At my first newspaper job, I hated the 2 p.m. mail call. That was when Reese Fant would separate all the day’s mail into the black cubbyholes for the reporters. More days than not, I received a postcard.
The postcards were from a retired high-school English teacher, and just about every day she had some withering comment to make about my grammar, word choice, style (or lack of it).
I hated those postcards at first.
I think you know where this story is going, but I think you’re wrong. The natural story arc is for me to recognize the importance of word precision and embrace the subtleties and nuances of the English language and become an evangelist for its proper use.
Truth is, I hated those postcards at first, and within a couple years I came to absolutely loathe them. In fact, I actively rejected my fine Northwestern University-honed journalism education to write in a coarser style to see if I could cause this retired teacher to burst a blood vessel.
I know this sounds messed up from a person who trades in words, but I am far more interested in meaning over the veneer of style.
This attitude was reinforced when I was introduced to the world of professional cabinetmakers. Before my first photo shoot with one of them, I can remember studying everything I could about the joinery nomenclature that was particular to fine cabinet work.
The next day, here is what I learned.
1. Everything is a “rail.” Table aprons? Rails. Leg stretchers? Rails? Mediary stiles? Rails. Muntins? Rails. Mullions? Again, rails. And on and on. Rail, rail, rail. Did this diminish his work? No. Did it diminish my understanding of his work? No, again.
2. Everything is a “groove.” Dado? Nope, groove. Rabbet? Bzzst! Groove. Cross-grain rabbet (a fillister?). Groove again. A long mortise? Yup, a groove.
3. Every operation is “run.” Crosscut? No — run a cut. Rip? Run that to 7”. Mould an edge? Run the edge? Cut the tenon? Run the tenon. Run was the only operation. And when you make furniture for a living, you have to run, period.
Why am I telling you all this?
Today I read an interesting book, “The Wrought Covenant,” from the Brockton Art Center, which was recommended to me by Peter Follansbee. It’s a gold mine of information on early furniture, but one of the essays had the following statement:
“We should further the retrieval of a proper seventeenth-century furniture typology by referring even to the individual parts of each form as much as possibly by their correct period name and placement; if we are to enter the craftsman’s world and his community aesthetic, we must learn their organization from his point of view, not ours.”
This stuff really makes me crazy. On the one hand, using words in a precise manner makes it easier to talk about things across a distance, such as when using the Internet. On the other hand, the language divides us. We discount people who haven’t learned the precise words for a haunch or a bolection.
Well, screw that.
If the meaning is clear, we are cool. Period. If the work is solid, we are cool. I am not silently correcting your grammar or word choice. I don’t give a poo if you don’t call it a dado or a micro-bevel or a “land.” In the end, anyone who becomes immersed in the craft will get the hang of the lingo. But until then, to quote one of the best movies ever, “Lighten up Francis.”
— Christopher Schwarz