Copy editor at work: Turn to the dictionary

During my time as a newspaper copy editor, I often spoke briefly to schoolchildren on tours about what a copy editor does. I always told them that the most important book on my desk was the dictionary. I wanted them to know that even a grown-up professional needs to look up spellings and definitions and that building a vocabulary is a lifetime job.

What I would tell those schoolkids, too, if I had had more time, is that dictionaries describe the language as it is being used and that new words and new definitions for existing words come into the language all the time. Dictionaries try to keep up with the common spellings and definitions. They can help you make your own choices about which word suits what you want to say.

Now, of course, the dictionary I consult is likely to be an app on my smartphone or tablet or a dictionary site in my web browser. But I still have a couple of dictionaries on my desk at work and five or six in my home office. I consult a dictionary every day — sometimes just for fun.

Earlier this week, I was reading this newspaper story about a dead bear found on a college campus — because how could I not read such a weird story. Here is the first sentence:

A furry corpse on a wooden bench in the center of N.C. State University’s campus made for a tableau that few who saw it Tuesday morning will soon forget. —The News & Observer, April 29, 2014

The word tableau stood out. I thought it was the right word, but my copy editor spidey sense kicked in and I started to doubt that I understood what tableau actually meant. I looked it up in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition, app and found that the second definition fit: “A striking incidental scene.”

But what surprised me was the first definition: “A vivid or graphic description.” The example the AHD gave was “The movie was a tableau of a soldier’s life.” I think I would have questioned tableau used in that sense if I had been editing, but then I would have checked the dictionary and would have found that indeed the word tableau sometimes is used to mean “a vivid description,” not just a static representation or a still image.