How a Newspaper's Style Transformed a Lobster War

Several recent letters from readers, more amusing than threatening (for which thanks!), have touched on things I believe should be left to the style sheet. I do not know if our Monitor has a style sheet, but probably it does. I have never seen it, anyway.

The style sheet was a list of editorial no-no's meant to cause uniformity in the publication's writings, designed also to promote elegance, or grace, and to eliminate grammatical pitfalls and incoherent absurdities. There was the "down style" and the "up style," for one thing. Do you write Norway Street, or Norway street? A newspaper that preferred capital letters was "up style." The style sheet would denounce the verb "contact" and warn against "finalize."

I have heard, but do not know directly, that the old Boston Transcript had, in its day, reduced its style sheet to a single word, "DON'T!" Thus, the Transcript could be read with impunity by any Radcliffe alumna without qualm or quease, and certainly was. I've seen a few random style sheets in my time, and all have seemed to be gratuitous to our country's educational system. In a literate society nobody should need a rule book about such things. In the righteous Abbey of Thelema, residents do as they please since proper folks wouldn't do anything wrong anyway. What ninny would split his infinitives if he didn't have to? (I never saw a split infinitive that wasn't more work than if you left it the way it should be.)

Years ago, we had a good, and consequently short-lived, afternoon newspaper here in Maine called The Portland Evening News. Its editor was Ernest Gruening, trained in Boston under the Post's Grozier, and his style sheet was rigorously correct.

As far as I know, The Portland Evening News remains the only Maine publication that called it Peak Island. Everywhere else, that island in Casco Bay, suburban to Portland, is incorrectly called Peaks Island, as if it had two peaks. It has one, and its official geographical name is Peak Island. Dr. Gruening was like that. He later moved along, and became the first governor of the State of Alaska and her first Senator at Washington, District of Columbia (spell out).

So on the style sheet that governed the staff of his newspaper, Gruening insisted on "automobile" instead of "car." If you think about it, "car" is not really a good word to use for an automobile. We have all kinds of cars. But an automobile is, by its name, a self-propelled device, and "autocar" is still another word. So every time a "stringer" for Dr. Gruening's News said a "car" had been involved in any story, the proscribed word was changed to "automobile," and you never saw the word "car" in The News except for a sidecar, a trolley car, a box car, a touring car, and so on.

Which was fine and dandy until one day the lobster fishermen in Maine's lower Penobscot Bay decided to have a war.

A lobster war is an interesting form of human sophistication. Fishing for lobsters is usually a quiet business. It's done rather in solitary application, each man for himself, with a rolling sea, a high sky, and lots of time to think. But all at once something will tick things off, and gentlemen of quiet and introspective temperament will let go in a frenzy of spite, hatred, and dedicated mayhem until they make the gruesome border wars of the Bible look like wee snacks of graham crackers and warm milk at kindergarten recess. Brother against brother and eight hands around.

In the daily progress of the lobster-fishing industry, there are a number of esoteric words and expressions to be taken under advisement. They are poetic, of course, and sometimes bloodthirsty, but all are colorful and expressive in their precision of use.

Take, for instance, "winch." A winch is a mechanical hoist, geared off an idling boat engine, and if you throw a line over it and haul taut, you can breach a pot by the warp. You see?

I HAVE always been extra-careful with "pound." Most uninformed folks think a lobster pound is a restaurant at Lincolnville Beach where you can get a boiled lobster and potato chips. This is true, but it's incorrect. A lobster pound is a tidal cove, either by the main or on an island, where harvested lobsters are stored until the market is more propitious. The inlet, or outlet, is "stopped" by grillwork and nets so lobsters dumped into the cove stay in the cove and can't pass into the open sea. Lobsters thus stored and later brought forth to go to Philadelphia are pound-lobsters, and that has nothing to do with how much they weigh.

Rope, as a word, is seldom heard among lobstermen; the warp goes to the submerged trap (pot), and otherwise there is twine, gear, line, lanyard, halyard, string. And a lobster car is a half-submerged, floating crate used for temporary impounding of lobsters. A fisherman may bring in his day's haul, and transfer his lobsters to his car, meaning to sell them to a dealer tomorrow. The dealer may, at his option, put them in his own car, move them by truck, or dump them in his pound.

So as this lobster war progressed, and lobster car after lobster car was cut adrift, smashed by ax, beached out, and otherwise eliminated as the fun mounted, The Portland Evening News changed every "lobster car" to "lobster automobile," and now and then to a "lobster vehicle," and folks along the Down-East shore had their best laugh since Holman Day wrote his poem about "Them Pants Jeminy Made."

So much, I always say, for a style sheet.

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