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‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’ (2011) (howardowens.com)
85 points by gruseom on Feb 15, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments

This is great news. One of the most frustrating things on Twitter is everybody pretending to be a hardbitten journo throwing this term around like they were on a deadline...or even had a job.

Though to be fair, actual hardbitten journos use it too. It's the accepted and most popular formulation of the word even if the myth around its origin is bogus.

Earliest reference in my OED is 1951 with "lede" listed then as an alternate spelling of "lead"

Yeah. I know long-time journos who use it and it seems to have become pretty widely accepted. But, having been at least somewhat involved in journalism for a long time, I probably had never seen that spelling before 15 years ago or so. I admit I tend to use it today. Here's a piece that William Safire wrote in the Times a long way back:


This article also explains TFA's confusion about not finding examples of 'lede' earlier.

The variant spelling was an old practice, well-known to Safire & the other "old hands of journalism" mentioned (such as Herb Caen), as inside-jargon – but its initial practical value came from its distinction from the 'common spellings' for similar concepts.

But Safire writes about it, in 1990, because just around then it's starting to sneak out into wider usage. Safire concludes his reporting and wordplay-around-the-word with:

But [lede] has earned its place as a variant spelling, soon to overtake the original spelling for the beginning of a news article. That's lexicographic news, but I have learned never to put the story in the lede.

Since this is an article about language usage, can you explain to me what "TFA" means to you?

I've seen in pop up increasingly on HN, and as far as I've always known it was a contraction of RTFA (from RTFM) and thus not generally a civil way to refer to an article.

Though it's not my usual preference, I suppose I chose 'TFA' here because I do have a little bit of disdain for the original article's veneer of having researched/concluded the issue, without finding context like that in the 1990 Safire column.

(That is, the article's "safest conclusion", "that 'lede' is a romantic fiction invented by those who were nostalgic for the passing of the linotype era" is wrong. The word/spelling had genuine long use in American newsrooms, but only broke through into writing-for-the-layperson in the late 20th century.)

It's just an in-group way to refer to "the article" or "the article under discussion." If it bothers you. well, I guess that's your prerogative.

No need for the snark, I was just curious as to whether the meaning had shifted.

Google Ngram shows high occurence in the 1800s with two peaks around 1815 and 1860, and then heavily declining usage.

Perhaps looking prior to the 1900s would be a more accurate option?


EDIT: Never mind I graphed them both -> https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16388239

Quick glance at the results prior to 1900 shows that "lede" is not being used in the sense under discussion.

I worked for five years in a newsroom environment, which is where I learned to spell it "lede". So, y'know, don't assume things about people.

Sorry I was actually just talking about people I know...that aren't journalists and that I know don't have jobs. They're my friends.

Note that journalism has a more overloaded space than most when it comes to lead vs. lead, so I'm not surprised someone started using "lede" to mean specifically the one that sounds like LEED. "Leading", a common typographic term describing the space between lines, is pronounced the other way, like the element (and is in fact named for it).

But the article states lede was meant to represent the one pronounced 'led', or did I misinterpret?

Former (UK) magazine editor. I’ve never seen “lede” on any publication I’ve worked on. “Standfirst”, “intro”, sometimes “lead” (though that was more often used to describe the positioning of a story on a page). But never “lede”.

It’s possible it was used in UK newspapers, but I doubt that: most newspaper jargon found its way to magazines eventually (subbing markup was the same, for example). I suspect it’s purely a modern US newspaper affectation.

Exactly. As someone who's only lived in commonwealth countries and consumes a lot of printed media, I've never come across this term before, it just looks odd to me.

It reminds me of a pet peeve of mine: the way most modern english speakers pronounce "celtic" with a hard 'k' sound. I'm not a native english speaker so I always assumed the 'c' would be soft here, because even though as we all know english pronunciation can be a bit... random at times, pronouncing "ce" as "ke" seems very out of place. When I first heard it pronounced that way it surprised me.

After looking more into it, it seems that it's a relatively recent shift in the language, quoting wikipedia:

> The ⟨c⟩ in the words Celt and Celtic was traditionally soft but since the late 19th century the hard pronunciation has also been recognized in conscious imitation of the classical Latin pronunciation of Celtae[...]

So it's just some late 19th century hipsters wanting to sound posh by randomly borrowing a foreign pronunciation rule. There's also the fact that in Gaelic the C is hard, but that's kind of adding insult to injury because "Celtic" is not a Celt word.

It falls in the same category as people insisting that the plural of "virus" is "virii" or that you have two "octopi" (both plurals being technically wrong IIRC). Given that about 50% of english vocabulary comes from french I guess these people should start using french grammar everywhere to be consistent.

Or should I say "Given that about 50% of vocabulaire anglais come from français I imagine that these folks should to start grammaire french everywhere for to be consistant"? Am I fancy enough yet?

> So it's just some late 19th century hipsters…

That's a pretty caustic way of putting it. English pronunciation is known to be a mess, and applying "inapplicable" phonetic or morphological rules to words is just the way it works everywhere.

Think about it this way: we have a limited budget for language complexity. It's too much to learn and remember that certain words conjugate according to certain rules of the word's original language, so instead we say "singular -us becomes plural -i". And then people judge each other poorly for getting it wrong.

> Given that about 50% of english vocabulary comes from french I guess these people should start using french grammar everywhere to be consistent.

Honestly I don't follow this argument. English already has irregular nouns, learning a few new ones or switching around the plural forms is not unusual.

I completely agree with your point but in this case it's not a simplification, it's yet an other exception. I can understand exceptions or odd pronunciations disappearing but that's the other way around.

Normally words in english which have "ce" in them are not pronounced "ke". Similarly words whose singular ends with "~us" do not usually become "~i" in the plural. You don't say "one bus, two bi", "one fetus, two feti". Cherry-picking a few words that for some reason should follow latin grammar is more motivated by sounding "smart" than linguistic necessity IMO.

I can't help but feel that the "bus-bi" example is disingenuous. Surely you don't think I'm that stupid?

Memorizing which words take Latin plurals and which ones don't is work that not everyone has done. So we guess that "virus" is a second-declension Latin noun, which is correct, but now we have to also remember that it's a mass noun and therefore doesn't take a plural in Latin, but since it's not a mass noun in English it has to take a plural anyway, and therefore we get "viruses".

And when people get this wrong you can judge them poorly and accuse them of trying to sound smart.

> since the late 19th century

I think 200 years is a reasonably long enough time for modern languages that I wouldn't say "recent". Modern English only just originated ~500 years ago, between 1450-1550 around Shakespeare's time.

Likewise, the "romanticists" OP refers to who changed the spelling of a different word (a news "lede", not the metal "lead") is entirely reasonable and I don't understand the author's point. Why does it matter if your perception was wrong if the word is now more uniquely identifiable and has a clearer, more concise definition?

I'm always in favor of linguistic evolution. Just because you can observe it at times shouldn't be cause for alarm.

You'll be happy to know that it's trending back to a soft-C. I lay responsibility for this at the feet of the US professional basketball team. I've been using hard-C since I visited the Keltic Lodge in Nova Scotia in the 1990s.

I would not go that far? In Scotland, say, Celtic Football Club hold considerable mindshare, and that is pronounced with a soft-c - presumably because the club was founded before the shift to hard-c of other uses.

But there's no noticable use of a soft-c when people refer to the people/ethnicity. Events like "Celtic Connections" are still with a hard-c. I have not noticed the use of soft-c at all, outside of sporting clubs of various sorts. I don't think that's a trend, it is just yet more of the inconsistency and irregularity that human languages are plagued with.

In Scotland, say, Celtic Football Club hold considerable mindshare, and that is pronounced with a soft-c

It's interesting- I didn't know that soft-c was a popular pronunciation "over there"

If the Celts themselves pronounced it with a hard C and so did Romans, then why should we not?

I trained as a journalist in Australia in the late 90s/early 00s - although I went down the radio/tv route rather than print so had only limited exposure (and a few bylines in nothing of note) to the latter.

I never saw it spelled anything other than "lead" or spelled it myself any other way. Seeing "lede" later in life made me question what else I may have wilfilly missed - glad to learn I wasn't a complete moron through that part of my life.

What in the world are you people talking about?

Hed, dek, lede, graf, etc. were all used in drafts when I was on the morning daily newspaper in J School specifically because they'd get caught in spell check.

Still used on occasion now by people in my very semi-journalism job because absolutely everyone knows what they mean and where those spellings come from.

I've never heard the "hot lead' explanation or heard the word pronounced as "led." If I had to guess, I would guess that deliberate misspellings arose for the reason I find them useful: they get flagged by spellcheckers, reducing the risk that placeholder text will be published. I've wondered, though, whether the funny spellings predated word processors. Lede, graf, hed, etc. would standout to human copy editors and computer spellcheckers alike. A 1970s origin for "lede," if correct, would suggest it emerged alongside word processors.

>I would guess that deliberate misspellings arose for the reason I find them useful: they get flagged by spellcheckers, reducing the risk that placeholder text will be published.

I was just thinking, they're using a stringly typed weak type system.

In professional settings jargon is useful because it eliminates ambiguity. That's what it's for.

The words lede, hed, dek, and graf (the latter three being curiously absent from this article) have no other usage except in journalism, they mean exactly one thing, and there is absolutely no chance that they are words that appear in the actual story. They are spelled the way they are so you know what they are when you see them.

When you're in a fast paced business of organizing words and getting them into public hands on very short deadlines, those are useful attributes.

Things like this generally get adopted because they are useful, not because of some oddball nostalgia. Ockham's razor suggests that's what has happened here as well.

And Occam's too.

Can I just say that one of the many features of Mac OS that I love is force click (or triple tap) a word to see its dictionary definition. Especially useful for a non-native English and German (yes, you can configure multiple dictionaries which is pretty cool) speaker.

Example: for lede you get the concise definition, even what "bury the lede" means https://i.imgur.com/2jcKHkh.png

Related: Lately I've been noticing just how bad/outclassed the Mac spelling correction dictionary is.

Often I'll type a sentence and a word or two will get the red-underline. Rather than figure out exactly which letters I transposed, I just right-click and select the word I meant to type.

But half the time Mac OS can't figure it out. So I copy my misspelling, paste into Google, and the "Did You Mean...?" feature gets it right every time.

Language Log post about "lede" and friends:


Interestingly enough Google Ngram shows high occurence of the word "lede" (with varying capitalization) in the 1800s with two peaks around 1815 and 1860, and then heavily declining usage.


EDIT: Graphing lede,lead shows that 'lead' has always been in the lead with respect to usage. However, expanding the corpus timeline shows almost competing usage in 1564!


Under the graph, google has links to open up excerpts of usage from various time periods. Looking at a bunch of them, it seems that most of them come from Lede being a proper name. I also saw a couple occurrences as a verb as in "it ledes to water".

Glad I wasn't the only one who immediately thought of searching Google Ngram. Unfortunately, if you dig into the source material, there's a lot of non-journalism usages of lede (and in the case you brought up, there will be a huge amount of non-journalistic usages of "lead"), so I don't think the data is reliable enough to form an opinion.

Note that spelling wasn't very well standardized until relatively modern times.

If you turn off smoothing, it really jumps out how noisy and unreliable the signal is that early in the data.

> Graphing lede,lead shows that 'lead' has always been in the lead with respect to usage.

Because 'lead' has many other meanings and sees more usage in entirely different contexts.

I always use this little mnemonic to keep things straight:

Lead rhymes with read, whereas lead rhymes with read.

I prefer the spelling "lede" simply because it differentiates it from the element "lead" with symbol "Pb". Heteronyms are irritating and sometimes confusing. I'd be happy if the "lede" spelling expanded to cover the other meanings with that pronunciation.

> Then the present and past tense of "lead" would have different spellings in addition to different pronunciations.

They already do have different spellings - lead and led.

You're right, I don't know how I messed that one up.

You were probably thinking of "read" and "read" (present and past)?

Probably, which is also an annoying heteronym.

That still doesn't help with "I put my dog on his lead", "Usain Bolt is in the lead" or other cases where it's pronounced that way.

They're the same lead though, i.e. the device with which you lead your dog.

Isn't that a leash?

It's a different word for the same thing. I hear leash in American TV shows but in Australia we call it a lead.

"Lead" and "leash" are used interchangeably in some (non-American) dialects of English.

I had never heard of “–30–”. Apparently it marks the end of a story.


It means end of story. i.e. it's what you typed (on the typewriter) to indicate there weren't any more pages which isn't necessarily obvious with strict inverted pyramid writing. No one seems too clear on the origins AFAIK although a leading theory is that it came from a telegraph standard.

It's three exes (XXX) written as Arabic numerals (though they were never Roman numerals to begin with). "XXX" is an easily-identified marker; "30" is just cargo cult stuff.

That's one of a variety of explanations but no one seems sure of the actual answer, e.g. [1] In any case, it was widely used for a long time.

[1] http://archive.saila.com/journalism/thirty/

Interestingly lede means to lead in Norwegian.

I thought someone had some kind of semantic exploration going on about the origins of the word lead from it's beautiful origins of Norse Viking wisdom. But alas, I was mistaken.

As an undergraduate journalism major who never worked as a journalist, I also remember learning that “headline” was often shortened to “head,” but was spelled “hed.”

At least according to one of my J-school profs who had come from industry. So, uh, take all that with a grain of salt, even though I believe it to probably be true.

An an aside, the context we were given for “hed” and “lede” was that both were whimsical in-jokes / jargon among old timers, and that if we wanted to appear skookum, we should at least be aware of this tradition.

Referring to a paragraph as a "graf" goes back at least to the early 90s, I can attest.

Edit: Wow, I must have a stocker who downvotes everything I post. This was downvoted within a minute of posting it. It's true, and relevant to the topic of the post.

1) commenting on downvotes often gets downvotes (not that it should) 2) It's spelled stalker. A predator stalks its prey. A grocery store employee stocks the shelves.

> commenting on downvotes often gets downvotes (not that it should)

Commenting on downvotes, (or upvotes for that matter, though that's less common) is a guideline violation ("Please don't comment about the voting on comments. It never does any good, and it makes boring reading.") I think its quite appropriate that violations of the guidelines get downvoted.

1) commenting on downvotes often gets downvotes (not that it should)

Yeah, I'm aware of that. But I'm willing to burn a few karma points to call this behavior out. It's really bizarre.

When I first discovered HN, I was really pleased that the tone of the discussion threads was, unlike just about every other place on the net, really civil. And it didn't even seem so much that it was the result of the moderators or the downvoters policing the tone, although that no doubt helped some. Instead, it simply seemed to be a byproduct of who the people were who posted here. They seemed to be cerebral people who could have spirited disagreements with someone, but stick to arguments based on reason and logic, without resorting to name-calling or personal attacks, as is common in so many other places. I really dug it.

And I have to say, the tone here is still pretty civil. But there seems to be a nasty passive-aggressive undercurrent that's developed in the last year or two where stories get quickly flagged into oblivion, and even the most innocuous comments, like mine above, get hammered with downvotes for no apparent reason. I again acknowledge that the Edit I added is a reason that some choose to downvote, but the original part, can someone offer a theory as to why that would attract downvotes?

If I had to guess, other than complete randomness, it would be that a few downvoters didn't recognize the connection to the original topic; i.e. they didn't recognize that graf was journo jargon like lede is.

I agree. There's a bunch of journo-specific spelling although at least some of it--in my experience--is actually relatively recent.


I thought that lede had a different meatning from lead until now... I think it should be Lead.

I think there's a fair case to make that lede is a genuine neologism, though.


But this reminded me of English’s:

Lead, led Read, read? (Why not red?)

All language is made up. If someone prefers to use "lede" and it's not causing communication problems, then people should use it if they want.

It is indeed made up but it's a lot easier to understand when it follows established rules.

One of the things that's definitely true (and might be important, or maybe just a coincidence) about English is that there isn't any agreed authority to "establish" rules. Plenty of folks would like to set themselves up in that role, but none have anything resembling a consensus. The situation is so bad that the last time spelling reform (a trivial matter for such an authority) was "successful" for English it split the language in two, and all subsequent attempts have failed utterly.

So, the best we have is the descriptivist rule: whatever it is people actually do, that's the rule. People actually write "lede" so, fine, it means what they say it means. Humpty Dumpty was right... at scale.

And that means that when people _change_ what they do, the rule changes and there's no authority to say otherwise.

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