for newspaper readers

by Barbara Wallraff

A few weeks ago, I invited you to come up with an entertaining collective name for newspaper readers, and I offered to send an autographed copy of my new book, “Word Fugitives,” to one of the people who came up with the word I liked best. If Word Court were a democracy and my job were just to tally up the entries as votes, the winning word would have been “column”: a column of newspaper readers. But no, I’m the judge, and to me, “column” conjures up a picture of the readers standing in line. I don’t believe you’re as orderly as all that.

The second most popular suggestion was “smudge”: a smudge of newspaper readers. What that’s about, of course, is that newspaper ink smudges our hands. (Wouldn’t you think a civilization that sent a man to the moon almost 37 years ago, that has eradicated smallpox and that can transmit information around the world almost instantaneously would have come up with a smudgeless newspaper ink by now?) But my dictionary, the American Heritage, defines “a smudge” as “a blotch or smear,” and I think too well of you to call you that.

Linda Leddick, of Detroit, wrote: “No new word need be tacked on ‘reader’ to make the collective. ‘Reader’ is like ‘datum’ -- singular. The collective of ‘datum’ is ‘data.’ Therefore, the collective of ‘reader’ is ‘reada,’ which will be most gratifying to the reada in Boston.” Linda? I like your sense of humor, but ‘data’ is plural, not collective.

Some fancy words arrived. Several people suggested we use “perusal” as our collective name. “Perusal” actually means the process of reading or examining, “typically with great care.” (Despite what many people seem to think, “peruse” does not mean “skim” or “flip through.”) Carol Bennett, of Detroit, wanted us to call ourselves a “clerisy” of readers. “Clerisy” means “educated people considered as a group.” That’s a nice thought! The two most charming suggestions I got were “harumph,” one of 13 possibilities sent by Kathryn Seifert, of Madison, Wis., and “inkling,” from Bonnie Burnett, of Kingston, Ontario.

Many people dipped -- or reached deep -- into newspaper terminology to find words. Fred H. Irons, of Orono, Maine, suggested a “draft” of readers. Others proposed “galley”: what proofreaders used to proof before newspaper composition went electronic. Jean Kruse, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, suggested “bulldogs” -- the “bulldog edition” of a newspaper is the one that comes out earliest -- but that’s another plural noun, as opposed to a collective name. Diego Sorbara, of Columbia, Mo., proposed “agate,” which refers to a small type size, with 14 lines to the inch. Joe Altmaier, of Riverside, Iowa, suggested “gutter”: A “gutter” is the inside margins of two pages that face each other. However, Altmaier said, this should apply only to readers of tabloid papers: a gutter of tabloid readers. Cute!

Lots of people came up with “press”: a press of newspaper readers. I liked that one. And I liked “scoop.” But my favorite word was “font.” As a newspaper term, it means “typeface,” and it also can mean “a basin, reservoir or abundant source.” A font of newspaper readers -- that’s what you are. Three people proposed it, and the autographed copy of “Word Fugitives” is on its way to one of them, chosen at random: Jack DeLong, of Middleton, Wis. Congratulations, Jack!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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